Both words and pictures have different strengths, and what makes the graphic novel such a mighty format for storytelling is that it combines the two. Die Stadt presents itself entirely through images, and this makes interpreting it an interesting endeavor.
Words are powerful tools – they provide names and labels, for one. Die Stadt’s lack of labels for its characters and locations means it is up to the reader to decide whether two similar men are in fact the same person, or whether each crowded street is a different locale. This is essentially the difference between Die Stadt having any conventional narrative or not. If there are not recurring characters and areas, then what is being presented is just a look at different parties in what we assume is the same city. We make this assumption because the only words we’re provided are the title to the work, “The City,” which carries the implication that all these images are depicting the same city.
Is it Masereel’s intention that these things be so ambiguous? Just by reading the work we can’t know that. There’s no question that it was his intention to create a wordless series of images, but it’s difficult to tell whether or not he intended for certain men to be recognizable as the same character – so many people in Die Stadt appear similar enough to call identical, but different enough to argue they are not. Most of the people don’t have very defining characteristics – men wear similar suits and hats, ladies wear dresses – which lends credence to the idea that their individual identities are irrelevant to what Masereel is trying to present. Certainly the scenes are detailed enough to prove that if Masereel had wanted he could have added defining characteristics to any person he chose, even on a five by three inch woodcut.
I think if there is a narrative to be found in Die Stadt, it is one about the city itself. There is no plotline to follow and no recurring characters. The specific identities of the people are irrelevant – we usually don’t need to know names or histories of these men and women to understand what they’re doing or how they’re feeling, since Masereel provides detailed scenery and precise facial expressions to show us such things. All these vignettes serve to paint an overarching picture of what the city is like – bleak, crowded, angry and haunting, yet not without its beauty and moments of quietude, as we see from scenes like a cat looking at a bedridden woman, and a man overlooking the city from afar.
Still, there are certainly moments where I wish there were words in Die Stadt, if only to explain some small scenes. What happened to lead a man to strangle the woman he was with? Whose body is being drawn from the river? We can only theorize on the answers to questions like these, and I think that is both one of Die Stadt’s greatest strengths and weaknesses – it makes us think, but it also often leaves itself unexplained.