“I’m alone sitting with my broken glass / My four walls follow me through my past”
I’m a big fan of Weimar Germany, so the fact that Babylon Berlin is a noir detective story set in the capital of Germany in 1929 was a big draw. I haven’t seen the television series based on the novels of Volker Kutscher, but I’m kind of keen to, so maybe I’ll get around to it eventually. For now, we can check out the comic based on the first novel (I think; it’s called something different, but I assume they didn’t want to title this “The Wet Fish”). Arne Jysch wrote and drew this, and Ivanka Hahnenberger translated it. It’s published by Titan, and the hardcover is $24.99.
The book is a fairly standard noir tale, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and in noir stories, very often the setting makes it or breaks it, and in a charged atmosphere like 1929 Berlin, things are even more on edge than if this were taking place anywhere else. Detective Gereon Rath has come to Berlin after a tragedy in Cologne forced him out, and instead of homicide, he’s assigned to the vice squad. Before he even starts his job, a man comes into the apartment where he’s staying looking for a Russian, someone who has disappeared. Plus, a car with a body inside shows up in a canal, a case that, naturally, eventually leads to Rath. The case is intriguing, involving Russian exiles, the Nazis (they weren’t a major party in early 1929, but they were growing stronger), the German Communists, and corrupt policemen. Rath gets assigned to the murder case because he has a lead, which he claims he stumbled upon, but he’s caught up in some problems as well, which could end his career simply because of how it looks after his troubles in Cologne. Meanwhile, there’s a female officer who’s ostensibly a stenographer but who, naturally, knows a thing or two about police work, and she and Rath become lovers before he messes that up, as well.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of political turmoil, as May 1st comes up halfway through the book, and the police break up the Communists’ march through the streets, and the Nazis are growing in power. Rath stays apolitical throughout, although he obviously has no use for Nazis – he couldn’t be the hero if he did, but most Germans in 1929 had no use for the Nazis – and he doesn’t seem especially sympathetic toward the Communists, either. The police aren’t completely apolitical, but they’re more so than the regular folk, and it’s fascinating watching the way the police navigate this world, where their hands are often tied because of politics (not too different from our time and culture, but starker in 1929 Berlin) and the corruption is so endemic no one seems to notice. In fact, it’s interesting that when Rath does something that really isn’t illegal, he covers it up because he had been drinking and doing a bit of cocaine not too long before. He did the coke solely to “prove” that he was corruptible, and it ends up biting him in the butt. But even so, he covers up what he did partly because in a system where everyone is corrupt, everyone would naturally assume he committed his quasi-crime because he was corrupt, and that fear makes him … corrupt. Jysch doesn’t comment too much on such a system, but the idea of a good man struggling against the ingrained corruption of the state is a theme throughout the book. Jysch (and Kutscher, I assume) also doesn’t make too obvious a statement about the class system in Germany at the time, but it’s apparent from the art just how wide the gap is between the rich and the poor. There’s also the element of sin, as Rath is technically a vice cop, and while the non-standard sex stuff isn’t a big part of the book, how casually Jysch treats it is interesting, because it’s clear that no one really cares, even the cops, but they have to enforce the antiquated laws (put in place, no doubt, by the same people who occasionally frequent the sex clubs).
Jysch does a nice job with the art, too. His line work is heavy and somewhat unimaginative, and his layouts are fairly normal. That’s not to say the art is bad; he does a good job creating the characters, and the way the cast moves through the book is well done. He uses noir tropes sparingly, which is nice, because when he does use them, they stand out. When Rath confronts a man who’s following him, it’s in the rain in a darkened alley, and Jysch uses white streaks as the rain, lit by lightning (I’d like to say he uses gouache for the effect, but it’s more likely digital), while the men are black shapes engaged in a primal battle. Where Jysch’s art really shines is in his use of gray washes, as he foregoes solid black and white for a more nuanced approach, and the combination of his stolid line work and the wide array of grays adds some tension to the book, highlighting the tension in 1929 Berlin between the conservative elements and the more sophisticated artistic elements. Jysch does a fine job with the architecture, as well, grounding the book very nicely in a specific place and time. It’s not a beautiful comic, but it’s very interesting to look at as well as read.
Babylon Berlin is a good comic that explores more than you might think, and it does so somewhat subtly, so it’s far more interesting than it might seem on the surface. Simply by placing it in such a volatile time, Kutscher and Jysch can add elements that might not connect explicitly to the main plot but which give the book nuance and depth, as Rath is living on the edge of a huge change, one that he and others can see coming but which they underestimate (partly because of their utter fear of Communists). The desperation of Weimar Germany, the indolence of the rich, the anger of the lower classes, the cynicism of the Nazis – it’s all here, and the actual mystery is a good one, too. Now I have to track down the television show!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
(And remember, if you’re interested in getting this, you can use the link below and I’ll get a tiny piece of it. Or you can use the link to do any kind of shopping, and it will still benefit me!)