A peculiar man obsessed with the human voice and the preteen daughter of a Nazi propagandist cross paths during the later stages of World War II: Austrian cartoonist Lust's (The Big Feminist But, 2014, etc.) first graphic novel is an adaptation of Marcel Beyer’s novel The Karnau Tapes (1995).
Hermann Karnau has been fascinated by sound since he was a young boy savoring the silence of early mornings (before it was ruined by “imperious voices” and “clamor and commotion”), and this aural obsession eventually leads him to audio engineering work for the Third Reich. While recording radio propaganda at the home of a Nazi officer—a never-named Joseph Goebbels—Karnau begins a friendship with the man’s six children, particularly the oldest, Helga, who notices troubling incongruities between the world her parents portray to her and the world she directly observes. Karnau and Helga alternate narration, with Karnau indulging his obsession with perverse experiments and dissections in search of the bloody biology behind voice and sound and Helga growing aware of the lies and ugliness propping up her life of privilege and luxury, especially as the Soviet advance sends her and her siblings into a crumbling bunker with the retreating Nazi elite—where her parents’ words of reassurance are increasingly betrayed by the desperation they can’t keep from physically manifesting. The book is troubling and profound, with characters driven to find truths that ultimately prove devastating. Lust’s clean, confident lines richly convey everything from a child’s discomfort with a haircut to a dog’s eagerness to play to Karnau’s sheer bliss from a “quivering glottis.” Lust’s inventive paneling both offers diagrammatic images to underscore Karnau’s reductive mind and, combined with onomatopoeic captions, deftly ratchets the tension. The illustration style and muted color palette (like an aged newspaper) achieve a haunting realism despite cartoonish exaggeration and expressionistic flourishes.