An original project worth watching as it shapes up to something that may be quite magnificent.

BERLIN

BOOK ONE

This black-and-white historical narrative, written and illustrated by Lutes, collects eight volumes of his ongoing comic book set in Berlin during the late ’20s. It’s a multilayered tale of love and politics at the beginning of the Nazi era, as Lutes follows the stories of three characters: a 20ish art student from the provinces, a textile worker, and a young Jewish radical. Their lives intersect in only the subtlest way—Lutes depicts them crossing paths at some great public events, such as the Mayday march that closes this part of his book. And Lutes plays with perspective in a visual sense as well, jumping from point-of-view frames to overhead angles, including one from a dirigible flying above in honor of the Kaiser. At street level, Lutes integrates his historical research smoothly, and cleverly evokes the sounds and smells of a city alive with public debate and private turmoil. The competing political factions include communists, socialists, democrats, nationalists, and fascists, and all of Lutes’s characters get swept up by events. Marthe, the beautiful art student, settles in with Kurt, the cynical and detached journalist; Gudrun, the factory worker, loses her job, and her nasty husband (to the Nazi party), then joins a communist cooperative with her young daughters; Schwartz, a teenager enamored with the memory of Rosa Luxembourg, balances his incipient politics with his religion at home and his passion for Houdini. The lesser figures seem fully realized as well, from the despotic art instructor to the reluctant street policeman. Cosmopolitan Berlin on the brink of disaster: Lutes captures the time and place with a historian’s precision and a cinematographer’s skill. His shifts from close-ups to fades work perfectly in his thin-line style, a crossbreed of dense-scene European comics and more simple comics styles on this side of the Atlantic.

An original project worth watching as it shapes up to something that may be quite magnificent.

Pub Date: June 1, 2001

ISBN: 1-896597-29-7

Page Count: 212

Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2001

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Gorgeous and troubling.

HEART OF DARKNESS

Cartoonist Kuper (Kafkaesque, 2018, etc.) delivers a graphic-novel adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s literary classic exploring the horror at the center of colonial exploitation.

As a group of sailors floats on the River Thames in 1899, a particularly adventurous member notes that England was once “one of the dark places of the earth,” referring to the land before the arrival of the Romans. This well-connected vagabond then regales his friends with his boyhood obsession with the blank places on maps, which eventually led him to captain a steamboat up a great African river under the employ of a corporate empire dedicated to ripping the riches from foreign land. Marlow’s trip to what was known as the Dark Continent exposes him to the frustrations of bureaucracy, the inhumanity employed by Europeans on the local population, and the insanity plaguing those committed to turning a profit. In his introduction, Kuper outlines his approach to the original book, which featured extensive use of the n-word and worked from a general worldview that European males are the forgers of civilization (even if they suffered a “soul [that] had gone mad” for their efforts), explaining that “by choosing a different point of view to illustrate, otherwise faceless and undefined characters were brought to the fore without altering Conrad’s text.” There is a moment when a scene of indiscriminate shelling reveals the Africans fleeing, and there are some places where the positioning of the Africans within the panel gives them more prominence, but without new text added to fully frame the local people, it’s hard to feel that they have reached equal footing. Still, Kuper’s work admirably deletes the most offensive of Conrad’s language while presenting graphically the struggle of the native population in the face of foreign exploitation. Kuper is a master cartoonist, and his pages and panels are a feast for the eyes.

Gorgeous and troubling.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-393-63564-5

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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Chwast and Twain are a match made in heaven.

A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT

Design veteran Chwast delivers another streamlined, graphic adaptation of classic literature, this time Mark Twain’s caustic, inventive satire of feudal England.

Chwast (Tall City, Wide Country, 2013, etc.) has made hay anachronistically adapting classic texts, whether adding motorcycles to The Canterbury Tales (2011) or rocket ships to The Odyssey (2012), so Twain’s tale of a modern-day (well, 19th-century) engineer dominating medieval times via technology—besting Merlin with blasting powder—is a fastball down the center. (The source material already had knights riding bicycles!) In Chwast’s rendering, bespectacled hero Hank Morgan looks irresistible, plated in armor everywhere except from his bow tie to the top of his bowler hat, sword cocked behind head and pipe clenched in square jaw. Inexplicably sent to sixth-century England by a crowbar to the head, Morgan quickly ascends nothing less than the court of Camelot, initially by drawing on an uncanny knowledge of historical eclipses to present himself as a powerful magician. Knowing the exact date of a celestial event from more than a millennium ago is a stretch, but the charm of Chwast’s minimalistic adaption is that there are soon much better things to dwell on, such as the going views on the church, politics and society, expressed as a chart of literal back-stabbing and including a note that while the upper class may murder without consequence, it’s kill and be killed for commoners and slaves. Morgan uses his new station as “The Boss” to better the primitive populous via telegraph lines, newspapers and steamboats, but it’s the deplorably savage civility of the status quo that he can’t overcome, even with land mines, Gatling guns and an electric fence. The subject of class manipulation—and the power of passion over reason—is achingly relevant, and Chwast’s simple, expressive illustrations resonate with a childlike earnestness, while his brief, pointed annotations add a sly acerbity. His playful mixing of perspectives within single panels gives the work an aesthetic somewhere between medieval tapestry and Colorforms.

Chwast and Twain are a match made in heaven.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-60819-961-7

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2013

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