(w) Jeff Loveness (a) Lisandro Estherren (c) Patricio Delpeche (l) Steve Wands
The first issue of Strange Skies Over East Berlin came out in October 2019, creating a fair amount of buzz and intrigue. This week, BOOM! Studios has released the trade collection of the 4-issue Cold War, sci-fi miniseries. So does it live up to its initial promise?
The story starts off strong. Jeff Loveness places us in a 1973 East Berlin firmly in the grasps of the Stasi, the state’s horrifying secret police. Lisandro Estherren’s art on this book brings to mind a darker version of Matt Kindt’s Mind MGMT; a similarity compounded by the story beats that delve into Cold War espionage and psychic attacks. Feelings of desperation and hopelessness are captured well by the artwork, and by the introspective narration of the main character, Herring – a resistance mole who uses his position in the Stasi to help wretched East Berliners escape over the Wall. Unfortunately, this narration begins to grate by the end of the four issues. The solemn, ultra-short sentences become repetitive. The repetition is at its worst when the main theme of the book is spelled out for the reader; at times it feels as though every tenth word of the narration is ‘lies’ or ‘truth’.
The story itself suffers from abandoning the oppressive paranoia of the city at the end of issue #1. For the remainder of the book, the action moves to an underground bunker. Although the claustrophobia of this new location is conveyed well, it’s hard not to feel like the narrative decision stifled some of the potential shown at the start. Characters err slightly on the side of underdeveloped archetypes, even for a short series. For example, we have the human lie detector Stasi antagonist, the gruff Rosa Klebb-esque Soviet commander, and the beautiful idealistic revolutionary from Herring’s memories. Herring himself, for all his deep reflections on secrets and lies, is a bit of a blank slate.
But flaws aside, there’s plenty to enjoy in this book, including the beautifully atmospheric art. The pacing benefits from sticking to four issues where other writers might have tried to stretch it out further. The blending of genres, one of the things I love most about comics as a medium, is done very well. Pages move seamlessly from spy noir to John Carpenter sci-fi horror. I’m far from a Cold War buff, but the historical aspects seem well-researched and inject a frightening element of realism.
All in all, it’s a promising venture into dramatic writing for Loveness, best known for more ‘fun’ endeavours such as Rick & Morty and a number of Marvel projects. Given his comedic talent, perhaps this book would have benefitted from the odd moment of dark humour to break up the unrelenting bleakness. Estherren’s art style is slightly different to his work on Redneck, but it fits the story well in tandem with Patricio Delpeche’s moody colours. Strange Skies Over East Berlin isn’t perfect, but it’s well worth a read for fans of the central genre elements.