Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Berlin: City of Smoke

Berlin Book Two: City of Smoke
By Jason Lutes
Drawn and Quarterly

During the roaring 1920’s many African American jazz musicians found a more hospitable racial climate in Europe. This changed rather drastically in the 1930’s, for obvious reasons. Several expatriate jazz musicians, like Freddy Johnson and Henry Crowder, were in fact interned by the occupying German forces for a number of years before their eventual repatriation. Touring Weimar Germany in 1929, the fictional jazz band the Cocoa Kids, risks a similar fate if they overstay their welcome in City of Smoke (preview here), the second collected installment of Jason Lutes’ literary graphic novel Berlin.

It is 1929 and Berliners can smell danger in the air. It is a pungent mixture of hot jazz, sex, and extremist politics, from both the Communists and the National Socialists. Still reeling from the past year’s Mayday riots, the death of Gustav Stresemann, seen as the unifying statesman of moderate democratic government, further demoralizes Kurt Severing and his fellow pacifist intellectuals. Unlike his artist girlfriend Marthe Müller, he refuses to take consoling pleasure from the sounds of jazz, which he blames for turning Germans into “little, mindless marionettes in a pointless frenzy.” (p. 38)

Müller by contrast has no problem with jazz or the other pleasures of the night Berlin offers. As her romance with Severing winds down, she finds the city’s underground lesbian clubs increasingly alluring. Meanwhile, the Cocoa Kids are the toast of the town, but are not being compensated accordingly. Evidently, the music business is the same all over. However, they certainly enjoy Berlin’s relative tolerance, particularly their clarinetist, Kid Hogan, who becomes openly and intimately involved with a white Berliner.

Periodically, the Communists and National Socialists take to the streets for demonstrations complete with long fiery speeches. Unfortunately, Smoke can get a bit talky at such times, bogging down in its faithful representations of the era’s extremist rhetoric. While Smoke is unquestionably less critical of the Communist KPD, it seems to suggest their actions were often counter-productive.

Smoke is an ambitious project, encompassing a large cast of characters drawn from all strata of Weimar society. Yet the only sympathetic characters who take any sort of decisive action are the Cocoa Kids, from America. Having spent enough time in Chicago, they know how to get what is coming to them.

Lutes convincingly evokes Weimar Germany through his well-researched historical detail and sophisticated black and white art. In an interesting stylistic and editorial choice, Lutes refrains from showing swastikas, opting instead to put conspicuous holes in their place. (Given the publishing industry cliché that books with swastikas on the cover always sell, his publisher must have had decidedly mixed emotions about this decision.) Lutes also makes interesting use of the late 1920’s hot jazz both in character development and to establish the period feel.

Smoke is definitely a graphic novel for adults, addressing some mature themes and presupposing a basic understanding of the implications of the National Socialists’ rise to power. It is smartly written—definitely for the high-end of the graphic novel market.