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Jason Lutes talks shop on the Huffington Post

Updated April 11, 2013


"Let's Tell a Story"

Jason Lutes
The Huffington Post, 5 April 2013

Popular wisdom says that the best way to sell something is to turn it into a story. So we get Hollywood blockbusters that stick to the three-act formula like clockwork, labels on bottles of olive oil that read like a foodie fairy tales, and blog posts that contain entire narrative arcs within 500 words. Stories all around us, all the time.

Who writes these stories, and how? As a teacher and cartoonist, I think about this a lot. Part of my job is helping students figure out what stories they want to tell, and the best way to tell them. I teach classical narrative structure, mollifying the iconoclasts with that old saw, "you have to learn the rules before you break them."

In recent decades, with the explosion of interactive media and growth of the video game industry, creators have been exploring non-linear narrative models that encompass everything from the Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 1970s to the open-world "sandbox" exploration of popular present-day video games like Skyrim or Assassin's Creed. The shape of a story has busted loose from the chains of tradition, and is free to roam where it will.

But sometimes, you don't want to make decisions about a story; sometimes, you just want to sit back and listen. And usually, you're listening to a story written by just one person.

There are plenty of examples of stories told by more than one person, but the standard is overwhelmingly in favor of a single authorial voice. It turns out that, despite their desire to connect with an audience through their craft, most storytellers are solitary control freaks. I certainly am. But for a while I had been thinking about ways to collaborate with other people in the telling of a story, to loosen up and get out of my own head.

I felt the urge to collaborate, but not in the sense of wanting someone to draw something that I had written (a common form of collaboration in comics). I imagined sitting down at a table with five or six people and creating a story as a group. It turned out that this urge came from a powerful memory of a period in my life that had been a turning point in my creative development.

In 1978, at the age of eleven, I discovered the game Dungeons & Dragons. It was my salvation from the suburban wasteland in which my friends and I found ourselves. It allowed us to escape to other worlds, in a way similar to the escape provided by books or movies, but with a crucial twist: we were the authors.

At its best, Dungeons & Dragons is a social storytelling experience to which all of the players contribute equally. And the crucial thing that it showed me -- by way of the sense that wherever the story went, we were taking it there together -- was that when a bunch of human beings join together to make something, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. And so much more thrilling and joyful than making something alone.

In early 2012, at the age of 45, I shook the dust off that old feeling and reintegrated it into my life. I recruited five of my former students, sat them down around a table, and laid out some ground rules. Together, we told a story.

Three months later, still working as a group, we turned that story into a complete, 72-page, full color comic book. You can read about our Kickstarter campaign to get it printed here.

The whole undertaking is an ongoing experiment. We don't know if enough people will want to buy our story, or read it, or enjoy it. But we loved making it. And the most important thing we discovered is that, although it's impossible to say whether this approach is better or worse than that of a single author, it is undeniably different. In ways that were unexpected, and exciting, and fun. Feelings that are great for any creator to have; feelings that have us chomping at the bit to tell another story together.
 
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  JASON LUTES interviewed by The Comics Journal on their Talkies podcast

Updated August 25, 2011


Jason Lutes is the guest this week. Jason’s graphic novels include Jar of Fools, Houdini: The Handcuff King (drawn by Nick Bertozzi), and The Fall (written by Ed Brubaker), as well as, of course, his epic depiction of life in 1930s Germany, Berlin. Jason also teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies. We discuss his interest in gaming, particularly role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, and the ways in which such things influence storytelling and world-building.
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Jar of Fools
Berlin, Book One: City of Stones
Berlin, Book Two: City of Smoke




JASON LUTES'S BERLIN featured on NPR

Updated October 7, 2010


Book Your Trip: Nancy Pearl Picks Tales For Travel

by Nancy Pearl

I travel, primarily for work, but I am not a Happy Traveler, and most everything about the experience makes me extremely anxious, including the seemingly simple event of leaving home. But my new book, Book Lust To Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers, is filled with accounts of great explorations, novels set in countries other than the U.S., histories and pure armchair travel.

So, in one way of looking at it, I am the entirely wrong person to write a book recommending travel books. But, in fact, I am probably one of the best people to write this kind of book, because all my life I have been a virtual traveler — through books — to places far and near. Here's an eclectic and eccentric list of some of my favorite travel books.

Berlin: City Of Stones (Book 1)

By Jason Lutes, paperback, 209 pages, Drawn and Quarterly, list price: $22.95
Berlin: City Of Smoke (Book 2)

By Jason Lutes, paperback, 200 pages, Drawn and Quarterly, list price: $19.95
Using the medium of the graphic novel to great effect, Jason Lutes's Berlin: City of Stones and Berlin: City of Smoke offer a history of the city in a way that's accessible and yet mind-opening. All the benefits of a good novel are here: three-dimensional characters, a dynamic plot and a well-drawn setting.

As in the best graphic novels, the pictures expand the story in a most satisfying way. These two volumes were originally part of Lutes' ongoing comic book series, called, quite simply, Berlin; they offer the reader a history of Germany in the 1930s, in the years leading up to Hitler's rise to power and the outbreak of World War II. Comparisons, as the saying goes, are odious, but this is equally good — though very different — from Art Spiegelman's iconic Maus.
 
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Berlin, Book One: City of Stones
Berlin, Book Two: City of Smoke




  Susan Daitch recommends BERLIN BOOK ONE and TWO.

Updated December 7, 2009


Writer’s Recommendations:

Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics by Rebecca Solnit

How is the logging of the Sierra like a Brazilian wax? All of Rebecca Solnit’s books are great, but this one about, among other things, how we get from place to place and the kinds of footprints we leave, the connections between all kinds of strange bedfellows, stays with you long afterwards. In the essay about following Benjamin’s last walk over the Pyrenees you know the period at the end of the sentence, how it will end, but her reading of his last days is especially poignant.

The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym

Her interpretations of Berlin, in particular, help clarify a city so full of re-writings and re-inventions; she navigates several entrancing landscapes while pointing out the buried dinosaur ribs of history before you trip over them.

Berlin: City of Stones: Book One and City of Smoke: Book Two, both of which are graphic novels by Jason Lutes

Drawn with the kind of detail found in Hergé, interconnecting an enormous range of characters and factions from Communist to Fascist, misguided seductions from the personal to the political between the wars. I couldn’t put these down and hope, though they took years to write, that the third one is out soon.
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Berlin, Book One: City of Stones
Berlin, Book Two: City of Smoke




D+Q artists in San Diego Tribune

Updated July 27, 2009



Robert L. Pincus | Creative Reading
Treasures lying in wait to be discovered

By Robert Pincus
Union-Tribune Staff Writer

2:00 a.m. July 26, 2009

As Comic-Con has evolved into a juggernaut for the promotion of everything pop culture, it's easy to overlook one of the event's prime pleasures: the chance to learn about lesser-known writers and artists and often meet them, too.

My prime example: Adrian Tomine, who has developed into a gifted creator of sophisticated comics and graphic novels. If you don't know him for Optic Nerve, his series of urbane comics, you may have seen one or more of his illustrations for The New Yorker, Time and many other publications. They have a crisp, linear style thick with atmosphere.

Like Daniel Clowes, who also does covers for The New Yorker as well as his own acclaimed comics and books, Tomine has an understated visual style that combines wit, social commentary, psychological insights and elegant drawing. And like Clowes, he can write, too.

The year I met Tomine, in 2002, he had just come out with “Summer Blonde,” which assembled stories from issues of Optic Nerve into a book with a particularly stylish cover. Its four stories featured typical Tomine protagonists: sensitive malcontents in their 20s and early 30s who struggle to figure out what to do with their lives.

Tomine, born in 1974, concentrates on his own generation, though you never get the feeling that he is trying to make any sort of grandiose statement about people in their 20s and early 30s. He's intrigued by their singularity: a writer who succeeds with his first novel but develops a creative block for his second and becomes obsessed with a girl he adored in high school; a Chinese-American woman who loses her job, loses her bearings in her life and, then, as the story ends, begins a new romance and tries to face up to a death in her family.

He was something of a comics prodigy, too, self-publishing the first seven issues of Optic Nerve before signing on with the now well-established publisher of comics and graphic novels Drawn and Quarterly. These early comics are now reissued in facsimiles of the originals, as “32 Stories: The Complete Optic Nerve Mini-Comics.” And while this is apprentice work, it's awfully good in that respect. Tomine would refine out his drawing style markedly, but early on, he could convey a lot about a face and he offered moments of keen insights about the marginal and the disaffected.

In high school, he counted himself among them. And he contributes a new charming self-deprecating introduction for this “box set” of the original comics, which appeared in book form a few years ago. (They are packaged in a nifty cardboard case.)

“If you're a 'glass half full' kind of person,” Tomine writes, “you might say that these comics are youthful, energetic and even enlightening in terms of the evolution they chart. If you're feeling less charitable, you'd probably describe them as amateurish, scattershot, affected and deeply derivative.”

Both views are true. And seeing them helps someone to understand how far he had traveled. In fact, his best book to date, “Shortcomings,” the story of a sarcastic, sensitive and troubled Ben Tanaka, has recently come out in paperback. Reading “Thirty Two Stories” and “Shortcomings” side by side bookends his evolution.

Tomine isn't appearing at Drawn and Quarterly's booth this year. But notable peers are. Today, from noon to 3 p.m., Jason Lutes will be signing the second book in his evocative saga of 1930s Germany, “Berlin, City of Smoke,” and Bob Sikoryak will be joining him during those hours to promote his new “Masterpiece Comics” book, which blurs the line between classic literary tales and vintage comics. (For example, Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray is recast as a dandyish Little Nemo.) Check out the publisher's blog for updates: drawnandquarterly.com/blog/index.php.

Fantagraphics (fantagraphics.com), another leading graphic novel publisher, has a significant list of writer-artists making appearances today, including Gilbert, Jaime, Mario and Natalia Hernandez (“Love and Rockets #2”) and Monte Schulz (son of Charles M., with his new novel, “This Side of Jordan”).

But leave time to seek out smaller presses like San Diego's Murphy Art Books (murphydesign1.blogspot.com), and you'll find publications that merge the image and the word in myriad other ways. And as was the case with my introduction to Tomine at Comic-Con, you are likely to come across the work of someone you'll want to follow in the years to come.
 
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Adrian Tomine
R. Sikoryak

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Berlin, Book One: City of Stones
32 Stories: Special Edition Box Set




  BERLIN BOOK ONE reviewed by Pads and Panels

Updated May 5, 2009


Title: Berlin: City of Stones - Book One

Writer: Jason Lutes

Artist: Jason Lutes

Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Review by: Bill Jones

Berlin: City of Stones collects the first eight issues of Jason Lutes’ Berlin, a planned 24-issue series of historical fiction taking place in Berlin from 1928 to 1933, during the decline of the Weimar Republic and rise of the Nazi Party. The book has many successes, including a great cinematic feel created by Lutes, but its biggest fault, with the big one-word title of Berlin, is that in its first eight issues it doesn’t give the reader a great feel for the city during this historic time.

Instead, Lutes focuses on two fictional characters, Kurt Severing, a journalist, and Marthe Muller, an art student who moves away from an affluent family to Berlin. The two quickly kindle a relationship and become the center of attention for Lutes’ tale. Their professions are interesting choices, because they ultimately work together to form the components of comics, words and images.

But the characters themselves are not as interesting. The reader gets snippets of happenings involving them, but not fully fleshed motivations. Muller does have a few conversations about the purpose of art, which again feels a bit meta in its reflection of the comics medium. Lutes takes this further by including a few art classes with lessons on perspectives. But Severing is less interesting, and the aspects of their relationship are fringe elements to the bigger historical happenings.

Lutes presents the historical context through a secondary storyline involving a working class family struggling with its political views in the face of the turmoil. The story is much more engaging than that of the book’s main characters, but gets less attention. Another side story with a police officer had potential, but flops.

Lutes has a great hand for action, which he presents in a clash with the police in the third chapter and a war scene in fourth, but the action is far and few between the relationship drama that pervades the debut book. Again, Lutes’ presentation is phenomenal and brings to it a flair laden with film techniques, but the writing, organization and pacing of the story fall behind.

It is quite possible Lutes is trying to make comment on the journalists and the artists, who are somewhat detached from the real hardships of the time, despite living and working in the midst of them, but their stories are simply less interesting than the others, and yet they are the focus.

City of Stones ends with the massacre of May 1, International Workers Day in Germany, and it is powerful, but Lutes takes a very indirect route in getting to the good stuff. He has the ability to be an engaging storyteller; he just needs a better story to tell.


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Berlin, Book One: City of Stones




Berlin: City of Smoke reviewed in The Quarterly Conversation

Updated March 4, 2009


Berlin: City of Smoke by Jason Lutes

Review by Nicole Gluckstern

Berlin: City of Smoke, Jason Lutes. Drawn and Quarterly. 200 pp. $19.95.

With the release of Berlin: City of Smoke, the second volume of a projected trilogy, Jason Lutes’ painstakingly chronicled historical fiction in graphic form gathers momentum. Tracing the long, slow arc of the fall of the Weimar Republic, Berlin packs the power of a relentless juggernaut, steady and unyielding, while unraveling the smallest details of the intertwined lives of its characters. Already over ten years in the making, Berlin is finally two-thirds of the way finished, with the first collection, City of Stones, having been released in 2000. City of Smoke, which spans the period from June 1929 to September 1930, picks up where City of Stones left off—just after the disastrous May Day parade of 1929, in which over 20 marchers were killed by the police.

Opening with a new introduction—featuring a quintet of jazz musicians from America known as the Cocoa Kids—the storyline soon expands to reacquaint the reader with a bevy of Berlin regulars: artistically inclined ingénue Marthe Müller, rapidly growing accustomed to all the possibilities living in Berlin has to offer; her lover, the despairing optimist Kurt Severing, a writer for left-wing publication Die Weltbühne; Anna, her best friend and eventual paramour; Silvia, the teenage daughter of murdered Communist Gudrun Braun, now reduced to fending for herself on the mean streets of a city in turmoil; and Pavel the Jewish scavenger, who takes her under his ragged wings. In addition to exploring the cultural milieu—from jazz music to the lesbian cabaret—Lutes continues to chronicle the political tensions of the time, from the untimely deaths of statesman Gustav Stresemann and Nazi poster boy Horst Wessel to the ill-fated chancellorship of Heinrich Brüning. The dichotomy between the two worlds—the playful and the political—is exacerbated by the decline that permeates both, a condition each one’s inhabitants are quick to blame on the other’s.

In Lutes’ carefully crafted vision of the Prussian capital, the cultural indicators of the time are mainly distilled through the filters of three characters: Marthe Müller, Kurt Severing, and Silvia Braun. Marthe, an enigmatic sketch-artist from Köln, is the window through which much of Berlin’s ecstatic underbelly is revealed. Quickly morphing from awkward wallflower to social butterfly, and reveling in the hedonism of a populace propelling itself nightly into a Neronian frenzy, Marthe embodies an unapologetically modern direction, diverging willfully from outdated modes of behavior. This independence is not without its fallout, of course. Her love of jazz music and frolic displease her lover Kurt, and eventually she descends too far into the realm of frivolity for him to follow. She further severs her ties to her family back in Köln, and eventually even from her decadent mentor Margarethe von Falkensee (whom I assume is based on the author of Blue Angel Confessions, though this facet of her character has not yet been remarked upon).

Through Marthe, the reader experiences a flourishing empire of the senses. From smoky jazz clubs to the outrageous cocaine orgies of aristocrats and their anonymous “escorts,” Berlin is exposed as a city of infinite possibility. When Marthe winds up romantically involved with her suit-wearing, cigar-smoking art school friend Anna, it feels more like a recommitment to self-discovery than the product of a lifelong predilection. But she is no mere dilettante—from her past she harbors the tragedy of the death of her younger brother, and her natural talent for draftsmanship also separates her somewhat from the more superficial socialite set.

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The realm of political theory is mainly personified by leftist journalist Kurt Severing. A pacifist in violent times, Kurt reveals his personal qualities to be existential ones. Prone to black moods, seclusion, and a workaholic’s dread of time wasted, he nonetheless falls for Marthe, until it becomes evident that her unbearable lightness cannot sustain him. Like many middle-aged intellectuals, he prefers his fortress of solitude to the inelegant diversions of the day, yet his painful devotion to the human condition won’t allow him to sequester himself completely while violence reigns in the streets and democratic freedoms are publicly eroded.

Within Kurt’s sphere we become privy to much of the Weimar Republic’s charged political atmosphere. His editor is accused of treason (this storyline is based on historical fact), one of his friends is in hiding, and his girlfriend becomes entangled with another woman while he testifies in Leipzig. He confronts ex-lover Margarethe over a personal matter while contemplating the death of Gustav Stresemann, and he is later found in his neighborhood bar sarcastically drinking the health of Chancellor Heinrich Brüning—whose appointment circumvented the power of Parliament and foreshadowed the dictatorial policies of the Third Reich. His despairing awareness of the direction in which his heimatland heads provides an uncomfortable counterpoint to Marthe’s excited identity-explorations as Kurt struggles against the encroaching tide of fascism, armed only with his typewriter and his thus far misplaced faith in the inherent ability of his fellow Germans to rise above apathetic acceptance of the nation’s downward spiral.

A third thread of Berlin follows the trail of Silvia Braun, whose tribulations underscore the economic realities of a penurious population far removed from the socialite circles. The daughter of a Communist and a National Socialist, by birthright alone she embodies the struggle between the far left and far right. Herself a Communist sympathizer, she avoids her father’s home, where he is raising her two younger siblings to be NSDAP supporters. Slowly starving in a city beleaguered by chronic food shortages, the homeless teenager eventually falls under the benign protection of a fellow tramp, Pavel, who brings her on his scavenging rounds and keeps her fed. Angered by the effects of King Wilhelm’s lost war and abdication on the working class, Silvia’s view of political justice is quite jaded, made understandably more so by the death of her mother on Blutmai, the infamous 1929 Mayday massacre. Still, she agitates to become a foot soldier in the same Communist organization with whom her mother lost her life, and represents the politics of radical action against the endless compromise and hypothesizing of the proponents of due process.

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Although Lutes is an American, Berlin has a distinctly European flavor, aided in no small part by his use of the ligne Claire drawing style, first popularized by Hergé in Tintin. Referred to by Scott McCloud as a “democracy of form,” the clear lines resist most shading and cinematic perspective. No single figure is given more attention than another, from the detail of wallpaper to the glance of a guttersnipe. Lines drawn with meticulous evenness form the bulwark of Lutes’ approach, interspersed with clever Hergé-like flourishes: the drops of sweat flying cartoonishly from a worried countenance, floating punctuation points revealing befuddlement, and jagged zig-zag lines emanating from the eyeballs to denote an angry glare.

Of course, there are plenty of ways in which Lutes marks his work with his own unique stamp. One of his trademarks is giving his unsuspecting “extras” moments where they are the center of the reader’s attention—their private musings illuminated as if we had a direct line to the interior of their brains. Whether commuters on a train dreaming of sausages, or bankruptcy victims standing in line outside an emphatically closed bank fretting about money, each character’s inner dialogue, as irrelevant to the overall plotline as it may be, comes briefly into focus. It has a humanizing effect on those who could have just been figures in a crowd scene, and helps underscore a point that Marthe makes on one of her wanderings around the city streets—that all of their “attendant pains and grief and heartbreak” make hers “seem less important.”

In something of a break from the traditional format of ligne Claire, where painstaking background detail pervades almost every panel, Lutes often does pay sole attention to the figures of his characters, such as when Kurt confronts Margarethe in her Wintergarten and only their bodies, seated across a simple table, remain on tense, egalitarian display. But for the scene’s introduction and denouement Margarethe’s lushly styled parlor is elided, a suggestion of time and place anchoring their otherwise universal exchange to a specific age. And finally, unlike more action-oriented comics, Berlin relies heavily on text to set the mood and tone of each storyboard, especially the lengthy internal monologues of both Kurt (clinical and erudite) and Marthe (endlessly fascinated), which can run on for pages of uninterrupted extemporization.

Though Berlin is ostensibly set during an era doomed to be a historical footnote, it exhibits relevance as a fully timely exploration of enduring themes: discovery, loss, honor, and resilience. Not merely a portrait of pending collapse but a testament to the durability of the human spirit, City of Smoke disturbs the equilibrium while championing its continued evolution. In this context, we can rely upon Kurt Severing to sum up the abiding sentiment: “I desperately want to believe . . . that these systems can work. That human beings can put their faith in each other, (and) that base instinct can be conquered . . .” Whether or not his hopes will ever see fruition has yet to be determined.

Nicole Gluckstern is a writer living in San Francisco. She is a frequent contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian and a contributing editor of Other magazine.
 
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Berlin, Book Two: City of Smoke




  BERLIN: CITY OF SMOKE reviewed by Onion AV

Updated February 27, 2009


By Keith Phipps, Noel Murray, And Tasha Robinson December 19, 2008
ONION AV

Eight years after the first volume of Jason Lutes’ three-volume, 24-chapter graphic novel Berlin was released, Lutes offers Berlin Book Two: City Of Smoke (Drawn & Quarterly), collecting the middle eight chapters of his epic study of Germany’s Weimar Republic. Berlin: City Of Stones ended with the 1929 May Day massacre, which hastened the German citizenry’s demand for order and thus the quick rise to power of the Nazi Party, whose 1930 triumph in the elections marks the end of City Of Smoke. Lutes foregrounds the history by having his characters react directly to it, and though there are smaller, human stories throughout the book—including the crumbling romance between a journalist and an art student, and the tale of an African-American jazz combo booked in Berlin for an extended engagement—much about Berlin feels programmatic and overthought, despite sequences that are undeniably erotic, suspenseful, or heartbreaking. Lutes’ ambition is admirable, and when it’s complete, Berlin may well be a counted as a classic on the order of Maus or Jimmy Corrigan. Right now, it’s still burning too slowly and evenly… B
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Berlin, Book Two: City of Smoke




BERLIN: CITY OF SMOKE in Village Voice

Updated February 27, 2009


Art
2008's Best Comics, Clip Art, and Pedophilia
Rev up your eyeballs as we trip through the year's best
By R.C. Baker
Tuesday, December 16th 2008
VILLAGE VOICE

...Weltschmerz runs freely through Jason Lutes's Berlin: City of Smoke (Drawn and Quarterly, 216 pp., $19.95), as Communists and National Socialists slug it out on the streets and the demimonde parties hard in Weimar Berlin. We know history will send the city to hell, but Lutes's second of three planned graphic novels gives us characters to care about presented in panels drawn with Bauhaus clarity...
 
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Berlin, Book Two: City of Smoke




  BERLIN: CITY OF SMOKE reviewed by The New York Times Book Review

Updated February 27, 2009


HOLIDAY BOOKS
Comics
Reviewed by DOUGLAS WOLK
Published: December 5, 2008
NEW YORK TIMES SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW

The second volume of Jason Lutes’s Berlin trilogy, BERLIN: City of Smoke (Drawn & Quarterly, paper, $19.95), has appeared, eight years after the first. (Comics this meticulous take a long time.) Set in 1929 and 1930, as the Nazis were rising to power, it follows Germany’s slide toward catastrophe through the experiences of characters navigating the chaos of the disintegrating Weimar Republic: a black American jazz group hoping to strike it rich, a homeless Jewish man taking a Communist girl under his wing, a tightly wound journalist losing his girlfriend to the city’s demimonde and his composure to the country’s impending horror. The fascist tide at first creeps gradually into Lutes’s graceful, tightly composed little panels, but with the pivotal killing of Horst Wessel, two-thirds of the way through, everything starts plummeting into hell much faster.
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Berlin, Book Two: City of Smoke




SLEEPWALK and JAR OF FOOLS reviewed by The Times of London

Updated February 27, 2009


The Times Christmas Books 2008: Graphic Novels
Neel Mukherjee
NOVEMBER 30, 2008
TIMES OF LONDON

Another such retrospective collection of early work is Sleepwalk and Other Stories (Faber & Faber, £9.99/ £9.49) by the great Adrian Tomine. Tomine can not only draw, he can also write eloquent, penetrating prose that catches the slippery essence of the drift and alienation of lonely lives: an old woman revisits a café where she used to have lunch with a lover decades ago, a young man misses his flight and becomes a secret observer of his own life with him missing from it, a young woman pores over the personals in a local paper and confuses the imagined and the real, another young woman slips in and out of the role of friendly helper of a blind man with disturbing ease. Extraordinary.
Like Tomine's, Jason Lutes' artwork is also beautifully realistic. His Jar of Fools (Faber & Faber, £12.99/ £11.69) tells the story of Ernie Weiss, an alcoholic, washed-up magician trying to cope with the inexplicable suicide of his brother and the end of a romance, when his senile mentor, Al Flosso, reappears in his ruin of a life. Faber's UK issue of this heartbreaking, deep and emotionally vast novel, first published in book form in the US more than a decade ago, marks the introduction to a new readership of a book that will come to be seen as a turning point in mature psychological realism in the graphic novel genre.
 

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Jason Lutes
Adrian Tomine

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Jar of Fools
Sleepwalk and Other Stories




  JASON LUTES interviewed by Inkstuds

Updated February 19, 2009


Jason Lutes
Robin McConnell
INKSTUDS
February 12, 2009

Jason Lutes joined us for an extended discussion about his Berlin series from D&Q, teaching at the CCS and the power of a twenty sided die. Jason has some really great things to say about comix and strong passion for them.

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Jason Lutes

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Berlin, Book One: City of Stones
Berlin, Book Two: City of Smoke




MOOMIN 3 and BERLIN BOOK TWO reviewed by Booklist

Updated January 16, 2009


Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, v.3. By Tove Jansson. 2008. 104p. illus. Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95 (9781897299555). 741.5.
First published December 1, 2008 (Booklist).

The third collection of Moomintroll family comic strips contains five stories. Although they proceed in tripartitioned rectangles (stacked four on a page), reflecting their original newspaper format, their narrative flow doesn’t stutter a bit. It’s as if they were conceived as wholes, despite their story lines’ essential capriciousness. In them, the family faces flood, Martians, lighthouse-keeping, and club life (clubs were big in the newly leisured 1950s, the strip’s era, to which it otherwise gives scant notice), and Moomin, the young male character, falls briefly for a siren. They’re keenly delightful, like Wind in the Willows for adults, especially those who aren’t too adult. —Ray Olson

Berlin: v.2, City of Smoke. By Jason Lutes. 2008. 200p. illus. Drawn & Quarterly, paper, $19.95 (9781897299531). 741.5.
First published December 15, 2008 (Booklist).

The second volume of Lutes’ historical epic about Weimar-era Berlin opens amid the aftermath of the May Day riots of 1929, as the relationship between the central figures, journalist Kurt Severing and artist Marthe Muller, grows strained while the battle between fascism and communism escalates in the streets. Kurt becomes more involved with the political situation, and Marthe descends into the city’s demimonde. Outstanding among the rest of the sprawling tale’s cast are young Silvia Braun, orphaned by the riots and taken in by Pavel the scavenger, and the Cocoa Kids, a black jazz band from America, who find heady but dangerous freedom in hedonistic Berlin. Lutes deftly limns the period’s epochal events by focusing not on history-makers but on writers, artists, homosexuals, and Jews, whose freedom will soon be trampled. Using a straightforward visual approach reminiscent of the clear-line school of European cartoonists, Lutes dispassionately depicts horrific events as well as the tender moments that circumstances—the volume ends with the September 1930 elections, in which the Nazis saw huge gains—will make increasingly precious. —Gordon Flagg
 

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Tove Jansson

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Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, Book Three
Berlin, Book Two: City of Smoke




  BERLIN, BOOK TWO reviewed by Newsarama

Updated November 28, 2008


Berlin vol. 2: City of Smoke
Written & Illustrated by Jason Lutes
Reviewed by Michael C Lorah
NEWSARAMA
2008-11-10

The worst thing about Berlin, and I mean the absolute pits, is how painfully and laboriously slow is its release schedule. Following 2000’s Berlin vol. 1: City of Stones, cartoonist Jason Lutes recently finished work on the second part of the eventual Berlin trilogy. Berlin vol. 2: City of Smoke charts the lives of fictional residents of Berlin, Germany, from June 1929 until September of 1930. Charting the fade of the Weimar Republic fades and the rise of the National Socialist party (more commonly known as the Nazis), Lutes is authoring the most engaging and remarkably historical fiction in the history of the comics medium.

Praise simply must be heaped on Lutes’s incredible research. Though the characters themselves are fiction, the scenarios they face, the crumbling social structures that surround them, the often violent political rallies, the daily struggle to feed one’s family, all of the turmoil of a society on the edge is there on the page. Leftist writer Kurt Severing and newly arrived in the city artist Marthe Müller provide distinctly realized viewpoints into the chaos. Marthe, an outsider, provides background to readers unfamiliar with the history of the time, while simultaneously being absorbed into the distracting nightlife and upper class frivolity of Berlin. Dour Kurt provides the intellectual view of Berlin’s struggles, witnessing the carnage of the May Day massacre, writing futilely against the brutality of the German police in dealing with Communist rallies.

Lutes’ ability to engage readers in the day-to-day drama of his characters allows the political elements to seep into the narrative, with a half dozen major storylines weaving through the city’s socio-economic and cultural strata. A homeless Jewish girl bounces learns to trust one benefactor, only to face new challenges when he is forced to pass her on to a more affluent family. A group of African-American jazz musicians touring Berlin cope with inter-racial relations, questionable business practices and meeting famed Josephine Baker. Marte herself dives headlong into the debauch Berlin nightlife, distracted from the troubles of the time by drugs and sexual experimentation. Lutes captures the nuances of each of these characters and their situations with deft and subtle human understanding, refusing to caricature anybody or paint them as wholly unsympathetic or unlikeable.

Artistically, Lutes is a master. His style, straightforward and naturalistic, grounds the scene in a clear realism, and his adherence to three-panel page structures keeps the visual storytelling rock solid throughout. Moving the reader’s eye around the page by switching perspectives on characters, Lutes frequently uses close-ups or long-shots to provide detail and perspective, or by holding a single shot over the course of a series of panels consistently to enforce the moment. From capturing historic likenesses to depicting the full range of emotions among his fictional characters, Lutes’ character acting is second to none.

Smart and sophisticated, humorous and tragic, Jason Lutes’ Berlin is challenging and engaging on many levels. Fans of comic book art and followers of history will find equal pleasures in its pages, but mostly, any reader who embraces stories of humanity and the role of humanity in societal turmoil. Berlin is the work of a masterful cartoonist at the top of his game. Get it.
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Jason Lutes

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Berlin, Book Two: City of Smoke




BERLIN 2 reviewed by ComicMix

Updated November 28, 2008


Review: 'Berlin: City of Smoke' by Jason Lutes
by Andrew Wheeler
Mon Nov 3, 2008
COMICMIX

Continuing the story of 1929


More than ten years ago, Jason Lutes began serializing his long graphic novel Berlin in a comic of the same name. Making long-form comics is long, hard work – more like an ultramarathon than any other art form – and this year finally sees the publication of the second part of that story. Even now, the end is still probably four or five years away –although we can certainly know what will happen in Berlin, and guess what will happen to these people, as 1929 slides into ‘30 into ‘31.

Berlin is a dense, complicated story with a large cast of characters, told in a naturalistic, cinematic way, without identifying captions or explanatory notes. That keeps from slowing down the reading experience, and the characters are always recognizable – but it does make it hard to review the book, when I realize that “the Jewish orphan girl” was probably named twice in the entire two hundred pages. (And with two different names at that.)

Berlin takes place in the last days of the post-Great War Weimar Republic, and its implicit theme is the battle between fascism and communism. (Given the time and the place, one need not even pause a moment to guess which side Lutes comes down on. This is unfortunate, though – and more so the more a reader knows about history – since we all know the fascists will win, and that things aren’t going to get better for a long time. And even if the Communists flee to the Soviet Union, they won’t escape the Nazis that way – much less escape oppression, war, and mass death.) The characters are mostly at the lower end of middle-class, if not outright poor, with some secondary characters higher up the income ladder, and they also tend to be outcasts and bohemians of one sort or another: musicians, reporters, artists, lesbians, Jews, tramps, black Americans. Again, one notes that these are all people who will not fare well under Nazi rule.

Sexuality is important in Berlin in a way rare in comics: it’s part of the world, neither caricatured nor exploited for titillation. Love affairs aren’t the basis for cheap melodrama or door-slamming farces, but wrenching events that break existing relationships and create new ones. Sex is also power and control; there’s quite a bit of commercial sex in Berlin, as well as a few near-rapes.

The center of Berlin in the first book was the relationship of journalist Kurt Severing and artist Marthe Muller, but they don’t stay as tightly bound in City of Smoke. And many of the characters from the first book return, such as that Jewish orphan girl, Silvia, who is another center to this second volume.

An American jazz band – five black men performing under the name “Cocoa Kids” – are the center of a third set of characters, with their own various loves (male and female) and relations with the authorities.

But, really, what Berlin does is flow – like water, or, given the title of this book, perhaps more like smoke – from one plot thread to another, through the lives of all of the characters, out one side and back to the other. Scenes follow scenes mostly through movie-style transitions – the viewpoint pulls out and then back in somewhere else, or jump-cut during page transitions. Berlin is a Robert Altman movie in print: a large cast set against a striking background live out their own individual stories, some touching each other, some separate. We may know that all of these people are doomed, more or less – they’re on the wrong side of history and it’s only going to get worse for the next fifteen years – but they don’t know that, and that’s what makes Berlin work.
 
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Featured artist

Jason Lutes

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Berlin, Book Two: City of Smoke




  BERLIN 2 and BURMA CHRONICLES reviewed by The San Antonio Current

Updated November 26, 2008


THE ARTS > BOOK REVIEWS
Spiegelman, before and after the Holocaust
Framed (graphic novels and comix)
BY JOHN DEFORE
10/22/2008
SAN ANTONIO CURRENT
...

If Spiegelman has now said his goodbyes to Holocaust comix, others are still working in related fields: Berlin: City of Smoke is the second collection of Jason Lutes’ acclaimed comics tracing the path of Weimar Berlin toward catastrophe. Meanwhile, the inimitable Guy DeLisle continues globetrotting through the contemporary world’s politically itchy zones with Burma Chronicles, which finds our hero taking care of a newborn while his wife tries to get medical aid to those who need it in Myanmar. Both titles come from Drawn & Quarterly; if you can’t find them in bookstores yet, they’re available at drawnandquarterly.com.

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Featured artists

Jason Lutes
Guy Delisle

           Featured products

Burma Chronicles
Berlin, Book Two: City of Smoke




JASON LUTES interviewed by Newsarama

Updated November 26, 2008


Back to the City - Jason Lutes on Berlin 2
Michael C. Lorah
2008-10-01
NEWSARAMA

Jason Lutes has been plugging away at what is – so far – his magnum opus for twelve years now, and he’s just reached the two-thirds point of the epic saga. Berlin, his twenty-four issue fiction about the final years of Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919-1933), published its sixteenth issue earlier this year, the concluding chapter of the recently released second collection: Berlin vol. 2: City of Smoke.

A richly challenging series about a divergent cross-section of Berlin residents coping with the financial, political and social crises of a country still recovering from the cultural and military humiliation of World War I, Berlin touches on nearly every aspect of the German culture in the years leading up to the ascension of the Nazi Third Reich.

Reached by phone after a long day teaching class at the Center for Cartoon Studies, Jason Lutes took time to talk to us about Berlin.

Newsarama: Jason, Berlin recently reached 2/3s completion. How does it feel to see the home stretch in front of you now?

Jason Lutes: (laughs) Good. The second book was definitely the hump to get over, and I feel content – well, relatively satisfied, as much as I can – with the way the second volume pulled together. For the first time in a long while, I’m actually excited about what lies ahead.

It has often felt like a chore or a difficult task that I have to face, though by turn it sometimes also exciting and fun. And right now, with 2/3rds behind me, I’m a little bit charged up.

NRAMA: I can see why it is sometimes exhausting. When you started this series, what was it about Berlin, circa the late 1920s and early 30s, that you found so compelling, and how did you decide on the focus for the story you’re telling?

JL: It was a very impulsive decision, not based on any ... I had very little knowledge of that period of German history, and like most of my creative endeavors, it started with an impulsive decision to follow up on a specific subject. I just followed it – not to the bitter end, yet, but I chose it really at random and plumbed its depths as much as I am able.

The more I got into it, the more I read about it after making the decision, the more I found that was genuinely interesting to me, and that resonated with the way I look at the world and the things that are going on the world currently. The deeper I got into it, the more sense it made. But it was initially pretty arbitrary.

NRAMA: You really make an effort to show as many parts of the culture as possible. The main characters Kurt, a leftist, cynical writer, and Marte, a small town woman who draws portraits and dives into the Berlin nightlife, but we also seeCommunist sympathizers, black jazz musicians from America, struggling workers – how do you balance everything?

JL: Precariously (laughs). You know, some parts are balanced better than others. I think it is very much keeping a number of plates spinning in the air and trying to make sure that I don’t just keep adding plates to the point that it becomes so confusing and chaotic that nobody can follow what I’m doing. I set a couple of plates spinning, which was the relationship between the two main characters Kurt and Marthe. From there, I chose points to spin off from, following secondary characters, always with the intent of portraying, or at least touching upon, the different social strata, showing the lives of people from different walks of life who were all living there at the time. I wanted to show both how their lives were related in some ways and not connected at all in other ways, but mainly, how they all wove through the time and place they inhabited.

Probably, the biggest challenge has been exactly that – keeping them all balanced so that the reader’s attention isn’t so fragmented that they cannot follow any of the threads, but diverse enough that you get a richer idea of the place and time. Like I said earlier, ultimately, I’m pretty happy with the way it’s gone, but readers do tell me that they get confused about which character is which sometimes. It doesn’t help that it’s been coming out at a very, very slow pace over the past ten or twelve years. That also led to a lot of questions on the part of the reader.

NRAMA: This era is mostly remembered for leading up to World War II and the Holocaust, and in addition to the Jewish suffering, we’re seeing here that influential portions of the German culture were rife with all types of unrest and uncertainty, lots of prejudice and bigotry, weren’t they? It seems that we’re witnessing a descent into a people who are so absorbed in looking out for themselves that they can’t see what’s happening to their neighbors.

JL: Yeah, yeah, very much. The series of events and factors that led up to all the horrible things that followed could not – I mean, there were very prescient, very smart people at the time who recognized the direction in which things were going. Those voices were few and tended to get lost in the cacophony of various people who were calling for this or that. There was so much going on, and it was such a confusing time for a lot of people. They were trying to forge a new kind of government out of the power vacuum left by a monarchy. World War I had basically been a disaster for the German people. It was just a very, very unstable environment with a lot of forces vying for power, so I would say that most people on the ground had the sense that very, very powerful things were happening, and they could see it happening all around them. People fighting and protesting, and very few people did not have a strong political stance. But in terms of where the whole society would eventually lead, I think there were only a handful of people who really saw the writing on the wall. Most people were just carrying on with their immediate concerns, trying to get by.

NRAMA: You also deal extensively with homosexuality and race in the second arc. How much did those minority issues open up the tensions of the city to you?

JL: From the very beginning, I’d made a list of aspects of human existence that I wanted to try to touch on. I’ve never had a political goal with this story; I’ve never had a point that I’ve been trying to make. It’s really been an effort to make a portrait, as much as I am able. It was sort of a two-fold challenge. One was to try to recreate a time and place which doesn’t exist anymore and which I had no experience of, so to use my imagination combined with historical research to create something. Second, I wanted to show the diversity and depth of human experience within that time and place.

I remember, initially, when I was setting up to start the book. I made a list of the kinds of things I wanted to touch on, and one of them was the five senses. I wanted the reader to be able to see, hear, smell, touch, taste things – put details in there that would convey as full a picture of the time as I could. Along with that was, well what is the extent of human sexuality? I can’t possibly touch on all the different nuances and variations, but I can try to address some aspects of sexuality that were there. In retrospect, Berlin at the time was known for being a very attractive hotbed for that kind of life. If you were a homosexual living anywhere in the vicinity of Berlin and you weren’t completely repressed or closeted about it, that’s the place you went.

That diversity is also how the city relates to it being at the forefront of cultural progress in lots of different ways. The Weimar Republic ended up being a failed experiment, but at that time, there was a lot of intense activity of all different kinds. Creatively, the art world had amazing things happening, and scientific discoveries and technological advances were happening every day. It was a very exciting place. I think that my attention to sexuality and to the idea of having diversity of characters – bringing in some American jazz musicians – allows me to see things from a different angle. It’s all an effort partly to get out of my own way. It’s very easy for me as a writer to unconsciously, reflexively sort of write what I know about, without really challenging myself to get out of my own experiences. Part of the goal was that, to deal with characters, situations and feelings that I haven’t personally had, to try to empathize and explore those facets of the characters – whether their racial background or sexuality or whatever.

NRAMA: Although Berlin is fiction, Jason, actual historical events do occur throughout the story. How strictly does your story connect to the known truth of the time, and how liberal does your timeline allow you to be with your story?

JL: The hard historical events are pretty strict. All the ones that you could look up in a book or on the Internet, a specific event, it pretty much happens when it actually did happen. The creative license that I take is along the lines of not knowing exactly how something may have looked or exactly how... Mainly, it’s visual stuff really, where I end up having to make stuff up. Or situational, like I can’t quite figure out how charitable homeless shelters were run at the time. One of the characters ends up in a Salvation Army shelter, and I know that they existed then, but I don’t know anything about how they operated. Sort of like a soup kitchen. There’s a soup kitchen in there too, and I had to sort of piece together little hints from photographs and a couple of personal accounts that actually mention these things, and then I try to piece things together. So that gaps that I end up closing creatively are subtler and more mundane. The bigger details, like specific speeches given on certain dates or the May Day demonstration or the death of Gustav Stresemann, those all happen when they did happen in history.

NRAMA: You’ve been working on this story for at least a decade now, Jason. How tightly did you plot the series when you started, and how closely are you hewing to the original idea of where you would end up?

JL: My best working method that I’ve developed has been to create a loose structure and then improvise within it. So at the very beginning, I decided that Berlin was going to be twenty-four chapters of twenty-four pages each, so I knew how long it was going to be, to the page. I had a very specific page restriction, and one of the challenges there – there are two sides to it: There’s a nice structural limitation on what I can do, so I really know how much real estate I have to work with and what I can accomplish within that very limited space. But it also of course is a restriction on how long the story can be. So I knew the hard page count, and I decided that it would be divided into three volumes, and that each volume would have a loose theme to unify it. The first book is City of Stones, the second City of Smoke, and the last one will be City of Light, and that to me, the way that I envisioned those three different subtitles was partly to explore the city through those very general terms, but also as a kind of progression from material to immaterial, moving from stone to smoke to light is a kind of disintegration. So that was a very loose organizing principle that I used, and I decided that it was going to go from 1927 to 1933. I broke down a timeline to figure out the relevant events that happen to affect all the characters, then figured out roughly where those would occur over the course of the entire story. From that stage, basically, I’ve been drilling down farther and farther, working out the details as I go.

It’s kind of like if I drew a really rough map of a continent, then at each stage, I go in and refine that map a little more so that I work out the ins and outs of the coastline and all the little details. Then the final refinement is when I write the chapter and nail it all down. It’s a very loose skeletal over-structure, and then I string together from one peg to another. I improvise whatever connects those two things. That improvisation comes out of all the research and all the reading. I’m just trying to feel, once I’ve created the characters, trying to put them in that environment and feel out what they would do and what would make sense.

NRAMA: It seems to me that one of the biggest problems with tackling a historical fiction like this is the dissociation from the historical culture modern readers face. The characters in Berlin, they’ve only recently gone through the economic turmoil of being World War I’s great loser, right?

JL: Yeah.

NRAMA: Communism is looking for a toehold all over the world, especially Europe as well.

JL: It was a good opportunity because of the power vacuum, yes.

NRAMA: With all that in mind, how do you try to get all that across without readers having to do extensive wiki'ing?

JL: (laughs) I guess that if anything, I err on the side of not being expository enough. When I go back and read City of Stones, I feel like I was too expository, like there were too many characters trying to explain things, so that’s a tough balance to figure. Part of the goal of having a character who doesn’t know very much come in from a small town was to allow the reader to see the situation through her eyes. So Marthe is exposed to all this with you. She may be confused, and the readers, if they don’t know much about the history, may not understand all the implications of what people are saying, but my hope is that ultimately, they’ll be more interested in what happens to the characters, and that stuff will make more sense as they get farther along. Or they’ll just care about what’s happening to the characters and not really worry much about the background. Although ideally, I hope in some way, it is provocation for people to do the research. I think one of the great things about Internet access is having the resources to quickly fill a gap in our knowledge.

The other direction, being too expository or having some kind of text preamble where I try to set the stage, none of those options appealed very much to me. The trade-off, of course, is that it does feel chaotic and confusing at times to be immersed in this history.

NRAMA: Eight more issues to go, what’s next for the residents of Berlin?

JL: It’s all going downhill.

I guess that’s obvious. It will be happy and sad (laughs). I guess the surprise to me is that Silvia Braun, the daughter of Gudrun Braun, has become a prominent character, which I never anticipated. Her story is going to be the meat of the last book. Her relationship with David Schwartz, the Jewish kid, is big. The three books are also defined by sets of relationships: in the first volume it’s Kurt and Marthe, in the second it’s Kid Hogan and Pola the cabaret performer, and in the last book it will be Silvia and David. And then, I honestly can’t tell you much else (laughs). I know some of the facts; I can tell you that Hitler’s going to come to power.

NRAMA: Right.

JL: Beyond that, I’ve begun working it out, but none of it is nailed down enough that I can give you much more.

NRAMA: All right. We’ll be waiting to see how all the pieces fall together then. Anything else in the works you’d like to mention?

JL: Last year I did a book about Houdini (Houdini: the Handcuff King) through Hyperion. I feel I have an endless amount of comic stories in me, and I’m a very slow artist – obviously. I am trying to hook up with artists who are willing to draw the stories that I write. The Houdini book was a result of that effort, and out of that book has come an Amelia Earhart book from the same publisher (which is written by Sarah Stewart Taylor, broken down by me, and drawn by Ben Towle). And I have a western in the works that may come out through a French publisher first. That’s my other big project right now. It’s a western that tries to turn the genre on its head a little bit, or at least look at it through a different lens.
 
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Featured artist

Jason Lutes

           Featured product

Berlin, Book Two: City of Smoke




  JASON LUTES interviewed by Newsarama

Updated October 10, 2008


Back to the City - Jason Lutes on Berlin 2
By Michael C. Lorah
2008-10-01

Jason Lutes has been plugging away at what is – so far – his magnum opus for twelve years now, and he’s just reached the two-thirds point of the epic saga. Berlin, his twenty-four issue fiction about the final years of Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919-1933), published its sixteenth issue earlier this year, the concluding chapter of the recently released second collection: Berlin vol. 2: City of Smoke.

A richly challenging series about a divergent cross-section of Berlin residents coping with the financial, political and social crises of a country still recovering from the cultural and military humiliation of World War I, Berlin touches on nearly every aspect of the German culture in the years leading up to the ascension of the Nazi Third Reich.

Reached by phone after a long day teaching class at the Center for Cartoon Studies, Jason Lutes took time to talk to us about Berlin.

Newsarama: Jason, Berlin recently reached 2/3s completion. How does it feel to see the home stretch in front of you now?

Jason Lutes: (laughs) Good. The second book was definitely the hump to get over, and I feel content – well, relatively satisfied, as much as I can – with the way the second volume pulled together. For the first time in a long while, I’m actually excited about what lies ahead.

It has often felt like a chore or a difficult task that I have to face, though by turn it sometimes also exciting and fun. And right now, with 2/3rds behind me, I’m a little bit charged up.

NRAMA: I can see why it is sometimes exhausting. When you started this series, what was it about Berlin, circa the late 1920s and early 30s, that you found so compelling, and how did you decide on the focus for the story you’re telling?

JL: It was a very impulsive decision, not based on any ... I had very little knowledge of that period of German history, and like most of my creative endeavors, it started with an impulsive decision to follow up on a specific subject. I just followed it – not to the bitter end, yet, but I chose it really at random and plumbed its depths as much as I am able.

The more I got into it, the more I read about it after making the decision, the more I found that was genuinely interesting to me, and that resonated with the way I look at the world and the things that are going on the world currently. The deeper I got into it, the more sense it made. But it was initially pretty arbitrary.

NRAMA: You really make an effort to show as many parts of the culture as possible. The main characters Kurt, a leftist, cynical writer, and Marte, a small town woman who draws portraits and dives into the Berlin nightlife, but we also seeCommunist sympathizers, black jazz musicians from America, struggling workers – how do you balance everything?

JL: Precariously (laughs). You know, some parts are balanced better than others. I think it is very much keeping a number of plates spinning in the air and trying to make sure that I don’t just keep adding plates to the point that it becomes so confusing and chaotic that nobody can follow what I’m doing. I set a couple of plates spinning, which was the relationship between the two main characters Kurt and Marthe. From there, I chose points to spin off from, following secondary characters, always with the intent of portraying, or at least touching upon, the different social strata, showing the lives of people from different walks of life who were all living there at the time. I wanted to show both how their lives were related in some ways and not connected at all in other ways, but mainly, how they all wove through the time and place they inhabited.

Probably, the biggest challenge has been exactly that – keeping them all balanced so that the reader’s attention isn’t so fragmented that they cannot follow any of the threads, but diverse enough that you get a richer idea of the place and time. Like I said earlier, ultimately, I’m pretty happy with the way it’s gone, but readers do tell me that they get confused about which character is which sometimes. It doesn’t help that it’s been coming out at a very, very slow pace over the past ten or twelve years. That also led to a lot of questions on the part of the reader.

NRAMA: This era is mostly remembered for leading up to World War II and the Holocaust, and in addition to the Jewish suffering, we’re seeing here that influential portions of the German culture were rife with all types of unrest and uncertainty, lots of prejudice and bigotry, weren’t they? It seems that we’re witnessing a descent into a people who are so absorbed in looking out for themselves that they can’t see what’s happening to their neighbors.

JL: Yeah, yeah, very much. The series of events and factors that led up to all the horrible things that followed could not – I mean, there were very prescient, very smart people at the time who recognized the direction in which things were going. Those voices were few and tended to get lost in the cacophony of various people who were calling for this or that. There was so much going on, and it was such a confusing time for a lot of people. They were trying to forge a new kind of government out of the power vacuum left by a monarchy. World War I had basically been a disaster for the German people. It was just a very, very unstable environment with a lot of forces vying for power, so I would say that most people on the ground had the sense that very, very powerful things were happening, and they could see it happening all around them. People fighting and protesting, and very few people did not have a strong political stance. But in terms of where the whole society would eventually lead, I think there were only a handful of people who really saw the writing on the wall. Most people were just carrying on with their immediate concerns, trying to get by.

NRAMA: You also deal extensively with homosexuality and race in the second arc. How much did those minority issues open up the tensions of the city to you?

JL: From the very beginning, I’d made a list of aspects of human existence that I wanted to try to touch on. I’ve never had a political goal with this story; I’ve never had a point that I’ve been trying to make. It’s really been an effort to make a portrait, as much as I am able. It was sort of a two-fold challenge. One was to try to recreate a time and place which doesn’t exist anymore and which I had no experience of, so to use my imagination combined with historical research to create something. Second, I wanted to show the diversity and depth of human experience within that time and place.

I remember, initially, when I was setting up to start the book. I made a list of the kinds of things I wanted to touch on, and one of them was the five senses. I wanted the reader to be able to see, hear, smell, touch, taste things – put details in there that would convey as full a picture of the time as I could. Along with that was, well what is the extent of human sexuality? I can’t possibly touch on all the different nuances and variations, but I can try to address some aspects of sexuality that were there. In retrospect, Berlin at the time was known for being a very attractive hotbed for that kind of life. If you were a homosexual living anywhere in the vicinity of Berlin and you weren’t completely repressed or closeted about it, that’s the place you went.

That diversity is also how the city relates to it being at the forefront of cultural progress in lots of different ways. The Weimar Republic ended up being a failed experiment, but at that time, there was a lot of intense activity of all different kinds. Creatively, the art world had amazing things happening, and scientific discoveries and technological advances were happening every day. It was a very exciting place. I think that my attention to sexuality and to the idea of having diversity of characters – bringing in some American jazz musicians – allows me to see things from a different angle. It’s all an effort partly to get out of my own way. It’s very easy for me as a writer to unconsciously, reflexively sort of write what I know about, without really challenging myself to get out of my own experiences. Part of the goal was that, to deal with characters, situations and feelings that I haven’t personally had, to try to empathize and explore those facets of the characters – whether their racial background or sexuality or whatever.

NRAMA: Although Berlin is fiction, Jason, actual historical events do occur throughout the story. How strictly does your story connect to the known truth of the time, and how liberal does your timeline allow you to be with your story?

JL: The hard historical events are pretty strict. All the ones that you could look up in a book or on the Internet, a specific event, it pretty much happens when it actually did happen. The creative license that I take is along the lines of not knowing exactly how something may have looked or exactly how... Mainly, it’s visual stuff really, where I end up having to make stuff up. Or situational, like I can’t quite figure out how charitable homeless shelters were run at the time. One of the characters ends up in a Salvation Army shelter, and I know that they existed then, but I don’t know anything about how they operated. Sort of like a soup kitchen. There’s a soup kitchen in there too, and I had to sort of piece together little hints from photographs and a couple of personal accounts that actually mention these things, and then I try to piece things together. So that gaps that I end up closing creatively are subtler and more mundane. The bigger details, like specific speeches given on certain dates or the May Day demonstration or the death of Gustav Stresemann, those all happen when they did happen in history.

NRAMA: You’ve been working on this story for at least a decade now, Jason. How tightly did you plot the series when you started, and how closely are you hewing to the original idea of where you would end up?

JL: My best working method that I’ve developed has been to create a loose structure and then improvise within it. So at the very beginning, I decided that Berlin was going to be twenty-four chapters of twenty-four pages each, so I knew how long it was going to be, to the page. I had a very specific page restriction, and one of the challenges there – there are two sides to it: There’s a nice structural limitation on what I can do, so I really know how much real estate I have to work with and what I can accomplish within that very limited space. But it also of course is a restriction on how long the story can be. So I knew the hard page count, and I decided that it would be divided into three volumes, and that each volume would have a loose theme to unify it. The first book is City of Stones, the second City of Smoke, and the last one will be City of Light, and that to me, the way that I envisioned those three different subtitles was partly to explore the city through those very general terms, but also as a kind of progression from material to immaterial, moving from stone to smoke to light is a kind of disintegration. So that was a very loose organizing principle that I used, and I decided that it was going to go from 1927 to 1933. I broke down a timeline to figure out the relevant events that happen to affect all the characters, then figured out roughly where those would occur over the course of the entire story. From that stage, basically, I’ve been drilling down farther and farther, working out the details as I go.

It’s kind of like if I drew a really rough map of a continent, then at each stage, I go in and refine that map a little more so that I work out the ins and outs of the coastline and all the little details. Then the final refinement is when I write the chapter and nail it all down. It’s a very loose skeletal over-structure, and then I string together from one peg to another. I improvise whatever connects those two things. That improvisation comes out of all the research and all the reading. I’m just trying to feel, once I’ve created the characters, trying to put them in that environment and feel out what they would do and what would make sense.

NRAMA: It seems to me that one of the biggest problems with tackling a historical fiction like this is the dissociation from the historical culture modern readers face. The characters in Berlin, they’ve only recently gone through the economic turmoil of being World War I’s great loser, right?

JL: Yeah.

NRAMA: Communism is looking for a toehold all over the world, especially Europe as well.

JL: It was a good opportunity because of the power vacuum, yes.

NRAMA: With all that in mind, how do you try to get all that across without readers having to do extensive wiki'ing?

JL: (laughs) I guess that if anything, I err on the side of not being expository enough. When I go back and read City of Stones, I feel like I was too expository, like there were too many characters trying to explain things, so that’s a tough balance to figure. Part of the goal of having a character who doesn’t know very much come in from a small town was to allow the reader to see the situation through her eyes. So Marthe is exposed to all this with you. She may be confused, and the readers, if they don’t know much about the history, may not understand all the implications of what people are saying, but my hope is that ultimately, they’ll be more interested in what happens to the characters, and that stuff will make more sense as they get farther along. Or they’ll just care about what’s happening to the characters and not really worry much about the background. Although ideally, I hope in some way, it is provocation for people to do the research. I think one of the great things about Internet access is having the resources to quickly fill a gap in our knowledge.

The other direction, being too expository or having some kind of text preamble where I try to set the stage, none of those options appealed very much to me. The trade-off, of course, is that it does feel chaotic and confusing at times to be immersed in this history.

NRAMA: Eight more issues to go, what’s next for the residents of Berlin?

JL: It’s all going downhill.

I guess that’s obvious. It will be happy and sad (laughs). I guess the surprise to me is that Silvia Braun, the daughter of Gudrun Braun, has become a prominent character, which I never anticipated. Her story is going to be the meat of the last book. Her relationship with David Schwartz, the Jewish kid, is big. The three books are also defined by sets of relationships: in the first volume it’s Kurt and Marthe, in the second it’s Kid Hogan and Pola the cabaret performer, and in the last book it will be Silvia and David. And then, I honestly can’t tell you much else (laughs). I know some of the facts; I can tell you that Hitler’s going to come to power.

NRAMA: Right.

JL: Beyond that, I’ve begun working it out, but none of it is nailed down enough that I can give you much more.

NRAMA: All right. We’ll be waiting to see how all the pieces fall together then. Anything else in the works you’d like to mention?

JL: Last year I did a book about Houdini (Houdini: the Handcuff King) through Hyperion. I feel I have an endless amount of comic stories in me, and I’m a very slow artist – obviously. I am trying to hook up with artists who are willing to draw the stories that I write. The Houdini book was a result of that effort, and out of that book has come an Amelia Earhart book from the same publisher (which is written by Sarah Stewart Taylor, broken down by me, and drawn by Ben Towle). And I have a western in the works that may come out through a French publisher first. That’s my other big project right now. It’s a western that tries to turn the genre on its head a little bit, or at least look at it through a different lens.
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BERLIN, CITY OF SMOKE reviewed by The Wall Street Journal

Updated October 10, 2008


WEEKEND JOURNAL
Epic tale of Berlin
By Jamin Brophy-Warren
The Wall Street Journal Europe
29 August 2008

BERLIN HAS INSPIRED generations of writers and artists. But cartoonist Jason Lutes only knew the city through books when he started the first few chapters of his comic series "Berlin" more than a decade ago. "It was important to me that I not go until I'd created my own personal vision of the city," says Mr. Lutes, who spent his childhood in Missoula, Mont.

He's only made two visits to Germany since then and the second collection of his comic, "Berlin: City of Smoke," which comes out next week in Europe, was drawn in a small, yellow farmhouse outside Woodstock, Vt. The story follows the interwoven lives of Berliners after World War I during the twilight of the Weimar Republic.

Although he later discovered that he was of German descent, the subject matter was initially serendipitous. Mr. Lutes saw an ad for "Bertolt Brecht's Berlin," a depiction of the turbulent era that preceded World War II, and poured himself into learning every aspect of the city. He hopes to finish the final chapter in four years.

Mr. Lutes works primarily in black-and-white because color "complicates the visual message." He draws up several scripts and mock-ups before putting ink to paper.

All of his work is hand-made with the exception of his comic books' covers. The drawings are deceptively simple and are paired with a narrative that is sweeping and complex.

"He's got a great range of facial expressions," says comic writer Ed Brubaker, who has collaborated with Mr. Lutes and met him in Seattle in the early 1990s. "They're easy on the eye, but not so simple that you can't feel their pain."
 

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  BERLIN, CITY OF SMOKE and RED COLORED ELEGY reviewed by Vue Weekly

Updated October 10, 2008


BERLIN BOOK TWO: CITY OF SMOKE, SLOW STORM, RED COLORED ELEGY
GRAPHIC NOVELS ARE GETTING DEEPER
BRIAN GIBSON
VUE WEEKLY
September 25, 2008

If graphic novels (or comix, or bandes dessinées, or comic-strip novel, or all of the above), now with their own section in major bookstore chains, are in danger of becoming too mainstream, the sheer length of time some take to hit the shelves should keep them from becoming beach-reading bestsellers. But this sense of authors slaving away over their craft only makes them seem cultishly literary and more novel than graphic sometimes. Plus many graphic novels are, like their purely textual cousins, more and more concerned with drawing out small, painful human experiences on the page than surrealizing other worlds, showing super-heroics or animating animals.

Novelist Sherman Alexie pointed out the literary realism qualities of Jason Lutes’s melancholy debut, a tale of fading magicians, Jar of Fools (“I think Jason Lutes writes like Hemingway ... but he draws like Faulkner would have drawn”). Then Lutes settled into one of those slave-away spells (see: Spiegelman, Art; Ware, Chris), taking two years just to research and blueprint his trilogy about late 1920s and early ’30s Berlin. Now, seven years after Berlin Book One gathered the eight-issue first part, in drifts Berlin Book Two: City of Smoke.

The lovely tension between picture and text continues, with young artist Marthe Müller and left-wing journalist Kurt Severing, having struck up a romance in Book One, now struggling to reconcile her enthusiasm about the riotous culture of Berlin and his deepening cynicism about the politics in the Reichstag. Book One drew out a motif of perspective—artistic, social and more philosophically. Lutes doesn’t build quite as complex an architecture for City of Smoke—though that’s the only clue that this part is the trilogy’s bridge between beginning and end—but key elements have become only more complex.

Sexuality in the bourgeois corners of Weimar-era Berlin, with its cabarets, jazz clubs and private parties, has become smokier, more fluid. The book brims over with sensual scenes. After the May Day massacre of 1929, the country is becoming more polarized into fascist or communist as the ruling Social Democrats weaken and the Great Depression nears.

But Lutes is doubly ingenious in reflecting the period. First, he shows the none-so-simple people within those polarities: the gay, unemployed immigrant who is curious about this new National Socialist party, the schoolteacher who marched on the side of the “Reds” but is now told by her husband to support fascist order. Lutes’s interest in so many common lives beyond his protagonists—not that Marthe or Kurt are heroes at all—not only widens the book’s scope but offers a generous portrait of a Germany threatened by violence and autocracy.

Second, Lutes’ addition of an American jazz band not only further mirrors the racism of the day, but leads to a small, personal answer to the political questions that Germans like Kurt are feeling powerless to resolve.

The panels, with their attention to the details and atmosphere of the streets, clubs and even countryside of Weimar Republic Germany, accumulate in power. A moment of violence rents the page with a shock. A clarinet jazz-player riffs through the panels. Political debates around a table actually come alive. (Not least because, sadly, polarized political fronts and a plunging economy are still bitter facts of life.)

This is the kind of work that will become a landmark of the comic-story form, not so much because it redefines it as elevates it to such a purely powerful level. City of Smoke transcends poetic glimpses, photographic angles, cinematic cuts and a novelistic scope to reaffirm the ultimate uniqueness of the genre.

...

The pair in Seiichi Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy—which focuses so unblinkingly on the human that some panels offer one or two people adrift in white space—isn’t as odd as in Slow Storm, but their dilemma is expressed more strikingly. First issued in Japan in 1970-71, Hayashi’s book offers a startlingly different dialect of comic language. Sudden cuts, simple drawings spliced with moody full-page images and a story that moves in emotional bursts—it’s easy to see why the book was likened to French New Wave cinema.

Ichiro and Sachiko are drawn in a naïve way, befitting their youth, but their sad earnestness brings them alive. The ennui of modern life rubs up against family traditions; a son, made callous by the daily urban grind, tries to shrug off his father’s death. A woodcut-like image of Fuji above roofbeams follows panels where the couple, struggling to get by on cartooning work, fight or plead or draw with slashes of energy. The effect is electrifyingly angst-ridden. Even stripped down to minimal prose and often spare pictures, this old book shows once again how the genre keeps finding new ways to draw out just how humans feel so caught in one time and place. V
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BERLIN, BOOK TWO reviewed by Minneapolis City Pages

Updated September 24, 2008


The Friday Comics Review
BERLIN BOOK TWO
Steve Monaco
September 19, 200
MINNEAPOLIS CITY PAGES BLOG


Berlin; City of Smoke by Jason Lutes (Drawn and Quarterly, 210 pages, $19.95). This is the second book in Lutes' Berlin trilogy (collecting issues 9 through 16 of the comic), a series that he's been working on for a dozen or so years. In this middle section of the story, set in Weimar Germany between the two world wars, he follows his main characters' lives after the May Day demonstration that ended the first volume.

The various aspects of Berlin society are depicted through the eyes of different characters. The writer Severing (pictured above) serves as the political observer, and it's through him and his writing that much of the history is told, as well as the impending move to Fascism. The homeless are represented by Silvia, a young girl left orphaned after the demonstration, who takes to the woods and is befriended by a Jewish beggar. Their lives on the street intersect with the neighborhood clashes between the Communists and the Nationalists.

And, in some of the book's most striking sequences, Lutes shows the decadent nightlife of Berlin from the viewpoint of Marthe, Severing's former lover who thrives in the city's lesbian scene.

There's a dumb quote on the back of the book from the Washington Post that suggests Berlin is "slow." It's anything but, and Lutes' panels and pages flow quickly and beautifully. It's remarkable how much detail he gets into his drawing and his characterizations, and his artwork is filled with both moody atmosphere and genuine emotion.

And needless to say, reading these chapters after what our own country has gone through financially gave added dramatic weight to scenes like this one, of a bank president in 1929, sitting in his office after the crash.

Berlin is as serious a comics project as any artist has ever set out to do, and so far Jason Lutes has been up to the challenge-- it's riveting work. When it's finally completed, it will be a great day for comics. Even now, it's still pretty great.
 
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  BERLIN: CITY OF SMOKE and BURMA CHRONICLES reviewed by The Christian Science Monitor

Updated June 27, 2008


GRAPHIC NOVELS, ALL GROWN UP
Art form's influence rises, and broadens. A look at three of the genre's stars.
By Matthew Shaer
THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
June 27, 2008

NEW YORK - In 1969, the American writer John Updike famously declared, "I see no intrinsic reason why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic strip novel masterpiece."

The statement was immediately ridiculed by literary traditionalists, who disparaged comics as a "low" medium unworthy of serious critical attention. But it became a rallying cry among comic book creators, long second-class citizens in the art world.

Forty years has proved their prescience. Graphic novels – usually defined as extended-length illustrated books with mature literary themes – have risen to widespread prominence, spurred on by the work of respected talents such as Art Spiegelman ("Maus: A Survivor's Tale") and Will Eisner ("A Contract With God").

Graphic novel sales in Canada and the United States hit $375 million in 2007, five times the figure reported in 2001, according to ICv2, a pop culture site. "Jimmy Corrigan," a book by Chris Ware, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies alone; "Persepolis," originally a graphic novel by Marjane Sartrapi, picked up an Oscar for best animated film in February.

A happy problem, then: How to pick and choose among the annual flood of titles? There's no easy rubric – this year alone has seen the rise of several young talents, each with a distinctive literary and artistic style. But a reader interested in immersing in the genre could not go wrong with any of these three books, which span the globe, from World War II-era Germany, to the closed-doors of Burmese society to quotidian existence in an alternate-universe America.

Dash Shaw – 'Bottomless Belly Button'

Writing a book can be a lonely affair. One man, one idea, and days upon days penned up in a home office, hacking over words and phrases. For the graphic novelist, things are more complex still: the book must simultaneously come alive in two dimensions. The art has to breathe, and so does the dialogue, and then the two have to complement each other, each panel building off the last.

Such was the task of 20-something artist Dash Shaw, who began penning "Bottomless Belly Button" a few years ago in Virginia, where he was attending the School of Visual Arts. He finished some 700 pages later, the proud author of a kaleidoscopic chronicle of the Loony family, population five. Most of the writing he did in his room, behind closed doors, letting his imagination spill messily onto the page.

"I wanted to do a story that was about characters," Mr. Shaw says, over lunch in New York, where he now lives. "With family stories, you don't have a lot to establish, in terms of background. These are people forced into a situation – forced into one space."

At the heart of "Bottomless Belly Button" is an internecine war among the Loonys – between the parents, who are divorcing after years of marriage; between the children; and between the family and the changing world outside.

But Shaw has a deft touch, and the stories in the book move faster than the bulk of the book suggests: Panels are sparely drawn, often with little movement from one to the next.

"The story itself is small," Shaw says. "I've done short stories where a lot more happens than it does here. It's about sequence."

It's also about rhythm. Like the very best illustrated fiction, Shaw's work moves between pathos and humor, between the fantastic and the familiar. "I would like the book to feel like it's a place I've traveled to – like a great movie I've watched," he says. "I was surrounded by these people for a long time."

Jason Lutes – 'Berlin: City of Smoke'

A few years ago, Jason Lutes was killing time, idly flipping through a stack of glossy magazines, when the page fell open to an advertisement for a book called "Bertolt Brecht's Berlin." Mr. Lutes was no great expert on European history or Bertolt Brecht, the famous German playwright and poet.

He was a writer of graphic fiction, and an artist, one immersed in a reverie of what he calls "my own personal feelings and thoughts." In 1996, Lutes had published the well-received "Jar of Fools," a veiled autobiography; he'd also spent some time as the art director at the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger.

But something about this advertisement – archaic and offbeat – appealed to Lutes, who was then casting about for a new project. "The basic impulse," he says, "was to try to come to grips with the outside world, and one way to do that was to pick a foreign culture and immerse myself in this completely other place. To use comics as a time machine."

The result is "Berlin," a sprawling, three-book trilogy based in pre-World War II Germany. Lutes, who teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., has worked through the trilogy slowly: "Berlin: City of Stones," was released in 2000, and "Berlin: City of Smoke" will be released by Drawn and Quarterly in August. Lutes estimates that the third installment could be finished in 2012.

"It's a laborious process," Lutes says. "The art doesn't come easily to me. I have to work at it."

And yet the art in "Berlin" is stunningly intricate: a mass of panels describing the sprawling cityscape and the myriad political factions within, all struggling for power in the vacuum left by the close of World War I. Lutes's two main characters are Kurt, a journalist, and Marthe, an art student; the action of the plot hinges mostly on their interactions. Occasionally, though, Lutes pulls the lens back, soaring over the crowded squares, and the rail yards, and the tenements stacked full of disgruntled workers.

"With comics, because it's drawn by hand, because it's so up-front, there's a personal touch on every element," Lutes says. "If you do it right, there's an intimacy there – a coherent landscape for the reader to enter into."

GUY DELISLE – 'THE BURMESE CHRONICLES'

Marriage to a Médecins Sans Frontières administrator is often a drag: the constant travel, the blizzard of foreign languages, the uncomfortable guesthouse beds. But for Guy DeLisle, a French Canadian animator and writer, his years of transience quickly translated, he laughs, into a source of "artistic inspiration."

Mr. DeLisle, who is currently based in the south of France – although he will soon decamp to Jerusalem – has joined his wife on a score of trips, from Ethiopia to Vietnam, and has journeyed on his own to Pyongyang, North Korea, and Shenzhen, a sprawling factory city in southern China.

In 2000, he began collecting the experiences in graphic form, weaving spare illustrations and a wry inner monologue into dynamic portraiture.

"Shenzhen" was released in 2000 in Canada – and in 2006 in the US – to largely enthusiastic reviews. DeLisle's third book, entitled "Pyongyang," was published in English three years ago; it was driven by its humorous take on North Korean culture.

"It's my natural way of telling a story," DeLisle says. "With these books, and with my letters home to my friends and family, I always used humor. I like to keep the audience awake."

DeLisle's latest book, "The Burmese Chronicles," was written after a 2005 trip to Rangoon, a city dominated by Burma's military junta.

Like "Pyongyang," much of "Chronicles" is related to culture shock: the strange grocery stores, the expat culture, the local traditions, the stifling heat and the thick rains of the monsoon season. But DeLisle also has a keen eye for cultural perspective and returns repeatedly to the case of Aung San Suu Kyi, the former Burmese leader currently under detention in Rangoon.

"I tend to describe the routine aspects of my life and mix it with historical events," DeLisle says. "I might talk about taking a walk with my son, but I'm also going to talk about the political situation. I didn't think I'd write about Burma, to be honest," he adds. "And then you start collecting notes, and the inspiration starts kicking in, and pretty soon, you have enough for a book."

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JASON LUTES interviewed by Walrus Comix

Updated March 20, 2008


WALRUS COMIX PRESENTS:
An Exclusive Interview with Artist Extraordinaire, Missoula, Montana's Comix Laureate Jason Lutes

Jason Lutes is truly a treasured star in the comix firmament. His work is adult, and executed with a sophisticated ease belying his years. Informed by the great works of Herge, Spiegelman, and Uderzo, he's forged something that stands, imposing and beautiful serving as the new standard for comix excellence.

Starting with the exquisite Jar of Fools, Jason set the bar high and has never looked back. His work on Berlin is nothing short of astonishing in both it's ambition and scope, and when the day is done, Jason Lutes assuredly will be a name revered in the pantheon along with his idols.

Please check out his work at Drawn and Quarterly, where you can pick up your own copies of his colossal Berlin and Jar of Fools.

I want to start off by thanking you for taking the time to chat a bit.. You know I've known of you now, nearly 20 years - well before you became the influential, famous artist you are now! You see we have a mutual friend (Walrus Comix contributor John Nora) that went to RISD who was in the illustration program around the same time you were there… I can still remember your name bandied about back then in such reverential tones... Your inevitable success was well predicted I can tell you!

So let's start off there… I've heard the experience as a cartoonist at a place like RISD (specifically in the illustration department), was not exactly the greatest.. I would think facing the abundant snobbery, elitism and general derisiveness towards comics as art, could be a great detriment to one's growth as a cartoonist.. How did you find the experience there?

Everyone on the planet should take the first year at RISD, which they call (or used to call) the "Freshman Foundation" program. It was an incredibly challenging, humbling, inspiring and eye-opening experience -- art school boot camp in the best possible sense. After that first year things did get a little dicey. I didn't encounter derision or snobbery, but instructors and students alike were sort of clueless when confronted with a comic. They had a hard time engaging with an obviously narrative artform.

I got a lot out of RISD, but it was hard to ignore how much it was costing me and my mom, especially given how low the signal-to-noise ratio was in the world of undergrad fine art studies. Thankfully, by my third year I had taken some steps to remedy the situation by starting a student-run comics magazine and lobbying for the Illustration department to start teaching comics (which they eventually did), so those of us who felt compelled by the medium eventually carved out a space of our own.

You cite Raw as a major influence, stating you read it at RISD in the early 90s.. I had the same experience, I was introduced to it around the same time period, and it definitely had a significant impact, it really opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the medium.. Starting with Jar of Fools you were on the frontlines of the next big creative wave along side the likes of Chester Brown, Chris Ware and Joe Matt… Did you feel like you were carrying the standard so to speak with the work started in Raw?

I definitely felt inspired by the work I saw in Raw, and Spiegelman's approach in general, because the intellectual aspects of the medium were appealing to me and I hadn't seen those aspects explored much at all, so there was this sense of enormous, untapped potential. If I had to see myself as carrying the standard, though, it would not be for comics as highbrow or subversive art, but for comics as a medium with no limitations. The alternatives, and even Raw to an extent, came into being partly a response against mainstream comics, and I realized that I wanted to create something that stood on its own -- not something that was a response to a particular subculture. I wanted to make and read comics that were about other things -- life, human experience, the great big world out there.





Your style has often been compared to the 'ligne claire' method of Herge... Again, here we have a commonality.. having been born in France and moving here as a young child, Asterix and Tintin were an obsession with me and my brother - along with Lucky Luke and the other bande dessine stand bys... As a child being raised in Missoula, Montana , what in particular about this European aesthetic impacted so deeply with you ??

The visual clarity of the jewel-like worlds conjured up by the European masters certainly had a lot of appeal to me as a child, but I think the momentum of those stories, especially the Tintin books, were really what compelled me to read them over and over. I recently did some formal analysis of Tintin for a class I'm teaching, and came away with a new appreciation for how much of an engineer Herge was. His stories just have this relentless forward motion, reinforced at every turn with such fluidity and grace that the books practically turn their own pages. I think I couldn't get enough of that as a kid, and a lot of his basic techniques have found their way into my own work.

With Berlin , you found the vehicle to truly stretch out... What exactly made you decide on the city of berlin during the last years of the weimar republic as the subject matter for your magnum opus??

Like every piece of creative work I've ever undertaken, it was an extremely impulsive decision that requires a hell of a lot of follow-through. Back in 1996 I saw an ad for a book about Berlin between the wars. I read the one-paragraph descriptive blurb and thought, "That sounds cool. My next book will be a 600-page comics novel about Berlin."

How much of Berlin 's story do you have mapped out in your head beforehand and how much of it do you 'feel your way through'?

I start with a very loose structure and gradually fill in the gaps between them as I go. When I first envisioned the book it was defined by three salient moments: the May Day Massacre of 1928, the Reichstag elections of 1930, and Hitler's assumption of the Chancellorship in 1933. Starting with those three big "hooks," I then outline a secondary tier of events (real and fictional) that connects them, and then on a chapter-by-chapter basis I explore ("feel my way through") the space between them with my cast of characters. So I know how some threads of the story will end, but others will be up in the air for me until the very end.

Do you find working on a project as major as Berlin over so many years to be limiting at all to your growth as an artist, or do you think it's the opposite; that working on something of this singular scope brings with it a fulfillment far greater than breaking up your time on different projects?

I feel both of those things, by turns. Sometimes I find Berlin is inspiring and challenging, sometimes it feels like a stultifying dead end. There are a lot of other stories I want to tell, and these days I'm acutely aware of the finite number of years I have left in which to tell them. This looming sense of my own mortality, combined with the recent birth of my daughter, has increased my productivity fourfold over the last year.

Although Berlin on one hand can be taken strictly as an historical account, how much do you play with allegory and metaphor? It's hard not to draw parallels to present day...


I play with that stuff a lot, but hopefully not too much. There are certainly instructive parallels to be drawn between the Weimar period and our present world, but it can be counterproductive to draw those connections too tightly. I tend to think more in terms of the bigger overall picture, and how certain aspects of human nature recur and interact with dramatic effect throughout history and will continue to do so as long as we walk the Earth.

Your writing style has always been decidedly 'adult', specifically tartegting a different audience than the typical Marvel/DC fare.. Did you ever have any interest in Superheroes growing up as a child?

Oh yeah, for sure! I loved superheroes as a kid, especially Captain America and the Avengers. I still love the spirit and energy of a lot of those older superhero comics, but find most contemporary superhero fare pretty painful to read. I'm a fan of the pulpy, old-school superheroes, not the gritty, "dark" stuff they're shovelling out these days. Although Batman: Year One is still one of the best comics ever published.

Your stories depict the disaffected, disenfranchized.. the outsiders.. Growing up, were you an outsider? Why do you feel this is such a prominent theme in your work?

I was an outsider to mainstream American culture, but I had plenty of friends and never felt like a social outcast. I looked and acted pretty square, but my high school social circle consisted entirely of punks and geeks -- MAXIMUMROCKNROLL and the Dungeon Master's Guide were the coffee table books of choice. I guess I just have a lot of empathy for people who are economically or culturally on the fringe.

Which instruments do you use? Nibs, pens, brushes, etc..?

For all of my lettering and drawing I use a Rotring Sketch EF ArtPen with a refillable cartridge, loaded with Ultradraw ink (non-clogging, waterproof, and lightfast). I ink panels borders with the same make of pen, but the 1.5 Calligraphy model. I work up my pencils on Clearprint design vellum and complete the finished art on Utrecht 2-ply plate finish Bristol. My originals are 11" x 14".

What are your thoughts on webcomics, do you think something gets lost in the transition from page to screen?

I read webcomics from time to time, but nothing compares to the tangibility and intimacy of holding a book in my hands. Maybe that will change some day, as technology advances, but it hasn't happened yet. Reading webcomics feels like watching cable TV to me -- an entertaining way to kill time, but not something that stays with me past the point of absorption.

What artists out there today do you feel are creating the most relevant and dynamic work?

Kevin Huizenga and Anders Nilsen are pretty high on the list for me these days. I love their work and will read any scrap of paper that either one of them cares to doodle on. Kevin in particular is stretching the medium in exciting ways, expressing things that haven't been expressed before and that could not be expressed in the same way in any other medium.

Finally, what advice do you have for the kids out there that have dreams of growing up just like you..?

The good news is that while the mainstream is still trying to squeeze milk out of the undead cash cow of the superhero, book publishers have taken a real interest in other kinds of comics in recent years. That interest will continue to widen and deepen, which in turn will multiply and diversify the sorts of comics showing up on bookstore shelves. Even better, the skills you need to be an effective visual storyteller will have broader application and greater value as more and more people take the means of media creation and production into their owns hands. So if you're serious about the medium, now is actually a great time to get into comics.

And on that note, I will plug the Center for Cartoon Studies (http://www.cartoonstudies.org/) in White River Junction, VT, where I've begun teaching this year. It's an amazing, inspiring place to study and make comics, the sort of place I would have described if you'd asked me to describe my ideal comics school ten years ago.
 
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Featured artist

Jason Lutes

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Berlin, Book One: City of Stones
Berlin #15




  BERLIN #13 reviewed by Gutter Geek

Updated August 29, 2007


Jason Lutes, Berlin #13

For those who haven’t been reading Berlin…well, start reading it immediately, beginning with Berlin: City of Stones, which collects the first eight issues. Berlin tells the story of the city between the ways, its transformation from a place of vibrant debate and possibility into the world capital of fear and hate. Lutes tells the story through a huge cast of characters from all walks of life, centering especially on two: a cynical journalist and a young art student. As they respond differently to the changing events and the possibilities of the vibrant city, a generation comes to life and a city, literally, tells its own story. Now just over halfway done with its projected 24 issues, I can pronounce with great clairvoyance that, once completed, this will be the most important graphic narrative of our generation.

I say that despite the fact that the most recent issue in some ways was the closest to a weak note that Lutes has played over the several years he has been working on this series. I use the musical metaphor advisedly, since Lutes represents music graphically better than anyone I have encountered. But here Lutes lets the issue become a bit talky, and the whole bogs down in a lengthy dinner meeting of progressive journalists who talk on and on into the night going nowhere. But of course, that is precisely the point. Events in Berlin have gone from bad to worse, as the markets have crashed and desperation is beginning to take hold of all but the most starry-eyed dreamers. Our journalist, Severing, has split from our artist, Marthe, and they have followed very different paths into the heart of darkness opening up before them all. Severing and his comrades have taken recourse in words, hoping to talk and write themselves into a solution. Marthe, liberated from the provincialism of her small-town upbringing and from the patronizing attentions of Severing, has found herself in a hidden world of pleasures and possibilities in the hidden passageways of the city. Neither will escape the coming storm, we know (like the Titanic, the final chapter has of course already been written), and Lutes is remarkably neutral as to whether one has chosen the right path.

--gg
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Featured artist

Jason Lutes

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Berlin #13




Tintin Interviews with CHRIS WARE, JASON LUTES & SETH

Updated July 18, 2006


P.O.V. (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. P.O.V. premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and innovative programs every year on PBS.


Why does the comic strip The Adventures of Tintin, about an intrepid boy reporter, continue to fascinate us decades after its publication? "Tintin and I" highlights the potent social and political underpinnings that give Tintin's world such depth, and delves into the mind of Hergé, Tintin's work-obsessed Belgian creator, to reveal the creation and development of Tintin.

SPECIAL FEATURES
Interviews
On Cartooning

Comic books are gaining acceptance as reading for grown-ups and as a serious art form. Six contemporary comic artists, including Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, talk about Hergé's influence, visual narratives and the art of cartooning.

Follow the link below to read the interviews with CHRIS WARE, JASON LUTES, and SETH.
 
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Featured artists

Jason Lutes
Seth
Chris Ware

          



  Two new D&Q comics in May

Updated April 22, 2003


The last issue of Louis Riel.
By Chester Brown.

Riveting courtroom drama in a comic book. Louis Riel, the 19th century rebel leader from the prairies, is on trial for the crime of treason against the Canadian government and his life is on the line. Chester Brown concludes his series on one of the most violent and unstable periods in Canadian history. With the final issue of Louis Riel, he depicts one of the most controversial acts ever brought down by the Canadian government, one that shaped the country and still provokes the fiercest debate today.
Find out why Canadians still quarrel whether Louis Riel is a founding father.
Look for the T-shirt this Fall!

Berlin #10 by Jason Lutes

The demonstration has left the streets of Berlin running with accusations, paranoia and blood.
Some people withdraw into the shadows and others become martyrs.

Kurt begins investigating the massacre while the unsuspecting American jazz band the Cocoa Kids begin making a name for themselves among the cabarets and dancing girls that made the glittering city famous.

Featured artists

Chester Brown
Jason Lutes

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Berlin #10




Graphic novels come of age

Updated April 11, 2003


Graphic novels come of age
By Rachel Leibrock
The Sacramento Bee
Thursday, April 10, 2003

If the cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words is true, then in the book world, a graphic novel must be priceless.

Although graphic novels take many forms -- from stand-alone stories to hardbound collections of previously issued comics -- there's been a marked increase recently in prominent titles that would fit just as well in the high-brow literary world as they would at a comic book convention.

Bound like traditional hardback or quality paperback books, these sophisticated tomes feature handsome, often-edgy artwork and smart writing.

From Jason Little's bright and stylish "Shutterbug Follies" to Jason Lutes' spare, moving "Jar of Fools," the genre and its star players and products are finally getting their mainstream due in literary circles and among in-the-know young readers.

Industry watchers say it's the latter group that's influencing the former.

"We're moving into an age where there's a growing contingent of people in their 20s and 30s who have the time and money and the interest in reading something (new)," explains Eric Wetzel, a senior editor at Book magazine. They are, Wetzel says, "people who grew up with comic books."

 
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Featured artists

Jason Lutes
Adrian Tomine

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Jar of Fools
Summer Blonde (PB)
Optic Nerve #8




  Globe & Mail: There is Life After Maus--in Berlin

Updated April 1, 2003


Special to The Globe and Mail
Life after Maus
By J.D. CONSIDINE
Saturday, Mar. 29, 2003

'Read any good graphic novels lately?"

It's not standard cocktail party chatter yet, but give it time. After decades of being stuck in the superhero ghetto, comics are once again being taken seriously.

Thanks to such titles as Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde and Jason Lutes's Berlin: City of Stones, graphic novels are reviewed in major newspapers, carried in mainstream bookstores, and consumed by people who wouldn't think of reading Spider-Man or Spawn.

"They're the hot new thing," says Gary Groth, who both heads the Seattle-based Fantagraphics publishing house and edits The Comics Journal. "Graphic novels are coming into a new cachet."

Of course, they've been there before.

© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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Featured artist

Jason Lutes

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Berlin, Book One: City of Stones
Berlin #10




TCAF Coverage in NOW Toronto

Updated March 27, 2003


COMICS GROW UP
COMPREHENSIVE FEST SPOTLIGHTS TOP GRAPHIC NOVELISTS
BY EMILY POHL-WEARY

Toronto Comic Arts Festival runs Friday-Saturday (March 28-29).

It's about time Toronto gave credit to the talents who make up our insular but burgeoning community of cartoonists, inkers and animators. The marginalized genre is gaining recognition (Nick Hornby penned a special feature on the subject in the New York Times book review section recently), and local artists are at the movement's cutting edge.

This weekend's large-scale Toronto Comic Arts Festival feels like a shower of comicky goodness after a drought. It was conceived by alt-minded visionary Peter Birkemoe, owner of long-standing comic bookstore the Beguiling on Markham.

"The comics medium is one of the very few visual media that let you do it all yourself -- write, draw and produce the things," says Birkemoe. "It's very much like a film except that it's essentially a one-person show. The best comics are made by an individual creator."

All day Saturday you can check out artists' wares and listen to panel discussions with veteran Canadian artists like Chester Brown (creator of the infamous Louis Riel comic), Darwyn Cook, who recently redesigned Catwoman for DC Comics, and Seth (the mind behind Palookaville).

Also expect to see out-of-towners like David Mack from Kentucky, who straddles the indie and mainstream comic worlds with his own series, Kabuki, and recent artwork for Marvel's Daredevil, and Phoebe Gloeckner (A Child's Life, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl).

An exhibition at Trinity-St. Paul's includes work by over 50 artists, and the afternoon symposium at the Tranzac is filled with industry-specific panel discussions, including ones on the history of comics in Toronto, women and comics, self-publishing and how to break into the mainstream.

In the afternoon, the $20 Strip Show, a one-of-a-kind art show and festival fundraiser, features enlarged comic strips inked by this year's guests. Then the day's topped off with an evening of artists' presentations, followed by alt-country band the Jane Waynes.

Tomorrow night (Friday, March 28) there's a launch for Toronto's hardest-working cartoonist, Matthew Blackett. Eight issues of his cartoon M@B -- NOW critics' fave underground publication for 2002 -- have been collected into one odd little perfect-bound package.

"The book encompasses my time living in the area and captures the intricacies of the sidewalk ballet," says Blackett.

Anyone who frequents the College strip will agree that Wide Collar Crimes is perfect bathroom reading material -- you'll even recognize your friends. In fact, if you hang out long enough, you'll probably see Blackett himself postering the hood with M@B propaganda.

Hallucinatory Vancouver indie artist Marc Bell will be selling copies of his hot-off-the-press Highwater book, Shrimpy And Paul And Friends. His two penile characters frolic in a world of hypnotizing soccer balls and booze. Too bad Bell's book didn't arrive from the New York publisher in time for him to launch it last Sunday with local talent Marc Ngui, creator of Enter Avariz, half anti-corporate manifesto and half Super Mario Brothers game.

Bell's small-press stuff ably displays his skill and the creativity that goes into his weird mini-universes. My favourite is The Stacks, a graphic rant aimed at the Canada Council, who kept denying him funding. Bell's meticulous and detailed response was to send them a chapbook of brick snakes. That's right, brick snakes.

Comic press Drawn and Quarterly also launches Paul Has A Summer Job, by Michel Rabagliati, who, having grown up in Montreal on classic French graphic novels like Tintin and Asterix, has a style and content that are distinctively Quebecois.

Pedlar Press has also produced an offering by Toronto's Lorenz Peter. Chaos Mission is about two northern Albertan teens who escape suburbia and begin a harrowing journey to the big city full of poverty and drugs.

The fest offers a unique opportunity to experience all this work together in one place. The community is by nature a transient one, and the self-publishers who produce limited-edition one-offs are often the most interesting.

Catch them now, because today's indie rising star might be sucked up by Disney tomorrow.
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Featured artists

Jason Lutes
Seth
Michel Rabagliati

           Featured products

Paul Has a Summer Job
Berlin, Book One: City of Stones
Palooka-Ville #16




  San Francisco Chronicle, August 14, 1999

Updated March 19, 2003



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Drawn & Quarterly
Jason Lutes
Adrian Tomine

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Sleepwalk and Other Stories
The Little Man: Short Strips 1980-1995 (PB)




Jason Lutes guest at Toronto Comics Fest

Updated March 19, 2003


Jason Lutes will be a special guest attending the Toronto Comic Arts festival being held March 29th, 2003 at Trinity St. Paul's.

Unfortunately, contrary to what was previously announced, there will not be Berlin 10 available at that time.
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Jason Lutes

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Berlin #10




Lutes at Forefront of Graphic Literature

Updated March 17, 2003


Asheville, NC Citizen-Times, Feb. 21 2003
Guess what's at the cutting edge of literature? Cartoons
By Rob Neufeld

Why does the inclusion of illustrations in works of literature act as a dividing line between adult and juvenile readers? The question emerges as we see a rise in the quality and status of graphic novels - that is, general fiction told in the form of cartoon strips.

Cartoons - or simplified, narrative visuals - are old inventions, actually. Using pictures - in a serial way - to tell stories had been a sophisticated technique in preliterate societies. Witness Egyptian hieroglyphic murals, church stained glass windows and Plains Indian teepee narratives.

Yet, graphic novels suffer from a close connection to comic books - a reputation that has been mostly deserved as of late.

Now, with the growth of the field, we are in a position to cheer the development of an art form that, after all, mimics what we do when we tell stories orally - adds gestural cues. Whereas most graphic novelists are enmeshed either in superhero boy-dreams or in subculture raunch, there are a growing number who are fulfilling the "novel" part of "graphic novels."

Asheville's new resident graphic novelist, Jason Lutes, comes from an academic family. His latest work, "Berlin: City of Stones, Book One," is, not coincidentally, the closest thing to a literary novel in graphic novel form that I've ever seen.


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Featured artist

Jason Lutes

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Berlin, Book One: City of Stones
Berlin #09




Lutes & Rabagliati at Toronto Comic Art Fest!

Updated March 13, 2003


Premiering some new works, D&Q artists Jason Lutes and Michel Rabagliati along with Seth, Chester Brown, Maurice Vellekoop, Kevin Huizenga and Anders Nilsen will be attending the 1st annual Toronto Comic Arts Festival along with these distinguished international artists.

Ho Che Anderson, Gabrielle Bell, Marc Bell, Matthew (M@B) Blackett, J. Bone, Dominic Bugatto, Scott Chantler, Becky Cloonan, Michael Comeau, Darwyn Cooke, Arthur Dela Cruz, David Cullen, Mu Dafaka, Farel Dalrymple, Tom Devlin, Walter Dickinson, Catherine Doherty,
Pheobe Gloeckner, Marcel Guldemonde, Sam Hiti, Ron Kasman, Megan Kelso, Jeffrey Kilpatrick, Andy Lee, Jason Little, David Mack, Kagen McLeod, John Mejias, Sean Menard, Carla Speed McNeil, Scott Mills, Marc Ngui, Michael Noonan, Christine Norrie,
Bryan O'Malley, Joe Ollman,
Lorenz Peters, Chris Pitzer, Brian Ralph, Jason Sacher, Ben Shannon, Vincent Stall, Jay Stephens, Cameron Stewart, Diana Tamblyn, Richard G. Taylor, J. Torres, Noel Tuazon, Jose Villarubia, Rob Walton, Lauren Weinstein, and Chip Zdarsky.

***Saturday, March 29th, 2003

TORONTO COMIC ARTS FESTIVAL: EXHIBITION HALL
10am-5pm
$7 at the door, or free with TCAF Festival Pass (Passes will be on sale at this event, $20)
Trinity St. Paul's Centre, 427 Bloor Street West (Just west of Spadina, next to Dominion)

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival's main exhibit hall will open at 10am on Saturday March 29th, 2003, bringing the first ever event of it's kind to Toronto. Over 50 artists will have exhibit booths selling their books and original art to the public, as well as live painting demonstrations and special artist signings throughout the day.

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Featured artists

Jason Lutes
Michel Rabagliati

           Featured products

Paul Has a Summer Job
Berlin #10





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