Published: June 8, 2011
by Davis Lester
Arbeiter Ring, paperback
The Listener , a new graphic novel by Canadian artist David Lester, is a good deal better than its sprawling synopsis makes it sound. Bridging two periods in time—the present and the early 1930s—and numerous countries (Canada, Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, etc.), the plot follows an artist named Louise as she travels across Europe, trying to come to terms with a mysterious death for which a sculpture of hers has somehow been blamed. Along the way she has sundry encounters, including with an elderly couple who tell her the tale of their youth working at a newspaper in the small German state of Lippe and how what happened there proved to be pivotal in Hitler’s rise to power. Their story is interspersed with scenes from Louise’s journey and, at the end, we learn the details of the aforementioned mysterious death. Phew.
Sprawling, yes, but also powerful. The drawings, black-and-white sketches given contour by broad washes of ink, are beautiful and oddly playful. Many scenes are impressionistic, conveying a sense of mood as much as place. At one point you can see through a coffee cup to the face behind, at another we only see a character’s face as a reflection in a mirror, and one long pillow-talk sequence is illustrated simply by a bare foot that casually flexes here and there. The style sometimes changes depending on the subject: In a scene in which Hitler is depicted giving a rousing speech, for instance, it’s fractured, vaguely Cubist, with his body broken into powerful sharp triangles.
The story itself is at times weighed down by dialogue that feels self-conscious, overeducated: “Mum, why do you call me a meticulously slovenly son?” “Because you’re a dialectical marvel.” Whaaa? Little differentiation is made in how various characters talk, and watching a woman travel through the great museums of Europe philosophizing about the role of the artist does get a bit tired after 300 pages. But the historical portion of the book—the story of Lippe—more than makes up for these headier parts. Here the little-known history of the Nazi propaganda push in one small German state is rendered in astonishing detail: the political machinations between the right-wing German National People’s Party and the Nazi Party, the eventual agreement that the former would support the latter in Lippe elections, the stifling of the press, the assassination of a reporter, the brave acts of a few, the cowardice of the many.
And while the overt discussion of the role of art in society feels overwrought at times, the thread that ties these seemingly unrelated stories together in The Listener is precisely that question. Political cartoons from 1930s Germany appear in its pages—as does an appendix describing animators, cartoonists, and designers in the Third Reich—and Hitler’s desire to be an artist plays a part. The mysterious death makes Louise question her own responsibility as an artist, and the book is essentially her quest for an answer. The result, despite its flaws, is a meditative, memorable graphic novel.