“Nobody knows what made him decide to run for freedom and to certain suicide”
Martin Stiff isn’t exactly a comics creator, as he does a lot of other creative work, but he’s 2-for-2 in comics, so maybe he should do more of them! His latest is Tiny Acts of Violence, which is from A14 Books and Comic Toolbox Ltd. Let’s take a look!
Stiff introduces us to several people living in East Berlin in 1968 (although the only way we know it’s 1968 is because the back of the book tells us it is). Sebastian Metzger visits his doctor, Gabriele Kassmeyer, to get his skin condition looked at. His skin has rough patches and lesions, plus he’s not sleeping well because his dreams are so strong. Dr. Kassmeyer tells him of a man who tried to escape over the wall with his son, and how his son made it but the man did not. Then we meet Astrid Kruckel, a journalist who knows Metzger, as she sees him on the street and ponders whether to follow him before her attention is distracted by something more sinister. Metzger is a teacher, and on the playground, he intervenes when a girl attacks a boy who said something about her father. The girl, Heidi, is the daughter of Peter Althaus, who’s been narrating over all these events and who is apparently friends with Metzger, even though it turns out that Metzger is a retired Stasi – the famous East German secret police – officer. Peter writes a dispatch about life in East Berlin and smuggles it to the West, which is, of course, wildly dangerous. Meanwhile, someone is assassinating high-ranking East Germans, and one of Metzger’s old colleagues – an unctuous toady who enjoys bullying the people of East Berlin – is on the case. Oh, and there’s a monster stalking the city. I mean, of course there is!
There’s a lot going on in this book, and I don’t want to spoil it, because it’s pretty fascinating. Metzger, we learn, once had a family, but they’re gone, and we keep getting hints about what happened to them, but we don’t know until fairly late in the book. It has something to do with his brother, who did something horrible, and Metzger had something to do with his death. Astrid wrote the story about the events, which caused Metzger to lose his job somehow, which is why he’s now a humble teacher. He hangs out with a known dissident, but Peter knows that Metzger will not turn him in. Astrid tries to figure out what the sinister thing she saw is, but nobody higher up than she seems to care about it. Captain Schneider, the Stasi officer who vexes Metzger, is desperate to seem important, and while he is (due to the fact that he’s still an officer in good standing), it’s clear that no one respects him, despite his position. Peter’s wife is somehow incapacitated, which upsets both Peter and Heidi, and Heidi, especially, seems to be lashing out partly because she’s upset about her mother. As the story moves along, more mysteries pile up, until we get a somewhat bizarre and somewhat mystical explanation, but one that fits well into the rest of the story. Stiff manages to create an East Berlin where the slightly mystical ending can work, even with the brutal realism of the rest of the story. The monster, in other words, doesn’t feel out of place, which is nice.
Setting the comic in East Berlin after the Wall went up is smart, as East Germany was perhaps the weirdest Iron Curtain country, as West Berlin was an island in the middle of the country and provided a locus for dissidents that was extremely tempting and, obviously, closer than if you were a dissident in, for instance, Warsaw. I was in West Berlin in the 1970s, and even though I only vaguely recall hanging out at Checkpoint Charlie (I don’t remember if we actually went into East Berlin) and thinking how weird it was, even as a youth of less than eight years old. So the proximity of the “west,” such as it is, makes the people in East Berlin feel like they have an option to leave if things get too bad, even though the Stasi had a reputation for being extremely competent at rooting out the “traitors.” This book begins with the escape attempt, which is a tragedy, and Stiff uses it to ease into a big theme for him, which is the stories we tell ourselves to make it through our lives. Metzger tells Peter about the escape attempt, but he lies and says both father and son made it. He lies to comfort Peter, and Peter seems elated about it, but we later find out that Peter already knew the father was killed, so he was lying as well. In an authoritarian country, lying needs to come easily and naturally, and fiction is, after all, lying, so this kind of story-weaving is part of being an East German. Astrid tells stories as a journalist, and we expect her to tell the truth, but she’s also fairly comfortable with some of the Stasi agents, so how much of what she says is true? She wrote the story of Metzger’s brother, but he can’t remember it very well, and he doesn’t know if she’s telling the truth. Peter is telling a story, too, but his focus is so much on that story that he misses other important aspects of his life, to his detriment. Stiff writes in the back that the Grimm brothers were originally a bigger part of the story, but while they’re no longer that prominent, they are mentioned, and their codification of old folk tales is part of the theme of the book. What do stories do to us? What do we do to stories? Everyone lies, but the degree of the lie matters. Of course, the East German government is telling the biggest lie of them all, and Stiff does a nice job showing how poisonous that lie is to all the citizens. This is a broken world, and not even a noble gesture at the end can fix it. It’s not a fun comic, in other words, but it is gripping.
Stiff’s art is terrific, too. His style suits stories like these, as his angular line work and judicious use of chunky blacks give East Berlin and haunted, jagged look, and the city is full of hard people with hard edges moving around hard corners. The furtiveness of the art matches the paranoia of the story, as the characters try to keep their roiling emotions inside so they won’t get in trouble. Stiff does a wonderful job showing the divide in the society, too – the common people are reserved and attempting to remain invisible, so Stiff draws them almost drawing within themselves, while the upper echelon of the government bureaucracy is drawn a bit looser and freer, as those people believe they have nothing to fear (which, of course, they do). There are some moments of terrifying violence, and what makes them more awful is that Stiff tends to draw the participants as zombies, almost, going through the motions of killing simply because their humanity has been pounded out of them, and those few moments show the horror of living in East Berlin as well as, if not better, than the more ostentatious moments. In flashbacks, Stiff switches from color to blue-and-white while using a slightly finer line, which makes those sections stand out nicely and also give us an odd sense of nostalgia, as if to imply that as bad as those days were, today is worse. He also has some full-page fairy-tale vignettes, for which Stiff used (digital) brushes and watercolors rather than a more solid pencil line, and the contrast is nice and stark (the story the vignettes tell is also horrifying – if relevant – and the relative softness of the line work helps set up the horror well). Stiff’s colors are well done, too – he uses a lot of them, and the book isn’t exactly gloomy, but because he mutes the colors, it feels a bit dingy, giving us a good sense of the drudgery of industrialized Communism and how it beats down the proletariat it was supposed to uplift. Stiff’s monster is scary, too – it’s not in the book all that much, and it looks almost formless in a few places, but once you realize what it is and you start looking at it a bit more closely, it becomes creepier. It’s a neat trick.
As you can tell, I really like this book. It’s one of the best comics I’ve read this year, and it’s impressive from a guy who simply doesn’t do a lot of comics (as I noted above, this is only his second one, I think, and the first was pretty darned excellent, as well!). It’s a creepy horror-esque comic, but it also has a lot on its mind, and the setting allows Stiff to examine his ideas of lying, storytelling, paranoia, dissent, and propaganda in a place where those things were often clashing and combining to form a bludgeon that the government used on its people. This is an excellent comic, and you should all check it out! (The link below is for the hardcover, which is a bit spendy. I have the softcover, but I didn’t find that on Amazon. I assume you can find it somewhere else, but you might have to look a little!)
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆