In “Berlin,” the comic Jason Lutes has been working on for the past two decades, he describes a world where political marches often turn into violent clashes with police, where journalists are threatened for reporting on their government, where populist outrage is bifurcated into two political parties at the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.
He describes a world where charismatic political leaders fill economic voids in people’s lives with political slogans and conspiracy theories, where a politics of symbolism and scapegoating has replaced a politics of substance and policy. When Lutes, former art director of The Stranger, first started drawing “Berlin” in 1996, he could not have imagined the degree to which our current political landscape would come to resemble the last crumbling days of the Weimar Republic. But in this epic piece of historical fiction, which Toronto comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly released in one complete volume in October 2018, “Berlin” takes on uneasy resonance, bearing distinct parallels to the politics of hyperpartisanship that charge our own political moment.
As inescapable as those parallels might be, “Berlin” does more than hold a mirror to the Trump era. It is a captivating, three-dimensional portrait of the city that was the cultural center of Germany during the ascent of the Nazi party between World I and World War II. Lutes shows his readers a city that is fraught: The poor sell scrap metal, while the rich spend nights in cabarets. The working class feel compelled to join political parties that promise economic relief, while the prosperous can afford to try on different ideologies.
Lutes captures this tension through a constellation of characters from disparate backgrounds, each experiencing the city in a different way. The lives of an art student, a journalist, a working mother, an heiress, a Jewish junk dealer, and a Schupo officer act as a compelling cross-section of Weimar-era Berlin, making clear how different one city can look depending on vantage point. Cartoonists like Lutes understand that the visual logic of comics hinges on a strategic use of perspective, and throughout its nearly 600 pages, “Berlin” demonstrates the relationship between perspective and empathetic storytelling over and over again.
After two decades in the making, it is consequential that “Berlin” is published in an era where comics are increasingly recognized for their literary value and capacity for cultural criticism beyond the context of editorial cartoons. “Berlin” is one of many recent comics published by Drawn & Quarterly that explores the precarity of our cultural moment in ways that are both empathetic and perceptive.
In 2018, Nick Drnaso’s “Sabrina” caught the attention of the literary world as the first graphic novel to be nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize. Drawn in flat colors and sparing detail, “Sabrina” is a searing examination of the ways tragedy is exploited in the internet age, and how conspiracy theorists have insinuated themselves into the mainstream discourse when it comes to highly-publicized tragedies.
While “Berlin” and “Sabrina” allow readers to think about the Trump era in more oblique ways, James Sturm, co-founder of The Stranger, has a new comic called “Off Season” that directly centers on one family’s dissolution in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election.
In languid shades of blue, gray and white, Sturm paints a world visibly darkened not just by Trump’s election, but also by the emergence of a highly charged political discourse that becomes inescapable even in the most intimate of family moments. Mark, the protagonist, is a construction worker without a steady income. He and his wife, Lisa, both supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary, but unlike Lisa, Mark is hesitant to vote for Hillary Clinton. As the election comes and goes, ideologies unearthed by Trump’s win infuse nearly every conversation this family has, even their custody battles. In a particularly heated moment, Mark tells his wife, “I don’t have the luxury of spending all day on Facebook planning the revolution. I need to get back to work — I don’t have a trust fund.”
One of the most insightful subplots of “Off Season” is the subtle focus on one of Mark’s children, Suzie. Suzie is young enough that she still has frequent tantrums and requires a car seat, yet she gives the impression of being almost as politically engaged as her father. On one car ride home, she seems genuinely confused about why her father doesn’t have a Hillary sticker on his car. Later on, she insists on watching one of the presidential debates, and her mother allows it, even in the midst of sexual assault allegations against Trump. What Sturm deftly exhibits here by contrasting Suzie’s youth with her intense attachment to politics is that tribalism doesn’t require political knowledge — it is deep-seated, environmental and almost instinctual.
Michael DeForge’s “Leaving Richard’s Valley,” like “Berlin,” is another ambitious project that Drawn & Quarterly released in its collected form in April. Originally drawn serially on Instagram, “Leaving Richard’s Valley” is an imaginative and kaleidoscopic critique of contemporary art, alternative medicine, malleable political ideology and a topic particularly salient in Seattle: gentrification and its attendant housing scarcity. After getting thrown out of a cult, DeForge’s characters navigate a harsh and unwelcoming city with utter ignorance. Bizarre and heartfelt in equal measure, “Leaving Richard’s Valley” is a rare comic that balances acute political critique with a sweet and almost optimistic story line.
“Berlin” by Jason Lutes, Drawn & Quarterly, 580 pp., $49.95
“Off Season” by James Sturm, Drawn & Quarterly, 216 pp., $24.95
“Leaving Richard’s Valley” by Michael DeForge, Drawn & Quarterly, 480 pp., $32.95