There is something cool about Cold War aesthetics. From the greyness of Stalinist architecture to the daring hopes of space race art, the competition between East and West post World War II elevated a sense of design that was both practical, ambitious, and a reflection of the dark underbelly that permeated through the clandestine tone of the age. Capturing this aesthetic is what Strange Skies Over East Berlin does best, invoking the Cold War spy novels of John le Carré, the science fiction weirdness of Kurt Vonnegut, and the sense of unease found in films like The Lives of Others.
Strange Skies opens with a line that sets this tone thematically: “Why do we lie? To keep others safe? Or to save ourselves?” This signals the grappling with the truth, lies, doubt, and pain that the chess game its characters endure and how when it boils down to it, the downright stupidity that is war to begin with. When a strange white flash of light appears in the sky one night, American spy Herring is assigned to infiltrate an underground East German lab investigating the phenomenon. Shadowed by his adversary, an East German officer named Keiner, Herring discovers that the strange white light has brought something very strange indeed to Germany: an alien-like creature that takes over the minds and bodies of its human hosts, turning their eyes pale blue and emitting dark tendrils of electricity from those same eyes, on a quest to uncover a deep, hidden truth.
Truth is the predominant theme explored in Strange Skies, though that deep hidden truth is more shallow than it seems. The alien creature is especially intent on exposing the truth being obfuscated by Herring and Keiner, though the reveal is a surprisingly slow drag for how quickly Strange Skies wraps up its plot. Part of that may be because when their truth is finally revealed, it’s not much of a surprise but more of an expected trope of Cold War era literature. Even though the comic doesn’t completely stick the landing, its themes are still relevant. Especially in 2020, it feels like we’ve never stopped fighting the Cold War. Sure, the “conflict” ended, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc collapsed, but we’ve replaced it with what seems like a thousand other “cold” conflicts: Russian election interference, trade wars with China, internal conflicts beset by the government itself. The single common thread among all of these happenings? The truth is always kept a mirage, leaked through the press, Twitter posts, and secret recordings, but the whole truth never arrives as an ultimate totality we can all agree on. For this alone, Strange Skies Over East Berlin is a comic for our time if there ever was one.
On the technical side of things, Strange Skies is a thing of beauty. From gorgeous covers and exciting panels that draw readers in, to the small details of smart lettering choices and expertly executed colors, the art and design of Strange Skies is why comics are such a fun medium to engage with. On style alone, the book is off the charts and this reviewer has nothing more to say that wouldn’t amount to fawning and gushing over this comic. The artistic team of Lisandro Estherren, Patricio Delpeche, Steve Wands have very much assembled a lovely book, with not a panel, caption, or word balloon wasted.
If I have any complaints, they lie in Jeff Loveness’ script. Loveness, who might be best known as a writer for television on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Rick and Morty, has written comics before, most notably Judas and Nova. He’s even set to write the next Ant-Man movie. Unfortunately, Strange Skies opens in such an exciting and intriguing way, but it winds up zooming through its plot at a rapid pace and ends somewhat disappointingly, on notes that mean to land hard and heavy upon the reader, but feel mostly clichéd and hackneyed. There are such promising beginnings in Strange Skies that are unrealized and the excitement I felt at the start of the book faded by the end. As much as the book is strong on theme, it does not take advantage by building up what can be explored through those thematic depths.
Despite what it lacks in story, Strange Skies Over East Berlin is a fun-to-read comic that is worth reading for the art alone. It will appeal to science fiction readers and fans of pulp spy thrillers and earns a well-deserved spot on library shelves.
Strange Skies Over East Berlin
By Jeff Loveness, Lisandro Estherren, Patricio Delpeche, Steve Wands
BOOM! Studios, 2020