Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe by Ali Fitzgerald
Seattle, Washington. Fantagraphics Books. 2018. 196 pages.
Drawn to Berlin is Ali Fitzgerald’s autobiographical account of her living in Berlin and holding comic workshops in Berlin refugee shelters. A graphic memoir, it uses both traditional comics panels and gutters and borderless illustrations. Fitzgerald’s art is black and white, with deep contrasts and clear lines that resemble woodcuts.
There are many compelling stories in Drawn to Berlin, but one memorable section is the one about boats. Fitzgerald finds that boats hold deep significance for many of the refugees, in stark contrast to her own association of boats with adventure. Syrian teenagers Amira and Haya recount watching an inflatable raft flip and sixty people disappear below the water; while Tariq draws “unhappy oarsmen beneath a cruel, sparkling sky”; and Marwan copies Max’s boat from Where the Wild Things Are, but edits out Max. Fitzgerald says, “A lot of seascapes were ringed by fears. Others were idylls, placid and remote.” This simple object, the boat, is emblematic of the variety of people and experiences in the shelters.
The book’s subtitle, “Other Stories from a New Europe,” is a nod to the complex city of Berlin. Fitzgerald writes, “New Europe was a shifting kaleidoscope, alternately dark and uplifting.” Berlin has been a muse for many artists, currently with the popular German television show Babylon Berlin and Jason Lutes’s comics collection Berlin. Fitzgerald quotes Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories published in 1945. Berlin itself is a character in Drawn to Berlin, and Fitzgerald interweaves history and cultural context with the present-day narrative.
Drawn to Berlin is a collection of anecdotes about people seeking solace, distraction, or instruction from Fitzgerald’s comic workshops. The overarching narrative, however, is Fitzgerald’s as she contemplates her own role and the role of art in the uncertain lives of these refugees. Fitzgerald is transparent about her mistakes and assumptions, and Drawn to Berlin is a compelling story about an individual’s and a city’s responsibility to those seeking refuge and comfort.