Oliver East Goes Berlin and That

Posted by on November 18th, 2010 at 12:54 PM

I love trains. I love travelling in them, I like their slick look. I even like the older models that only feature two by two seats on opposite sides leading to a really ineffective division of travellers capacity. Belgium is a train country. In combination with public transport buses, you can go almost anywhere as long as you are willing and able and have a good book in your rucksack.

What I’m not particularly crazy about though are the train tracks, cutting through woodlands and cities alike, a necessary evil and that’s where Oliver East and me differ.  He loves the sense of adventure they exhale, the propitious trails they cut through the land, leading to unknown possibilities and the venture of excitement.

Berlin and That is the last book in Oliver East’s famous Trains Are … Mint trilogy. While Trains Are … Mint and Proper Go Well High stayed true to his stomping grounds in Manchester, Berlin and That takes him to the unknown lands of Germany. Like the previous two books, East picks out a railroad track and … starts walking.  That is what the Trains books are, detailed travelogues of roads walked with its central axis being railroad tracks. The books detail the journey and the pains and joys of the walk, not the eventual result or the reaching of an ending. Small moments of exaspiration and exhiliration are shared by the author giving rise to human everyday emotion f.e. as the end of a walk falls togeteher with the last page of  a Moleskin notebook; overcoming social anxieties and ordering a sandwich in German; spotting a boar in a forest; finding the right track again after being lost for several hours on pure instinct etc.

What immediately separates Berlin and That from the previous two books is the artistic ability of Oliver East. Far less chattier than the previous volumes, he has fully developed a personal iconography, finding a power in his drawings that allows him to free up the pages leading to full out splash pages and cartographic birds eye views of Berlin and its areas. He also draws a lot more people for some reason in this book which I found rather refreshing – maybe there are just more people outdoors in Berlin? – though his deformed Beano characters take some getting used to, it is definitely mired in British comics history.

The book feels lighter and more confident and not only because of the new-found visual flair.  It is also the location that – at times literally – puts a spring into Oliver East’s step. From reading Oliver East comics, I got a rather bleak impression from Manchester and its surroundings. In Berlin, the grayness of Manchester makes way for a more varied locale and East’s palette thrives on it. Maybe it was even the inspiration for his artistic jump? In any case, it certainly befits the locale that he chose to open up the pages, lessen the text and let the visuals do more of the talking.

As an added extra, Berlin and That is also a bit of an art project for him, inviting a total of 52 artists to add or re-interpretate his drawings. This leads more often than not to the introduction of graffiti or posters on walls that previously either had none or were different in approach. Sometimes an artist catches you by surprise by adding a collage or slogan in the middle of the drawing but on the whole, most contributions are purely graphic and don’t take any chances with the art at all. Taken at face value, I can’t say that I felt it contributed much to the book.  An experiment worth trying maybe, but I’d be just as happy to read complete Oliver East art without interference.

Oliver East has closed off his trilogy with a surprising end volume while still remaining true to his mission. Berlin and That represents a turning point in his artistic skills. The art becomes more open and detailed at the same time while his verbiosity is reduced to the point of effectiveness. It stands for a truely unique voice that celebrats the ordinary and roads we travel by. It almost makes me want to walk next to a train … almost.

Berlin and That is a 186 pages full colour hardcover, retailing for £14.99. It is published by Blank Slate Books and is available at comic shops and bookstores everywhere.

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