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Friday, 22 March 2013

Berlin: The Seven Dwarves

Writer and artists: Marvano (also known as Mark van Oppen)
Colour work: Claude Legris
Translator: Jerome Saincantin
Letters and Layouts: Imadjinn

What's it about?
The story is set across two years: 1993 and 1943.  In 1943 seven men form the crew of the Lancaster S-Snowwhite.  It is called Snowwhite because it is black, like Snow White's hair, and has a crew of seven.  Their job is to bomb Germany.  In 1993 two women exchange a 50 year old letter.  The book focuses on the lives of the seven men aboard the plane - the realities of bombing raids, the threats from enemy fighters and the relationships formed on the ground.
It's suitable for history buffs and comic fans alike.

What's good about it?
Oh, this is difficult to explain.  It is a superb book.  It's incredibly moving and left me feeling emotionally drained each time I read it.  I have always found World War II stories upsetting: when, as a teenager, I visited the huge graveyards in Northern France I got quite hysterical - seeing all those graves of such young men was hugely upsetting for me.
This book is told chiefly through Aubie's eyes - he's a 19 year old Canadian bomber pilot based in England.  He sees death every day: every time he flies his plane, every time he sees other planes fly out, whenever he visits the local farm.  You may have heard people comment that, living during the war, they took one day at a time, they lived for the moment.  Sweethearts had rushed engagements and had children quickly, because they couldn't be sure they'd survive the war.  This book captures that spirit.

The main bulk of the tale, that of Aubie's life as a pilot, is frenetic.  Death is mentioned on every page.  The crew laugh and joke, and they have good days - but always, always, the spectre of their death, the threat of German bombers, and the knowledge of what their bombs will do, looms over them.
This book feels very well researched.  Marvano was born in Belgium after the war but his parents and his friend's parents would have lived through the German occupation.  I don't know where he did his research, but having visited the continent enough times I can see that there are markers of the war everywhere, and it must have left an indelible impact on the national psyche of those occupied countries.  It's very different to how we are taught about the War in England.  Without meaning to state the obvious, this perspective must have informed the creation of this book.  It's so, so fraught.  It's laden with emotion.  Every page feels full of desperation.  It may be quiet desperation, or it may be obvious, it may show itself in sex, or in the mascot that attends every trip, or in the jokes they tell each other, their traditions or the way they interact with civilians, but it is always there.

This is an amazingly powerful book.

What's bad about it?
Nothing worth noting. 

What's the art like?
Ahh!  Looking at this art reminds me of why I like reviewing comics.  On the first read I absorb the pages and process the story.  On my second read I pay more attention and focus on how the comic is put together, and the reading experience becomes richer for it.

Take the first page.  We open on the cast flatness of Lincolnshire.  That part of England that is utterly flat and goes on and on, monotonously for miles, with next to nothing to break it up.  The panels on this page capture the isolation, the loneliness I always feel in that landscape.  It's so empty.  The characters on the page are drawn small, emphasising their insignificance and the smallness of people in this windswept landscape.

After this sense of space the next scene comes a shock.  Page three is sixteen boxes depicting the cockpit during a flight.  Each panel is a close up - either of the pilot's face, the instruments, a blast of gun fire, or the plane's controls.  The narration talks about the roar of the engine, the darkness, the reliance on your navigator.  The emotions are fear and panic.
Then the next page gives us a wide panel perspective of the plane dropping its bombs onto the Ruhr valley.
The effect is unsettling and frightening.

Most of the scenes are similar in palette and feel to the above samples, however every so often there are a couple of panels that jump out.  For example this one of the iconography on the plane:
The painting seems so jolly, so out of place with the rest of the book.
Or this one of the sunset:

The contrast between the beauty of the setting sun and the events in people's lives is remarkable.

More information
Price: £6.99
ISBN: 9781849181358
Buy Berlin direct from the publisher, Cinebook, here.

If you like historical comics, I can recommend the following.
Joe Sacco's Palestine - the journalist's account of life in occupied Palestine.
Pride of Baghdad - concerning the Iraq invasion and the Baghdad zoo destroyed in the bombing.
X-Men Magneto: Testament - about the Nazi holocaust and life in the death camps.  Do not be put off by the X-men title.  It is not a superhero book.
Laika - the dog that Russia sent into space.
Incognegro - a fictionalised account of an undercover journalist, passing as white and able to expose American lynchings.

Fiction stories with emphasis on real world histories can be found here, and war stories can be found here.

If you like this book, try out Cinebook's other offerings.  We have reviewed several here and you can find more on their website.  I haven't read a book of theirs I haven't liked.

Many thanks to Cinebook for providing me with a review copy.

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