Jason Lutes's first comic, Jar of Fools, told the story of an alcoholic magician who learns how to be human again. Fools was about people who lived on the fringes of polite society — a grifter, an old man slowly losing his mind to age, a barista who could barely keep her life in one piece — somehow building a community together.
It was the kind of debut that demanded attention. Lutes instantly demonstrated the cartooning aptitude of someone who had been in the business for decades: his sense of rhythm was impeccable, and I could name dozens of industry veterans who could learn from his ability to show rather than tell.
I can't talk about Jar of Fools without acknowledging its effect on my life. I first started reading the book — it was released in two volumes beginning in 1994 — when I lived on the east coast, and it affirmed my unspoken decision to eventually move to Seattle.
Lutes originally published Fools as a serial strip in a tiny new Seattle alt-weekly called The Stranger, and the book was a pleasure to read in part because it was a dedicated pedestrian's-eye view of the city as it was in the early 1990s. From the ratty-but-cozy coffee shops to the mossy highway underpasses, Lutes drew an approachable Seattle.
Lutes wasn't interested in the downtown skyscrapers or the hip clubs where grunge fever had accelerated to epidemic proportions; instead he drew the homes and businesses where Seattleites actually lived. It was shabby and unglamorous and entirely welcoming. I wanted to live there too. Though I'd always been interested in Seattle, Lutes was the first artist to make the city seem real — an actual place where people actually lived.
Like many fans of Fools — Chris Ware wrote a particularly persuasive blurb for the comic — I eagerly awaited Lutes's second book. And then it arrived, sort of: Lutes announced that he'd devote the next many years of his life to a comic titled Berlin. Set in Berlin before the rise of the Nazi Party, Berlin felt from its outset as ambitious in scope as the most remarkable comics of the 20th century — Maus, Tezuka's biography of the Buddha, Schulz's Peanuts.
This month, some 22 years after the publication of the first chapter, Berlin is finally complete. The collected hardcover is immense — at nearly 600 pages, it's the kind of book that could cause your legs to fall asleep if you were to rest it in your lap the wrong way.
Nobody could have predicted when Lutes announced his plan to write and draw Berlin more than two decades ago that the book would feel orders of magnitude more relevant to the world on its publication than when Lutes began drawing it. But here we are. Imagine explaining to someone from 1996 that 2018 would see gangs of unashamed white supremacists roaming the cities of America beating anyone who gets in their way. Imagine their face as you describe a Europe tilting toward fascism, with Germany as the strongest defender of democracy. Imagine explaining prison camps constructed for children of immigrants on the southern border of the US. Unfortunately for us, Berlin is the story we need to hear right now.
Just as Lutes brought the streets of Seattle to life in Jar of Fools, he recreates Weimar Berlin seemingly down to every last cobblestone. And then he plays out the city's history from the late 1920s to the early 1930s, showing how a people can lose all their hope.
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. In the first chapter, a man imitates the Nazi salute while asking his coworkers, "What's this?" The punchline: "It's how deep we're in the shit!" In the final chapter, someone tells an anti-Semitic joke in public. Over the course of the five years that Berlin spans, the Nazis went from the butt of the joke to the arbiter of who laughs at who.
Berlin is too huge to cover in a single review — in fact, I have faith that over the next twenty years, there will be books' worth of scholarly essays written on it. It's already clear that this is one of the most significant comics of the 21st century, but we'll be prizing apart its secrets for decades to come.
Lutes has a real knack for writing doomed love stories, and the love triangle at the book's center is a great one. But as the protagonists waltz in a clumsy triad, the reader's eye is drawn to the people at the outskirts of the panel. Even the smallest background character — the traffic cop, the maid, the man in line to withdraw his savings from the unstable bank — seems to be the star of their own story.
It's hard to talk about Berlin in anything but broad strokes, but allow me a moment here to gush over Lutes's pure cartooning talent. I'd direct any bookstore browser to the sequence on pages 227 - 230, when an American jazz band performs for a German audience for the first time. Without a single doodle of a musical note — in a wordless sequence, using only varying panel sizes — Lutes perfectly conveys the vivaciousness and wild discovery of a live jazz performance. It's as close to real music as I've ever seen in a comic.
But, look. I'm the proverbial blind man describing an elephant here. After a single reading, I can't do all of Berlin justice. This is a book I'm going to return to, year after year, and I'm likely to find something new every time.
Right now, because fascism and the fall of societies are on my mind, I can't help but read Berlin as one of the most timely refutations of Trumpism I've read. But 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. Ultimately, Berlin is not just a historical document. It's a book about living in cities, about being surrounded with people and allowing your story to be swept up in a great ocean of stories, and allowing those stories to change you for better and worse.
Taken singly, any one story in Berlin is a story of frailty and temptation and loss and hurt. But taken together, they become something durable, something immortal. As a city, Berlin can survive literally the worst horrors that history can muster. That's the magic of Berlin, and of Berlin.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant