Writer: Jeff Loveness / Artist: Lisandro Estherren, Patricio Delpeche / Boom! Studios
There is something inherently familiar about Strange Skies Over East Berlin, although maybe it’s a familiarity that stems from my own love of film noir and historic dramas that have been reinterpreted with sci-fi elements. But this familiarity, this inherent understanding that this is during a time that you have almost certainty hear but there is something sinister sneaking beneath the surface…it serves Strange Skies Over East Berlin well.
As Loveness’ opening narration, lettered beautifully by Steven Wands, open the first chapter of the volume, everything about the book is telegraphed from the get-go. The bleak colors, the foreboding atmosphere of towering buildings, the shifty look of a man in a trench coat. Without a doubt, Strange Skies Over East Berlin is a brilliantly looking book between Estherren’s pencils and Delpeche’s colors and the story draws you in near immediately with its overwhelming sense of intrigue and mystery.
The basic premise of the novel is that during the Cold War, our protagonist Herring has embedded himself deep into the inner circles of East German intelligence but has become increasingly disillusioned with work for his bosses. However, his latest endeavors is set to challenge him in ways that he could never have expected when a suspect he’s interrogated turns out to be not quite human. And thus the stage is set for this historical fiction with a decidedly sci-fi bent. It complicates the again familiar American vs. German narrative with an additional layer of humanity vs. the unknown. In the following one hundred or so pages, you’ll get a narrative about lies and the facades we present to the world. It is a story about personal loss juxtaposed against large scale trauma and the intricate webs that are fabricated during a war thought on multiple fronts.
The most captivating thing about the book has to be the visual artistry. The pencils, the colors, and lettering work together with such elegance and grace to evoke the era and tone of the story. The set pieces are gorgeous, the characters designs are easily identifiable, and the action is poignant. Every panel has a wonderfully cinematic quality to it, and you could understand the major story beats even if there wasn’t any text at all. However, this is a multi-modal medium, and Loveness’ writing is compelling in its own right.
While I personally had a bit of deja vu with some of the plots with other stories, there is no question that the execution of said plots was excellent. Loveness crafts tension wonderfully and juggles narration and monologues deftly. Herring’s internal monologue sets the tone for each of the chapters, and you can sense the inner conflict, the moral ambiguity, and the deep loss that he’s experienced. You can imagine the voices of each of the characters in a pastiche of aural memory of archetypes: the overly ambitious scientist, the cruel warden, the general in charge. And then when these characters are faced with the extraordinary, their reactions feel natural, understandable, and stated plainly. There is no over the top gasp, no deadpan face. It’s instead a measured response of fear, a realistic portrayal of what humans would actually do when presented with something alien. To say more would veer into spoiler territory and while you can imagine where this is going, it is still an experience without anymore context than the basic premise you can glean from the cover and back matter.
I enjoyed reading Strange Skies Over East Berlin, and I loved looking at it more. I think as a connoisseur of the genre the distinguishing elements of the graphic novel stem from the overall execution, the cohesiveness of the story. It felt familiar, which both works for it and works against it. I had some issues with tracking (characters names never really got stuck in the memory because they were very classic representations of tropes) because of this, but the moments I turned to a new page and was simply floored by the combined impact of the words and art were numerous. Multiple times I felt a poignant reaction to the frankness of the words coupled with stunning visuals, and that’s why I can recommend this book. Because when there is nothing new under the sun, it’s comes to down to how it reflects the light and my goodness, Strange Skies Over East Berlin is indeed captivating.
8.5 “Lies and Truths” out of 10