(++Warning: This review contains spoilers for Liebetstrasse ++)
Launched at this year’s Though Bubble as a ComiXology Originals, having been successfully picked up by the Amazon comic book arm at the previous year’s festival, graphic novel Liebetstrasse is a period drama that deals with being a gay man in Berlin during the rise of Hitler in the early 1930’s. A city that was quickly transforming from a hive of cultural and artistic expression and into a National Socialist dictatorship that censored the arts and clamped down on the freedom of its citizens. Particularly anyone who stood out as different. It’s a story of lost love, but it’s also the story of a beautiful country sliding into and ugly future rapidly. We are all aware of the Nazis persecutions of minorities, and in particular the Jewish communities of Europe, but I for one was not too familiar with the persecution and round-up of other ‘undesirables’.
Written by Greg Lockard, with art from Tim Fish, color by Héctor Barros and lettering from Lucas Gatoni, Liebetstrasse is also a story in which the reader probably knows the outcome of this particular romance from the very beginning as we meet American businessman, Sam Wells, in 1952 and returning to Berlin, only for that trip to trigger the memories that make up the bulk of this gripping graphic novel.
As Sam revisits one of the art galleries he used to frequent when he worked there two decades earlier, he is reminded of his German lover, Phillip, a Berlin socialite from a wealthy family. Immediately, I as struck by the melancholy mood Lockard and Fish successfully create in the opening pages as Sam, in 1952, seems to be seeking out past haunts, some ravaged by the war. While we learn about this history from the winners point of view, we can often forget that many Germans disagreed with Hitler’s politics and many suffered as a result. Phillip no less than others. Wealth and status, it seems, was not enough in Hitler’s Germany.
But, this does not make the experience of reading this book a sad one; far from it. What we have is a tragic love story, yes, but a love story that also sheds a light on a vibrant, beautiful Berlin and it’s underground of artists and writers meeting in secret to ensure their ideas thrived. This is the world Sam is introduced to and while these Berliners are forever living under a culture of fear as established by Hitler and his followers, there is still love, life and happiness to be had and a country that, we are reminded by Fish, that is stunningly is beautiful. Fish not only illustrates Berlin as the beautiful city it still is today, but he also reaches life into the German countryside too. Lockhard depicts a German of contradictions; a Germany fo natural beauty and human brutality. But, it is love and life that are the true victors in the end.
While with Phillip, Sam is happy and life is good. That is until Sam gets arrested. He may be an American, which offers him a certain level of protection, but that protection does not extend to natives. What follows is inevitable, as I say, but the aftermath, as Sam returns to create and curate an art exhibition and finally catch up with Phillip’s sister, who can never forgive him for his part in Phillip’s arrest, is one that offers up some kind of bitter-sweet hope.
And, of course, there are inevitable parallels with the rise of the far right in Western democracies today too. We should learn from the mistakes of the past, and yet, we seem to continue to make this self-same mistakes again and again. It’s a book that tells a worthwhile tale and a look at the 30th century’s darkest years and how love finds a way. A book that builds up the intrusion of fascism into people’s lives and the individual price paid by many. Phillips and Sam’s story is but one of millions, but one well worth telling.
Liebetstrasse is available now on comiXoloy Originals