By Marty Mulrooney
The Listener is a graphic novel created by Canadian cartoonist, painter, graphic designer and guitar player David Lester. In the author’s own words, “The Listener exposes one of the world’s most tragic acts of spin doctoring while revealing a compelling tale of complacency, art, power, and murder. It is a startling little-known story that changed the course of history.”
The Listener actually tells not just one story, but two: the rise of Hitler in the 1930’s and the search for meaning in the great art of Europe by a female artist in the present day. As the story begins, a man falls to his death during a political act inspired by a work of art. The woman who created the art, Louise, flees to Europe to escape her mounting guilt. While travelling, a chance encounter with an elderly couple in Berlin soon reveals the shocking truth of the 1933 election.
The two stories entwine beautifully, with Hitler’s rise to power shown unflinchingly as Louise looks for meaning in her own life and art. Although not an apologetic book in the slightest, the German characters portrayed throughout are shown to be living, breathing individuals, rather than just mere stereotypes. As a result, the progressively spreading Nazi influence, shown alongside the mental and physical defeat of the German people, is all the more horrifying to witness. Small moments can often have huge, rippling consequences.
An editorial note at the beginning of The Listener states that: “Throughout this book an asterisk is used to indicate direct quotes, which have been translated from the original German.” I was continually surprised how many times these asterisks appeared. It becomes all the more chilling to read Hitler state: “The Movement can only fulfil this one great mission if it uncompromisingly exterminates the things which tear our people apart” when you know those words actually came from his mouth in real life.
The artwork is beautiful, black-and-white sketches seemingly drawn in both smeared charcoal and monochrome watercolours. The only thing that lets the beauty of the artwork down slightly are the speech bubbles, which have obviously been added afterwards digitally, their sharpened edges and fonts clashing with the smooth edges of the drawings. The subject of art is certainly an apt one, especially when simultaneously employed to tell a story such as this. Hitler himself was an artist and art collector, often using political and racist cartoons to further the Nazi Party’s agenda. The infamous swastika is art of the most dangerous kind.
The one aspect of The Listener that initially puzzled me was the dialogue spoken during Louise’s modern day travels, which is always written as if coming from the mouth of a highbrow intellectual regardless of the speaker. For example, whilst Louise is on a train a nearby teenage boy asks “Mum, why do you call me a meticulously sloven son?” to which his mother replies “Because you’re a dialectical marvel.” This sort of dialogue is typical of The Listener and may cause some frustration. However, this is most definitely an artistic decision made by David Lester, perhaps to show how Louise – as an artist – perceives the world around her differently from everyone else.
The Listener offers a unique blend of fact and fiction delivered in an original, unique style. Although the often profound dialogue may prove to be an obstacle for some readers, those willing to delve deeper will discover a story worth reading. It is somewhat revealing that the final words of the main story are “I don’t get it.” David Lester has created a graphic novel that won’t be accessible to everyone, but that stands as a powerful work of art nonetheless.
8 OUT OF 10