Over the past 20 years, Jason Lutes has been steadfastly churning out a stunning epic, and today, for the first time, it’s out in its entirety from Drawn & Quarterly. Berlin, which he started writing and drawing in 1998, recounts the intersecting paths of a diverse group of people living in Weimar-era Berlin, and how the rise of Nazism affected them all.
It’s primarily the story of Marthe Müller, a starry-eyed young woman escaping the drudgery of middle-class expectations at art school, and Kurt Severing, a journalist desperately trying to hold onto his ideals in the face of rapidly eroding circumstances, but elsewhere Lutes tells the story of a family torn apart by conflicting ideologies; an American Jazz band contending with very familiar racism in an unfamiliar place; shifting attitudes about art, sexuality, and decadence; and, always, the looming, disillusioning shadow of fascism. With a keen eye for architectural detail, Lutes establishes a vivid sense of place, and he peoples it with distinctive, dynamic, and deeply human faces. The scope of the work is huge, but the expressiveness of his characters keeps the story grounded solidly in the heartbreaking human ramifications of political ideology. I spoke with Lutes via email about the book, his inspiration, and how unsettlingly relevant the topic is today.
What initially led you to the project, and what motivated you to keep it going for so long?
Upon finishing Jar of Fools, my first graphic novel, I felt I had a strong enough grasp of the comics medium to tell any kind of story that I wanted. I happened upon a magazine ad for a book about Weimar Berlin, and decided, “That’s it. And it’ll be 600 pages long.” After I got about 200 pages into the story I realized that initial impulse came out of an unconscious desire to understand the circumstances that led up to World War II and the Holocaust. Writing and drawing Berlin was a process of self-education.
Do you have a sense of how your contemporary perspective shaped your take on Weimar-era Berlin?
I think a lot about human nature and why individuals and groups make constructive or destructive choices. I strive to practice empathy in my daily life, and by extension try to see things from other perspectives as I look back across time to pivotal moments in history. I pay attention to relationships I see around me, and things like how a city operates at the human level, and try to integrate what I observe into my fiction. The bigger and more difficult job is actually to set aside my contemporary perspective and imagine or extrapolate things from the historical context.
Music is a constant undercurrent in the story; what were the challenges of including music in a purely visual medium?
How do you replace one form of sensory input with another in a way that communicates some part of the original? I love this sort of problem, and am always looking for ways to tackle it with comics. I’ve put song lyrics into word balloons, invented symbols to represent a particular tune, reproduced musical notation for a specific classical piece right on the page, and varied panel size over a two-page sequence in an attempt to reflect the tempo and inflection of a clarinet solo. None of these have come close to actual music, but my hope is that in each case I managed to communicate some small aspect of the listening experience.
It’s so clear you’ve done meticulous research; what was the most challenging part of researching the period and incorporating it—both visually and with regard to the history— into the story?
One challenge was figuring out all of the things that were not well-documented. There are thousands of extant images of “important” landmarks like the Brandenburg Gate or the Reichstag; very few of the interior of a working-class apartment. I would write a scene with no regard for whether I had the proper visual reference, because the content of the scene was often more important than its trappings, and then try to find the necessary material. This was particularly challenging in the early days of the internet—when I was limited to what I could find in libraries and used-book shops—but even now the most comprehensive image search can’t fill the voids on a socio-geographic map of Berlin in 1930. In many cases I had to infer the contents of a room or background from a variety of sources.
More difficult than reconstructing particular physical details, however, was trying to imagine how people moved and spoke and acted. I grew up in the western United States and had only a minimal grasp of German culture, which combined with my desire to avoid stereotyping and focus on naturalistic detail, created some real challenges. In the end I did what homework I could and then committed my choices to paper. The results, I would guess, are likely mixed.
Did you have a sense of how the story would end when you started? Did that change over the course of the project, and if so, why?
All I knew in the beginning was that the story would center on a relationship between an art student and a journalist in Berlin, starting in 1928. I had lists of high-minded themes and ideas I wanted to explore (Art! Sex! Technology!), but my primary mode of operation was to put my characters on the stage of my imagined version of the city and see where their interactions would lead me. I improvised things scene by scene and chapter by chapter, gradually building narrative momentum, but always trying to pay close attention to each moment. Most of the “plot” developments and every other character beyond Kurt and Marthe emerged from that process. I knew that certain specific historical events would figure in (the 1929 May Day demonstrations, the 1930 elections), but not how my characters would be affected by them. My process involved writing and rewriting each chapter in a “thumbnail” draft before committing to the final version, but even then I would allow myself to change images and dialogue up until the last moment. Over the twenty years it took to write and draw the book, many potential endings occurred to me, but I didn’t settle on the actual conclusion until I was less than a hundred pages from finishing.
You’ve been working on Berlin for decades now, but it’s more timely than ever; what’s it been like to conclude the project in the midst of our current political and cultural climate? Have the last several years changed your approach to writing or drawing the series at all, and if so, how?
When I started out in 1996 at the age of 28, I was in part seeking a deeper understanding of the fear-mongering, regressive thinking, nationalist ideology, and male urge to violence that characterized a certain stratum of white American life. I witnessed things happening in my neighborhood in Seattle—black kids being profiled by cops, gay men being attacked, the WTO protests and resulting cultural/political response—that seemed interconnected, and I looked to the past to see how and why. The 2016 election and ensuing (ongoing) chaos had no impact on the writing of the concluding chapters of Berlin, but brought it to resonant life for me as drew those last pages in my basement studio; a surreal, horrifying, and entirely unwelcome justification for a 558-page graphic novel begun on a whim.