Though Berlin is technically a compilation of previously-released material, the ability to approach the entire story at once completely transforms the reading experience. It allows us for the first time to see Lutes’ achievement for what it is: one of the most ambitious, important and fully-realized works of graphic literature yet created, a real masterpiece of both story and art. Lutes combines a keen eye for character and setting with a cartoonist’s skill for storytelling and pictorial composition. Berlin is drawn in crisp, clean black and white: European in its pacing, austere in its linework, and architectural in its simplicity, but full of brilliant details ... Such tight control of his craft allows Lutes to layer a complex story full of subtle moments, tonal shifts and poignant emotion, bringing different characters to the foreground like featured players in a symphony.
The cartoonist patiently drew his story in short, irregularly released pamphlets, gathered together every few years in paperback collections. When he finally finished the project and codified it in a hefty hardcover in 2018, what had once been antiquarian was now urgent. In the fraying and polarized America of Donald Trump, the Weimar Republic looks more like a mirror than a fading photograph ... When I first started reading Berlin more than two decades ago, I primarily admired it as a bravura feat of historical reconstruction. Everything—the trains, the buildings, the fashion, the faces—looked right, a testament not just to archival research but also, more importantly, to a style that channeled the imagery of the era ... Still, in reading the whole of Berlin, the immersion in a historical urban environment is secondary to the political dilemma that confronts the characters ... The achievement of Lutes’s Berlin is that it combines both sides of the gender divide in urban fiction. In so doing, it offers a more comprehensive way of looking at our own troubled times, which can easily invite despair and resignation.
The compositional principle of Berlin is montage ... And so the pages of Berlin cut, sometimes abruptly, from street shots to close-ups, from train tracks to interior monologues, from newspapers to parlor rooms, and from one character to another ... Berlin has no authorial voice, no narration, no overarching perspective. Instead it has an atmosphere of aloofness. It is this impassivity that makes reading this book a deeply unsettling experience ... the unspoken hero of Berlin is the city itself, in all its fractured and disordered glory. Lutes’s wordless pictures of the city, especially at night, are some of the most dazzling passages in the book ... If I were to pick one word to describe Berlin, it would be 'fragmented.' And this fits well with Lute’s montage aesthetic. In a process that amounts to a kind of social mitosis, one character meets another, causing a third and fourth to emerge. This splitting and multiplying of persons and viewpoints gives each one not only a connection to all the rest in a six-degrees-of-separation way, but also a strangely provisional status. They connect to one another, but not with one another. They are isolates colliding, particles in a world heating up ... Berlin is infuriating in its flatness and its blanks. But it is this painful act of reading, of watching these blinkered characters do their thing, or not, that gives Berlin its strange force. It shows how the most democratic and tolerant of societies—where people of every political stripe, every race, and every gender have some kind of real connection to one another—can devolve into total brutality.
Jason Lutes dedicated over 20 years to the making of this work of more than 550 pages of nuanced, exactingly rendered pen-and-ink drawings and dialogue ... Lutes spent the time well, crafting multidimensional, true-feeling characters in a set of stories connected by the unstable circumstances of their time and place ... What Lutes contributes to the exhaustively documented, utterly familiar history of this time is a set of fictional characters from everyday life who ground the period with such intimacy and so much veracity that we feel as if we’re seeing it through new eyes, observing it so closely that we feel it directly ... The existence of these people in the panels of cartoon drawings is a testament to the richness of Lutes’s creative imagination and the evocative precision of his art ... In total, though, I count 10 or 12 less-than-great pages out of 550-plus. A marginally flawed masterwork, Berlin is a significant contribution to the fiction of place.
Lutes’s achievement is remarkable as a card-carrying work of historical fiction, and as the product of intense research, both visual and textual ... Lutes deftly interweaves the stories of a large ensemble cast through the entire book in order to trace the economics, culture, and politics of Berlin ... Although Lutes’s epic narrative is like a 19th century novel, it is also cinematic because the point of view shifts from character to character, sweeping people up as they pass ... It also urges the reader to pay close attention to the cartooning and the words. This is a challenging, visually intricate book, comprised of regular small panels featuring densely worked imagery and a concentration on faces and expressions. But Lutes provides some guidance in the form of a helpful portrait gallery of the large cast that reveals who is invented and who was a real person ... Lutes’s Berlin is replete with vivid characters ... Lutes has persuasively recreated the world of late-Weimar Berlin through cartooning. His visually enthralling, emotionally engaging comic is an artistic achievement of the highest order, and one that is expressly urgent.
The magic in Berlin is in the way Lutes conjures, out of old newspapers and photographs, a city so remote from him in space and time ... At times Lutes bridges his characters’ disparate story lines with dreams, fleeting thoughts and scraps of mass media. In this way Berlin invokes the polyphonic techniques found in such modernist works as Ulysses ... Anyone who’s watched 10 minutes of the news in the last two years will feel the tug of relevance in these pages ... From its topical concerns to its appendix of historical notes, Berlin screams Important Graphic Novel. And it is: Lutes is incapable of drawing a lazy panel. His scrupulous style makes everything from the font of a store sign to a parlor wallpaper pattern worthy of study ... It took me weeks to get through, at times backtracking in order to clarify who was who, always returning at last to a greater appreciation of Lutes’s vision and humanity. In the last pages, the book pitches suddenly, violently forward through time, as though to meet us — an ending so electrifying that I gasped.
You know that feeling when you're watching cable news and you realize the power of propaganda so totally eclipses the power of journalism that you don't even know what's real anymore? ... That feeling pervades former Seattle cartoonist Jason Lutes's exquisitely drawn historical graphic novel ... a single, gorgeous, door stopper of a collection ... an accomplishment reflected in the depth of the storytelling and the detail of his drawings ... The city of Berlin between the world wars is Lutes's first love and main character. Every dirty corner is either a refuge or a death trap, the broad streets run with blood and gleam with commerce, tenements stack up like fortifications but also like monsters come to destroy the populace. I would not be at all surprised if Lutes said he drew five hundred thousand million individual bricks and cobblestones over the course of Berlin's nearly 600 pages. The effect is a reading experience so immersive that when you walk outside afterward, you feel like things look different. You see the way he sees.
In pages packed with tiny panels—often he can squeeze in twelve per page, with tiny little word balloons in every panel, without making a page feel overwhelmed—Lutes seems to encompass every citizen of the city, cover every square inch within its borders. He lays out the competing ideologies struggling to take the reins of political power, and shows the strengths and weaknesses of each. Berlin has economics and art and communism and capitalism and urbanism, all rolled up between two covers. Berlin is a sweeping story, told in tiny details. Lutes has a great eye for the subtle ways human behavior changes over a very small period of time ... his is one of the most significant comics of the 21st century, but we’ll be prizing apart its secrets for decades to come ... there’s more to the book than Nazism and death and the unstoppable march of history. There’s hope and excitement and enthusiasm here, too.
The geography of the city, the clothing different people wear, the songs they sing, the ads and propaganda they look at—all of it is meticulously sourced and rendered. Working with black and white and hatched shading patterns, Berlin is purposefully drawn to resemble wordless novels of the ’20s—an offshoot of German Expressionism which crossed with antique woodcut techniques to form an early ancestor of the modern comic book. This series, of course, is far from wordless, though it will draw back and let characters act as often as it will listen to them speak their minds. Lutes also defies certain Expressionist conventions, with an emphasis on white rather than black and an avoidance of exaggeration or abstraction. The drawings maintain rigid attention to realism in people’s facial expressions and gestures; no one will go off-model for the sake of an action sequence. Lutes cites both the book and film versions of Berlin Alexanderplatz as inspiration, but it also reminded me of the works of Mike Leigh, another filmmaker with an acute eye for human details and social dynamics ... With its completion, Berlin fully joins the ranks of canonical graphic novels. It is timely not just in our current tumultuous era, but for as long as societal deprivations build until clashing ideologies come to a head.
...transporting, challenging, enormously ambitious ... Lutes wisely refuses to allow the grim shared knowledge of what will come to bleed into Berlin ahead of time. Instead, he distracts the reader by ensuring that there is simply too much happening. In Lutes’s febrile, starving, idealistic, iconoclastic city, violence contends with vivacity ... Immersed in the richly absorbing detail of these single and familial lives, we only perceive the danger signs obliquely, the indication that, bit by bit, fascism is coalescing like mercury into a single, fluid, deadly entity ... The last few double-page spreads are imbued with a breathtaking silent power. We see an aerial view of Berlin bombed and blazing; a hushed, deserted image of the divided city; and then – the first note of colour in the book – the vivid, graffiti-covered Berlin Wall against a monochrome background, breached in one small section as though to allow for the passage of hope. It is an extraordinary achievement, resonating all too cogently in a contemporary climate of mistrust, tribalism and the resurgence of the far right.
The story Lutes reveals is of impressive and engaging depth, following the lives of a diverse cast of characters who must struggle to survive the coming horrors, yes, but who also, like all of us, must weather the quotidian troubles of human existence no matter what orchestrated violence threatens to rend the world. The writing’s so damned good ... But Berlin is a graphic novel, and so there’s visuals to be considered, too. And don’t those visuals require, for most effective communication, a commensurate level of skill? Rest assured, reader.
...[a] vividly rendered portrayal of the teeming metropolis. Lutes’ unfussy graphic approach is derived from the European ligne claire cartoon style, a geographically and stylistically appropriate technique for his complex, sprawling tale. When Lutes launched his ambitious effort in 1996, he had no way of knowing how prescient and timely its story of idealistic radicals resisting violent white nationalists in the streets would be by the time he completed it.
600 pages of graphic storytelling that is quite astonishing in its scope, breadth and execution ... Though Lutes’ characters are well-rounded and have lives of their own, they live under the inevitable shadow of what we as readers know is to come: the rise of Nazism ... Each of the first two chapters of Berlin was collected together as they were finished, and now the third one is finished they’ve all been brought together in a huge, handsome and thickly-spined volume. It hangs together almost seamlessly.
Lutes’ research is impeccably accurate and his drawing style is detailed beyond almost anything anyone has ever done in comics ... Many of the panels are worthy of study for hours at a time. Unlike too many of today’s comic artists, Lutes is not afraid to tackle drawing crowds ... Activity is often broken down into tiny details, and actions of a second or two can take many panels to relate. The effect of it all comes across as a newsreel ... We need more books like this to warn us against the easy, 'final' solutions ... It seems a shame that an artist such as Jason Lutes cannot sell enough copies of this masterpiece to make producing it his full-time profession.
The saga’s multiple story lines give the narrative a disjointed feeling, mirroring the political and social situation of the time, as disparate characters careen like the nation and the world toward similarly dark ends. Lutes’s sharp, noir-influenced art snaps the sometimes murky narrative into dramatic relief, highlighting the tragedy to come.
Berlin is an incredible feat of concentration and sustained storytelling, with compelling, complicated characters from beginning to end. Berlin ends with a lack of certainty or conclusion that is nevertheless satisfying. History’s hammer is about to descend, but we know how that story goes. The characters have made their choices. We can imagine how they lived, or didn’t, with their choices.