Drawn to Berlin is Ali Fitzgerald’s first book-length comic. As a drawing instructor at one of Berlin’s bubble shelters during the height of the 2015 European refugee crisis, the social power of images is one of her central concerns. From German typography to caricatures circulated in anti-immigration propaganda to the self-portraits she drew for refugees passing through shelters, Fitzgerald recognizes the potential of images, and more specifically comics, as a force for good or ill everywhere. Her work tells not only her own story, but the stories of a displaced people longing for home. For Fitzgerald, then, the ethical dimension of comics, far from being some abstract philosophical or political question, is of deeply personal concern.
In fact, Fitzgerald records the personal struggle involved in crafting Drawn to Berlin. As a comic journalist, she finds herself torn between the desire to give voice to the voiceless and the fear she may inadvertently colonize already marginalized people by sensationalizing their lives as a “crisis comic.” Near the book’s end, Fitzgerald overtly addressees these worries when she tells an unnamed character, “I just...don’t want to colonize people’s stories,” to which her acquaintance responds, “But this is your story too, isn’t it?” This panel summarize not only a central tension in Drawn to Berlin, but the whole work’s genre-blending approach. Blending categories of graphic memoir, comics journalism, and historical overview, Fitzgerald records her own life alongside the lives of those she seeks to help as well as the life of the city in which they live. For her, none of these stories can be considered in isolation, like a panel in the comics sequence.
In this sense, the interconnected structure of the comics page serves a fitting medium for Fitzgerald’s topic. Without frames or any consistent page layout, her panels bleed into one another, structurally manifesting how life narratives blur together and apart, making it difficult to mark where one person’s story begins and another’s ends. These frameless panels further serve as a fit visualization of what Fitzgerald understands to be the revelatory power of images, that is, the image’s function as a pictorial language transcending linguistic boundaries. On Drawn to Berlin’s pages, readers move seamlessly between Fitzgerald’s often-borderless panels, serving as an apt illustration for how images allow people to move between and connect across linguistic divisions. When all else fails, both Fitzgerald and those she teaches can recognize an image of Spongebob.
Images become all the more potent when crafted by a cartoonist of Fitzgerald’s caliber. Her style may remind readers of Charles Burns (particularly his Black Hole), perhaps unsurprising given on her website she lists Burns as one of her favorite cartoonists—his work even appears in Drawn to Berlin. This is not say Fitzgerald is some second-rate mimic. Burns’ black and white comics possess a curvaceous chiaroscuro aesthetic. His pages are often ink-heavy with hauntingly beautiful and impenetrable black backgrounds. By contrast, Fitzgerald abjures the all-encompassing blackness of a Burns’ background in favor of her own shadowy backdrop, continuously foregrounding her characters over a black patch that fades into a ser
ies of parallel, horizontal lines. When not employing this technique, Fitzgerald’s backgrounds consist of tightly packed and uniform parallel lines, reminiscent of an Albrecht Dürer woodcut. In the end, though Burns’ influence is recognizable, Fitzgerald is a well-experienced and seasoned artist with a style all her own.
Fitzgerald’s technical skill further arises in her propensity for capturing portraits. Drawn to Berlin quickly moves from one individual to the next, recreating Fitzgerald’s own experience working in a refugee shelter where people cycle in and out unexpectedly for no fixed amount of time. During these myriad snapshots, Fitzgerald manages to capture the distinct features (physical and non-physical) of each person and their nuances of expression. Reflecting on the numerous portraits she drew for those passing through the shelter, Fitzgerald suggests people often took only these portraits with them because the portraits served as reminders of their humanity while trapped in foreign bureaucracy underneath the homogenizing classification refugee. A more base reason they kept the portraits is that Fitzgerald’s drawings are just plain good and worth holding on to. Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive.
Overall, Drawn to Berlin is an aesthetically powerful work with a unique perspective to offer on a relevant topic. Fitzgerald has a knack for visually capturing the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of both her political and human subjects. Throughout Drawn to Berlin, she remains concerned with the power of images for change and revelation, a power to which her own artistic talent and social concern testify.