COMIC REVIEW: Berlin – The Seven Dwarves (Cinebook Reviews #24)

Berlin The Seven DwarvesWelcome back to Cinebook Reviews, my continuing exploration into the Franco-Belgian comics scene, courtesy of the Canterbury-based company who translate and publish them for the English-speaking community.  Their output varies hugely in subject matter, and personal tastes will naturally pull you towards certain titles over others.  The aim of these articles is to raise awareness of European comics and spotlight hidden gems, but also to help readers overcome genre prejudice and try something new.  Like this.

 

 

With the exception of a couple of ‘Commando’ books and a ‘Top Secret’ holiday special scavenged from car boot sales, I’ve never really bothered with war comics.  The machismo, violence and tragic overtones were not what I was looking for as a child, and you don’t tend to see many around these days.  With Berlin – The Seven Dwarves, Mark Van Oppen has altered my perceptions of what a ‘war’ comic is.  There is no glorification of conflict, culture or country here; no pedestals to place heroes upon in order to lure more children down the purple path to martyrdom.  The crew of bomber S-Snowwhite are just people like you or me, and their story feels more worthy because of it.

Unlike much of Cinebook’s catalogue, The Seven Dwarves is a stand-alone tale.  One and done.  It’s one of their select ‘Expresso’ Collection (from which I have previously reviewed Green Manor and Western) and the benchmark of quality represented remains admirably high.

We open on an overgrown runway in an English field, August 1993.  Two old women meet as strangers but are linked, in memory and sorrow, by an old doll and a letter.  As the letter is revealed, Flight Sergeant David Auberson’s words fling us back in time to 1943 and his life as a bomber pilot.  Van Oppen (pen name, Marvano) demonstrates enviable skill in both his script and artwork.  The narrative structure of the story is bound up in the letter: a description of life in the Lancaster bomber ‘S-Snowwhite’; the camaraderie and calamity; notable incidents and generally what it feels like to be caught up in the aerial chaos.  The bombing missions are filled with toe-curling tension, terror and the kind of gallows humour that helps keeps people sane in such situations.  It’s thrilling stuff, and deeply engaging at the human level.  The titular ‘dwarves’ are the bomber crew, little more than children, yet sent to do a man’s work.  Marvano has an incredible talent for building relationships through inconsequential banter.  We get so many glimpses of the practicalities and problems of life in the air through his dialogue, but it never feels like lecturing or exposition.  Hats off to the translator for keeping things so smooth, naturalistic and essentially British.

Marvano’s artwork conveys at least as much information through glances and expressions, throwing the calm tone of the ever-present letter into sharp relief.  It is a three-dimensional approach to character building that reveals layers of thought and emotion tugging just beneath the surface.  I love the style of the drawings.  There is something in the simplicity of detail which evokes purity, innocence and idealism without falling prey to schmaltz.  The line-work is clean, the backgrounds uncluttered and the figure-work is flawless.  It feels like a real window into the past.  The colouring (by Claude Legris) strikes the perfect balance of tone.  His skies are heart-stoppingly beautiful, the uniforms and military base suitably drab and the aeroplane interiors are claustrophobic and sweaty: gleaming metal defined by shadow, fire and taut featured fly-boys.  I’m no history buff, but my good friend the Grampus (Matt Farr from the Dissecting Worlds podcast) is, and he was full of admiration for Marvano’s technical artwork.  The research rings true in the depiction of S-Snowwhite and the other 40’s paraphernalia.  It’s heartening to see, because fidelity to details shows a deeper care and respect for the subject matter and the real men and women caught up in the war.

Auberson’s personal story weaves beautifully between the missions; fleeting snatches of normality where love and hope and heartache can happen.  This is ultimately a romance rather than a war story, a tale of humanity amidst tragedy, and perhaps this is why it appeals to the adult reader in me.  The real magic of comics happens of course between the panels.  You can just imagine the conversation going to and fro between the two old women as they pour over the letter, relating their perspectives and recollections to each other in the context of Aubie’s descriptions; building their understanding of events together and letting fresh tears fall.

The only disappointment I found reading this was that I was not really surprised at any point.  The tale unrolled in a natural and predictable fashion.  While it felt ‘true’ and satisfying in an emotional sense, it lacked the dramatic punch that would otherwise have kicked it into the stratosphere for me.  Familiarity is a comfort, but it can also be a curse.  The war has been depicted in so many documentaries, memoirs and reports that generations of people feel they know much of what it was like to live through, even though they were born in a time of relative peace.  Nevertheless, when solid research, artistic integrity and a core understanding of basic human nature are brought together skilfully, fiction can speak Truths just as fluently.  The Seven Dwarves is as eloquent an example of sequential art as I can think of in evoking the tapestry of conflict and simple folk struggling to live through it, both as individuals, and as human beings.  Highly recommended.

 

Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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