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Good Read Column for December 27, 1998


By Jason Lutes

ongoing (quarterly)
24 pages, Drawn & Quarterly, $2.95
5 smileys(of a possible five)


It always seems like far too long in between editions of this remarkable comic. Since it's only 24 pages, the wait is even worse than the old wait for the latest Love and Rockets back when it was publishing - although since there are no letters, text or ads, 24 pages is actually normal.

I wanted to wait until a few issues had come out before reviewing this one. I have so often been disappointed by people after liking very much my initial encounter with their work (Paul Pope being perhaps the most obvious example of this). I was among the many people who thought Jar of Fools was wonderful. But I saw that first as a small book encompassing half the story. The first issue of this series was obviously a very tiny piece of something that would be quite large. I wanted to have a better idea of where he was going before I commented.

Well, I can't say I know exactly where he's going, but I know enough to say that this is an incredible comic. An astounding comic. If it continues as it has begun, it will be among the best things done in this medium.

I think we'll have a while to wait for the complete work, though. Lutes has probably committed himself to several years for this one. We began in 1928, and as of issue #5 it's still 1928, although it's Christmas and near the end of that year. Hitler's rise to national prominence power didn't start until 1929, and we're still more than four years away from his taking power. The continuing focus on communists and Jews indicates to me that Hitler's rise is going to be a big part of the story here, because it was by whipping up public fear and hatred of communists and Jews that Hitler rose.

What we have seen so far is basically a leisurely-paced setting up of the situation and the characters. We met the two main characters, Kurt Severing and Marthe Müller, in the first issue. Herr Severing is a journalist, and through him Lutes is able to show us a large number of things about Berlin, from its people and social structures to its politics and local economy. Fräulein Müller is an artist, from an upperclass family. She sketches constantly. Herr Severing considers her, when they meet, a naive young thing who will soon be swallowed up by the cosmopolitan city. But she has her own strength, and her own resources

Through Fräulein Müller's eyes we've been observing the soul of Berlin, rather than its surfaces. She sketches wherever she goes, and her sketches aim to capture not just the facial features but the personality of those she observes. She chafes at the regimented views of the teachers and the constricted curriculum of the Academy.

Things begin to come together in this issue, which begins with Fräulein Müller dreaming of Herr Severing. It's been obvious since the beginning that their lives are linked somehow, but we've never been sure exactly how. Lutes begins to answer that question at the end of this issue.

We also see bits and pieces of some other lives: a railroad worker and former soldier who harangues Fräulein Müller with a wartime tale about her officer father's luxury contrasted with the poverty of the common soldiers; a mother and daughter living in a church-run shelter; a Jewish family celebrating Hannukah; Fräulein Müller's fellow students. The title tells us that this story is not just about Herr Severing or Fräulein Müller, but about the city. A broad cast of characters has been created already, including a local communist cell and Severing's coworkers at the newspaper. We've already had a surprising connection or two between them, too.

I've just gone back and changed "Marthe" to "Fräulein Müller" and adding "Herr" to "Severing" after noticing I was referring to him by his last name and her by her first. I don't want to be sexist about this, and in the comic, in the world of Berlin in 1928, the formal "Herr" and "Fraülein" were automatic. You did not say "Call me Charlie" to someone you'd just met in this society. So this slightly stiff and awkward way of referring to them makes sense.

But I wonder what it says about my reaction to the work. Do I find Fräulein Müller warmer and more appealing as a character? Do I find Herr Severing cold and distant? Possibly. He certainly seems a harder character to know. But it may just be the fact that this issue starts and ends with her, and involves her in most of its pages. Herr Severing shows up only in the opening page dream and in the last few pages. (Actually, although I say it starts with her, the first panel is the face of Herr Severing, but the narrative caption is in Fräulein Müller's voice, and we soon discover it is her dream we are seeing.)

Meticulous research went into the creation of this story, and it shows not only in the overall picture of society and the detailed pictures of the individual lives we are presented here, but in the visual element as well. The astounding depictions of the architecture, the vehicles, the clothing. Every little detail is present, and I'd bet that every bit of it's exact and accurate.

The city itself is beautiful. It was, before the rise of Hitler and the resultant destruction in the war, one of the world's great cities. It is again, of course, but it's different now. This Berlin, the Berlin Lutes is telling us about, is gone and can never be again.

I've barely scratched the surface of what makes this book so wonderful. If you liked Jar of Fools, Lutes' previous work that won all the awards, this is a huge step forward in his artistic development. His control of the visual side is masterful. Wonderfully rendered, incredibly detailed backgrounds dazzle the eye, but when the focus is on a coversation between two people, their heads float in backgroundless panels, without distraction. Never too much information, never too little.

The characters are engaging, their situation is intriguing, the horror hanging over all their heads is so obviously known to all of us, and just as obviously unknowable to any of them. It's an amazing work, and all the more so because Lutes has dared to take this long - over a year - to get the story started. I can't wait to see what happens next.

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