More than two decades in the making, Jason Lutes’ Berlin, an epic historical graphic novel set during the rise of the Nazi party in 1920s Berlin, will be published in a complete edition this month by Drawn and Quarterly.
Over the course of more than 600 pages, Lutes renders a vivid and portentous fictional portrait of the culture, politics and day to day lives of the citizens of Berlin at one of the most tumultuous times in German history. In his drawings and prose, Lutes takes the reader into the salons of the rich, visits the vicious political street fights of the time, and reveals working class life and the sexual subcultures of 1920s Berlin.
Berlin consists of three volumes published separately beginning with City of Stones (2000), followed by City of Smoke (2008), and the final volume, City of Light, will be published this month. DQ is also publishing a complete hardcover edition of Berlin that includes all three books in one volume, that will also be released this month. PW spoke with Lutes about the conception and execution of his masterwork.
Can you outline how you began this work and how you arrived at its scope?
In 1996, I was finishing my first graphic novel, Jar of Fools, which was my self-education in how to make a long-form comic book. I felt like I had come to an understanding of the medium and could tell any kind of story I wanted to. On somewhat of a whim, inspired by a random magazine advertisement for a book about Weimar Berlin, I decided my next book would be about Berlin between the wars, and that it would be 600 pages long.
Why did you choose to profile (or dissect) the Weimar Republic?
The decision was completely impulsive in the moment, but it’s obvious to me now that I was trying to fill the void in my understanding of how the worst horrors of the 20th century came to pass, but at the time I was just following my instinct. That appears to be my creative modus operandi: trust my instinct and follow it to the bitter end.
Berlin seems like the equivalent of an architectural cutaway that reveals the city’s social infrastructure including its many subcultures. What were you trying to show readers?
The story for me is an exploration of a specific time and place. I wanted to understand what life was like for people from different social strata as earth-shaking events unfolded around them, so my main task was to immerse myself in their world. From there, I followed the characters to see where they would take me, the hope being that my curiosity would carry over to the reader. At the same time I was intent on showing the density and richness of life in the city, so the following of characters moment-to-moment is interspersed with a kind of probing observer’s perspective that sometimes recedes in an attempt to capture the bigger picture.
Can you describe the roles that such fictional characters as Marthe Muller and Kurt Severing play in the narrative?
My original plan was to establish a relationship between Marthe (an art student) and Kurt (a journalist) which would provide a central thread for the reader to follow through a web of intersecting lives. At the same time I had the high-minded notion that through these two characters I would explore the relationship between pictures and words—i.e., the building blocks of comics itself. Thankfully, I became more interested in Marthe and Kurt as people, and the exploration of the medium by proxy fell by the wayside.
What about the roles of real-world characters such as Josephine Baker, Carl Ossietsky and Ernest Thalman?
As I set about imagining this time and place, with one goal being to depict the lives and experiences of people from different social strata, it quickly became apparent that some real and influential people would need to figure directly into the story. In my research I learned about Carl von Ossietzky [pacifist and editor], Ernst Thalmann [communist party leader in Weimar Germany], and many other interesting figures, some of whom found their way naturally into the story.
The inclusion of Josephine Baker came out of a desire to recognize the fantastic success a black woman could achieve in Europe in the 1920/30s, and to have a moment of friendly recognition between her and the Cocoa Kids, the fictional African-American jazz band whose story frames the middle third of the book.
Your drawing overall and your character designs are crisp and very consistent across 20 years of work. How were able to keep the book visually uniform?
I saw myself more as a recorder of relatively objective imagery, as opposed to an expressive artist, and that mindset helped me maintain consistency. Most people won’t notice the difference, and cartoonists are their own worst critics, but it’s a little painful for me to look at the earlier chapters of the book because they look very stilted and awkward. I’m certainly a better artist now than I was when I was 28, but if I’ve done my job well few readers will notice.
How has the book’s completion affected you and your career?
Its effect on my career is probably something I won’t comprehend for some years yet, but the personal feeling is one of tremendous relief, a great weight lifted. I drew the last page a few days before my 50th birthday, a full ten years after the original deadline that I set for myself. I’m happy that I was able to follow through on this absurd endeavor, because I might not have been able to live with myself otherwise. Right now I feel more excited than ever about comics. I know that I can tell any kind of story I want to, and I have no shortage of ideas.
What can we expect to see you working on next?
Once touring and promotion settles down I will be able to focus on my next three books, each of which will be a 96-page exploration of a different genre. Among the many things I’ve learned through spending twenty years on a single project is how to make comics more efficiently; my hope is for the first of these books—a western set in Arizona in 1865—to be completed some time in 2020.