Ali Fitzgerald’s new graphic memoir takes on sprawling subjects: a city and the refugees who’ve tried to adopt it as their own, as well as the medium of comics as a tool for self-knowledge. At its root, though, Drawn to Berlin is a tale about faith. “I sort of believe in the gospel of comics,” Fitzgerald told me. “Which is nice, because I don’t believe in that much.”
This conviction is in part what led Fitzgerald to teach a class about comics to a handful of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had recently arrived in Germany. Set from 2015 to 2016, Drawn to Berlin depicts the artist’s experiences as an instructor, interweaving discussions of visual propaganda and comic techniques with accounts of the lives of some of Fitzgerald’s students. Like their teacher, the refugees in the book are driven by faith—only, in their case, in a new city and a new beginning.
Fitzgerald wanted to emphasize this quality about her subjects rather than depicting the conflict-torn places they’d fled. “It was about newness and acclimating,” she said of Drawn to Berlin. She arrived at this theme from observing her students, who almost never chose to draw the violence that they’d seen firsthand. No matter where they came from—Syria, Bosnia, Egypt, or Iran—the refugees usually drew simple, friendly subjects such as flowers, landscapes, and sailing ships. There was Joram, who entertained the class with magic tricks and drew dirty New Yorker–style cartoons; Adnan, who “had a flair for playful sarcasm, often signing his drawings ‘Picasso’”; and Shada, who helped her disabled son draw, but still found time to sketch a bicycle with a basketful of flowers.