by David Lester
Arbeiter Ring Publishing
“There is nothing more lonely than to have once felt passion and desire in your beliefs.”
Reviewed by BK Munn
It’s funny where comics can take you and what sort of far-reaching effects comic art can have. Take cartoonist Walter Trier, for instance. A Czech Jew who emigrated to Germany to work as a cartoonist in 1910, Trier’s career roughly coincided with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. Trier worked for satirical magazines like Simplicissimus churning out caustic anti-Nazi political cartoons in a disarmingly charming storybook style, alongside such artists as Thomas Heine and George Grosz. Trier fled Germany in 1933, worked on anti-German propaganda during the 40s in London, and eventually ended his life in well-deserved semi-obscurity, drawing New Yorker covers and goofy 1950s advertising for Canadian peanut butter producers from his home near Collingwood, Ontario. If you squint a little, you can kind of read Trier’s life as an object lesson in the power of political art. Simply put: because people like Trier stood up to Hitler, the Nazis were eventually defeated, and the liberal mosaic was left to flourish in peaceful post-war Canada where our greatest political decisions became what brand of peanut butter to buy.
Which brings me to David Lester’s new graphic novel The Listener, a fiction that essentially reverses the trajectory of Trier’s life, charting the imaginary course of a Canadian artist who revisits the nightmare of Nazi Germany and realizes the need for an artistic practice back home that is politically engaged, historically informed, and place-specific.
The Listener is a political work of art about the importance of making political art. The novel tells the story of Louise Shearing, a Canadian sculptor living in the UK who has a crisis of faith after one of her works inspires an activist who falls to his death in the act of hanging a political banner off a building. Wracked with guilt, Louise gives up her art and drifts aimlessly through Europe, studying sculpture, engaging in brief affairs, and eventually meeting an elderly German couple who tell her of their experiences during Hitler’s rise to power in the ‘Thirties and the crucial 1933 election in the tiny German state of Lippe (population 100,000).
This little known historical footnote forms the core of the book: Louise listens to the tale of how the Nazis, through backroom dealings, intimidation, violence and murder, co-opted the leadership of the conservative monarchist DNVP party and effectively stole the election, paving the way for Hitler to assume the German chancellor-ship and then to win the federal election a few months later, ushering in the Third Reich, The Holocaust, and World War Two. These events are largely narrated from the point of view of the old couple, Marie and Rudolph, who as DNVP activists and newspaper workers in Lippe experienced first-hand the stormtrooper tactics and propaganda of the Nazis and are haunted by their failure to halt or even resist Hitler’s ascendancy and the horrors that follow. Transformed by Marie and Rudolph’s story and their subsequent remorse, Louise is able to return to Vancouver and her work as a radical artist with a renewed sense of purpose.
This bare bones synopsis belies the artistic skill and depth of research Lester brings to the book. The tale of Germany’s last free election is told in minute detail but in a format that largely avoids dry textbook exposition in favour of conversation and confession. The story’s pacing is leisurely and Louise’s journey from disillusion and despair to the point where she stops running and picks up her tools again is told in a decompressed, naturalistic way. At the same time, Lester uses an arsenal of graphic approaches to illuminate everything from the subtle changes in Louise’s inner moods to the high drama and terror of streetfighting, suicide, and assassination. This is done with a variety of visual references to the art and styles of the 1930s, including German Expressionism, film noir (everything from a poster for The Third Man to the use of light and shadow), Picasso, and the insertion of Nazi political cartoons and headlines. Moments of vertigo are illustrated using a Carmine Infantino-meets-Marcel Duchamp approach, while political meetings recall scenes from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Like Louise, David Lester makes art from a left perspective. Louise’s sculptures celebrate The Paris Commune and anarchist guerrilla Nestor Makhno, while Lester, who has provided the shiver-inducing guitar hooks for seminal punk duo Mecca Normal since 1984, has had a long career as a painter, poster artist and graphic designer on projects as diverse as Emma Goldman tributes, DOA record covers and the design of BC Bookworld magazine. This work ranges from traditional agitprop to more multihued reflections on art and social justice issues, and The Listener benefits from this catholic approach. There are black and white political issues in the book but Lester navigates through them with attention to everyday detail and human stories –the book is awash in a sea of half-tones and grays that are more in the service of storytelling, natural light and emotional states than any Ditko-styled moral imperative or mandate. Thus, scenes of Hitler talking to aides while on the toilet in 1933 and of Louise imagining the ghosts in a concentration camp sixty years later use the same tones, but one scene is claustrophobic and framed in black while the other is wide open with lots of white, symbolizing the difference in the two perspectives. In a similar way Lester draws a parallel between the death of the protester inspired by Louise’s art at the beginning of the book and the murder of a journalist by Hitler’s thugs in the flashback near the end of the book. Both scenes are broken up, jump-cut style, with panels illustrating the creation of a drawing, with panels alternating between violent moments and the counterpoint of relatively banal movement of a pencil on paper. In the first scene, Louise makes sketches for her next project, oblivious to the fact her art has inspired a tragedy. In the second, Hitler sketches Eva Braun while a political murder is enacted in his name. In this way, the binaries and parallels of the story are made explicit: political art can be used for fascistic as well as socially progressive means but it is dangerous to neglect or ignore it.
In contrast to its more subtle approach to political metaphor, The Listener wears its historical research on its sleeve, with quite a bit of sometimes awkward actual quotes and great dollops of art history ladled onto its pages and wedged into everything from chapter headings to snatches of lovers’ conversation. As well, Lester’s choice of computer generated word balloons and text is often at odds with his meticulously composed pages and panels, and is especially bewildering when considered alongside the hand-drawn representations of historical posters and headlines which appear throughout the book and show that the artist possesses a definite fluency and skill in lettering. Some of the computer-set balloons have a jauntily angular, ransom-note-meets-Rodchenko/Constructivist look to them, but most just seem awkward and jarring. However, these are slight quibbles. Lester’s drawing is wonderfully expressive and the book is an intense and well-structured look at a forgotten pivotal moment in history that uses the medium of comics to revisit that time and propose an antidote to generalized political malaise and anomie. In this sense the book is a fitting tribute to the work of Lester’s cartooning precursors who fought the good fight in the 1930s, as well as a modern call to arms.