Lobbing a fantastical element into a very specific moment in history makes for some truly fantastic comic books. Works like Ex Machina, which is set against the backdrop of the post-9-11 cultural shift in the United States, show that asking “What if?” can be almost as compelling as asking “What happened?” This isn’t to say these stories take away from the impact of the actual events. Having a working knowledge of the event a story is set around elevates a reader’s experience. Strange Skies Over East Berlin #1 doesn’t ask much of the reader, which can be beneficial to reaching broad audiences, but the bare bones tone of this debut issue is a bit of a mixed bag.
Strange Skies Over East Berlin follows Herring, an American spy at his wits end after spending so much of his career infiltrating East German intelligence. Things quickly go from bad to worse when a mysterious beam of light rips across the sky, shaking the foundation of self-imposed partition of the nation and possibly hinting at something far more dangerous than anyone could anticipate.
And yes, like the vast majority of works of art, this is a political book. One doesn’t have to reach very far to see the stark parallels between how the Berlin Wall affected the people of Germany during The Cold War and all the rabble-rousing talk of building walls that flood certain corners of the American political spectrum. The horrors of this comic act as a cautionary tale first and foremost whether it was the book’s direct intention or not. While the idea of unity should never be seen as a dirty word, Strange Skies Over East Berlin #1 doesn’t spent a lot of time pontificating this message (perhaps to its detriment).
So political allegory aside, does Strange Skies work as an engaging narrative work? Mostly. The problems with first issue have nothing to do with the setting, tone, or ever the idea of a sudden paranormal event occurring while a major world power is divided. No, the problems with this comic stems from a lot of the undercooked dialogue and strange pacing. Some panels are awkwardly flooded with dialogue balloons which stagger the flow on the story, and character often speak with stilted cadences which come off sounding unnatural (or perhaps too natural?).
Writer Jeff Loveness has done some solid work in the graphic medium (his run on Groot for Marvel Comics was particularly fun), but Strange Skies Over East Berlin #1 feels like it’s a script that needed either another pass before being committed to print, or, at the very least, a longer page count to breathe. Again, this isn’t to say it’s bad, but it certainly isn’t up to the quality one would expect from Loveness.
Where this issue truly shines is in its handsome presentation. Lisandro Estherren (Redneck) is doing gorgeous work here. The character designs are great and when we get a glimpse as to what that thing in the sky might be doing to people it comes in contact with, the art sharply shifts into white-knuckle horror, and it’s glorious. Patricio Delpeche’s colors also deserve a lot of praise here. They are deliberately muted early in the issue to establish the almost dystopian tone of that period in Germany’s history, but when things get violent and/or weird, they pop off the page with a level of brilliance that deserves pause.
Ultimately, Strange Skies Over East Berlin #1 is somewhat of a rough start to a series that could wind up being something rather special. The stellar art and color work really elevate the book, overall, even if some of the pacing and dialogue can hinder the reading experience. And yet, there is enough meat on these bones to call it a meal. The inciting incident referenced in the title is far too compelling to ignore. Loveness is a talented writer with strong instinct, but even the best of the best still have trouble getting off the ground from time to time.