After two decades' worth of serialized publication, the award-winning cartoonist has completed his nearly 600-page tome on the Weimar Republic, exploring how characters of different social strata lived their lives amid an unfolding Nazi takeover with consequences they could scarcely conceive.
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.
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.