Babylon Berlin by Arne Jysch is a graphic novel adaptation of Volker Kutscher's first Inspector Gereon Rath mystery, set in 1920s Berlin (available March 6, 2018).
What comes to mind when you think of 20th-century Berlin? WWII, the Berlin Wall, a city full of political and military intrigue. But before Hitler and the “Iron Curtain,” during the waning years of the Weimar Republic, the Berlin of the 1920s was a city of vice and warring power players of criminal gangs, Nazis, exiled Russian monarchists, fanatical communists, and more. This Berlin is the Berlin of Voelker Kutscher's Gereon Rath series.
Kutscher's internationally acclaimed Rath series currently spans six books. This year, the first novel in the series, Babylon Berlin, will be translated into English, adapted for television (the most expensive production in German television history, currently available to stream in the US via Netflix), and adapted as a graphic novel by German artist Arne Jysch, now available via Titan Books.
One of the first things you'll notice about Jysch's adaptation of Babylon Berlin is his choice to depict it in black and white. This excellent artistic decision gives the book a classic noir feel while adding to the emotional starkness of several scenes. It leaves you feeling isolated and alone along with Gereon Rath as he wrestles with the demons of his past that still haunt him in the present, as on this page:
Another fantastic element of Babylon Berlin—both Kutscher's original novel and the way Jysch brings it to life here—is the characters. Inspector Rath is a haunted and wonderfully flawed protagonist. A lot of the trouble he gets into is of his own making. Rath is also surrounded by an eclectic and nuanced cast of characters, including his brutal-but-fatherly superior, Bruno “Uncle” Wolter; the decadent club owner and organized crime figure Dr. M; a real-life criminalist/detective, Ernst Gennat; and a Homicide Division Stenographer, Charlotte Ritter, who Gennat wisely employs to inspect crime scenes.
The blend of real-life and fictional characters collide against a backdrop of crime, vice, politics, and actual events—such as the bloody 1929 Mayday riots—which makes Babylon Berlin a gripping crime story and so much more. You see the way the Russian Revolution of 1917 upset the balance of power in Europe and how its effects are still being felt over a decade later. You catch a glimpse of the rise of the insidious Nazis. The jockeying for power between the far left and far right—with the prior knowledge of how history plays out—gives the story a real sense of the high stakes that made Berlin feel like a powder keg about to explode.
Conveying that turmoil in a visual medium takes an artist with a firm grasp of tone, and Arne Jysch is a master of his craft. The black-and-white design not only elevates the tone but emphasizes the shadows and light in a way that makes you feel like you're right there with Inspector Rath, trying to keep your head above a tide of morally murky intrigue and danger with no one to throw you a life raft. One of the best examples is this page of Rath standing in the rain over the body of a man he's been forced to kill.
I don't want to say much about the mystery that drives Babylon Berlin because there's a lot of great twists and reveals. However, I will say that a lot of it is driven by a treasure hunt for a large and fabled cache of Russian Gold, which sets up a thrilling climax in which all the major players converge on a train yard for a showdown.
Arne Jysch is able to take Volker Kutscher's compelling Babylon Berlin and bring it to life with an adaptation full of beautiful visuals that enhance the mood and make the story even more exciting and powerful.
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