About 20 years ago, the artist and graphic novelist Jason Lutes, then living in Seattle, had an idea. Nothing surprising in that; artists and writers have ideas all the time. But this was a really big idea, the proverbial light bulb sparking in his brain.
“My next book is going to be about Weimar and it’s going to be 600 pages long,” Lutes recalled thinking.
He was off by about 40 pages. Berlin, a graphic novel set in the Weimar Republic, from 1928 to 1933, was released this month by Drawn and Quarterly, the Montreal imprint known for publishing some of the world’s foremost cartoonists. It comes in at around 560 pages, with a cast of 39 characters.
It is nothing less than a recreation and reimagining of one of the most tumultuous and dynamic eras in 20th-century history, the period between the two world wars in Germany, when the post-war society was in upheaval, and the old restraints and conventions seemed to have fallen away.
Weimar wasn’t only a time and place, it was a state of mind, in which anything and everything seemed possible. The name is still a shorthand for periods of revolutionary experimentation, when a new society seems to surge up and break through the cracks in the old.
It took Lutes approximately two years of research and sketching, and 20-plus years of drawing to complete Berlin. He finished it a week before his 50th birthday in December 2017.
“I felt incredible relief when it was over,” Lutes said in an interview in his Hartland home, where he lives with his wife and two children. “There were times when it was hard to move forward. I thought it would take 14 years. I did the first 100 pages in a reasonable time, but then other things took precedence, like paychecks and kids.”
Tackling in a graphic novel the rise of Hitler and fascism, the allure of communism, and the rise and fall of Weimar, takes a certain audacity.
It’s a subject to which many have laid claim, and it evokes strong, often proprietary feelings. Art Spiegelman broke new ground with Maus in 1991, based on his own father’s experiences as a Polish Jew in the Holocaust, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, the first awarded to a graphic novel. But Spiegelman drew on his own father’s experiences as a Polish Jew in the Holocaust, while Lutes had no such familial or historical connection.
Lutes was born in New Jersey but grew up in Montana and then California, immersing himself in such comic book classics as Hergé’s Tin Tin and Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix, as well as Western and super hero comics.
He sketched a self-portrait at age 10 sitting at a drawing table, surrounded by all the “trappings of an artist,” he said. Studying the comics was how he taught himself to draw. But for many years he thought that comics weren’t a sufficiently exalted form of expression until he enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence, where classes in the form persuaded him otherwise.
In 1991, Lutes moved to Seattle and got a job at the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, which had been co-founded by James Sturm, who would go on co-found The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction in 2004.
While he was at The Stranger Lutes also created the comic series Jar of Fools, which was later published as a graphic novel. And he met his wife, Becka Warren, now the Valley Food & Farm communications coordinator at Vital Communities in White River Junction. Lutes and Warren moved to Vermont in 2007 so Lutes could take a position at The Center for Cartoon Studies and to be closer to Warren’s parents in Grafton, Vt., They lived in Woodstock before moving to Hartland.
Prior to Berlin, Lutes’ exposure to the interwar period of German history had been limited to a few lessons in school and some World War II movies, he said. Further education came at RISD, where he took a class on Jewish history and folklore. And he’d seen clips from the film Cabaret, the groundbreaking musical set in Berlin in 1931. But those alone wouldn’t necessarily lead to the leap of imagination that Lutes had.
“This project was born out of the enthusiasm and ignorance of youth. As you get older you realize, wow, how wonderfully foolish that was. Most people would have abandoned it,” Sturm said in a phone interview.
Lutes doesn’t disagree. If he’d known then what he knows now, as the saying goes, he might not have embarked on such an ambitious project. But he had an intellectual connection, and that was enough. That was everything, really.
“My unconscious was telling me what to do,” he said. “If I already knew a lot about that material I might have been less interested. The complexity is part of what interested me. The more I read about the aspects of the culture, the more I wanted to do it.”
There was an inciting artifact of sorts. While living in Seattle, Lutes came across the book Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin: A Scrapbook of the Twenties by Wolf Von Eckardt, who had escaped Germany with his mother and sister in 1936, ending up in New York. (Von Eckardt later on went to write art and architecture criticism for the Washington Post.)
Brecht’s Berlin captured in photographs and prose the city’s louche atmosphere, the heady feeling of political and artistic ferment, its nightclubs, theaters and dance and beer halls, its demimonde and its upper crust, but also the poverty in plain sight.
Lutes does the same in Berlin. The story begins with Marthe Müller, a young woman arriving in Berlin on the train, where she has met Kurt Severing, a journalist whose feeling about life is fairly well summed up in the word “weltschmerz,” a resigned world weariness.
Müller, whom Lutes based on the German artist Käthe Kollwitz, has left her comfortable middle-class family in Cologne to study art in the capital. Severing, who writes for what was a real newspaper, Die Weltbühne, is an idealist masking himself as a cynic. The two become close and then become lovers.
“One writes and one draws, and together they’re like the comics,” Sturm said. “This is (Lutes’) lens of how he sees the world and how he makes sense of the world.”
Lutes has populated his Berlin with the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie, poseurs, actors, musicians and painters, parents struggling to raise their children out of poverty, young men and women drawn to fascism and communism, homeless veterans begging in the streets, Jews just beginning to sense the swell of hostility from fascist Brownshirts, journalists trying to understand the powerful political currents shaping the future, and the gay women and men who went to the city to stake out new lives, new identities. An African-American jazz band touring Europe also settles in.
“I would meet new characters as my characters met them. As that happened, more and more people would join the party,” Lutes said of how he introduced characters into the story, taking a page from Alfred Döblin’s epic 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz in which Döblin continually shifted perspective.
It’s not only the people, of course. Lutes evokes the roar and hum of a great city at a peak. Lutes felt about his Berlin the same way he did about Seattle in the early ’90s, when it drew young people from all over the country.
“If people are interacting with each other in a concentrated area, mutual interests are expressed, and little explosions of creativity occur. ... All cities do that by default but there are periods that stand out,” he said. Weimar was one of those.
Lutes became obsessed with the details that would lend authenticity to his portrait of 1920s Berlin. What a frying pan looked like, where people went to buy their vegetables, the kinds of matchbooks the well-to-do would use to light their ubiquitous cigarettes, what kinds of flowers would be the centerpiece on a café table, the horse-drawn wagons, the electric trolleys, the phonographs and typewriters, the garters men used to hold up their socks, and the women their stockings.
Now it’s possible to find many of these images online but when Lutes started the internet was in its infancy, so he haunted Seattle book shops and libraries, amassing a huge collection of books and photographs that would inform his work. As an adolescent he had played Dungeons and Dragons, a game involving role-playing and improvisation that later helped him become the characters he was drawing.
Lutes published Berlin in chapters, beginning with the first issue in 1996, which he released to the public. Comments came in from around the world. It was the response from German readers that often proved the most useful. “They would tell me things like, it’s the wrong time of year for a department store to have a Pentecost sale.”
When Lutes went to Berlin for the first time, in 2002, he was apprehensive, he said. “What if the real place was in no way like what I’d imagined? But it was and it wasn’t. You can’t totally eradicate a culture.”
He faced a certain amount of skepticism from some German journalists, who, he said, “asked me politely, ‘What gives you the right to write about our history?’ ”
He found that Germans of his own generation didn’t seem to hold the view that only Germans could tackle such fraught material; they’d been raised in a period when the desire to conceal the country’s war history, and how people had conducted themselves, far outweighed the desire to uncover it.
“A lot of German readers appreciated that it was being done,” Lutes said.
There is no small irony in the fact that Berlin is being published now, with a resurgence of far right nationalism in Germany and other European countries, as well as the efforts in this country to both detain asylum seekers at the borders and to stifle immigration from Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. We see now the same fear-mongering and scapegoating of difference as was characteristic of fascism, said Lutes.
Lutes is the first to tell you he is not a professional historian, however. Berlin is based on a “lay person’s attempt to research the period. I’ve done my best. I’m not a scholar but I’ve done my part.” (He’s included a lengthy bibliography so readers can investigate the sources.)
He made the deliberate decision not to introduce the swastika and Hitler as a person until late in the novel. Even then they are used sparingly and carefully. “The swastika allows us to immediately categorize, and I didn’t want readers to apply preconceived notions. I want readers to interact.”
And Hitler isn’t drawn as the rabid orator at open air rallies, or as a military commander. Lutes wanted to depict him as a “careful, calculating thinker. I wanted to show the business end.”
The drawings themselves are done in a crisp, expressionistic black-and-white. In one panel, Lutes might pull out into a bird’s eye view of the city, in the next he will zoom in with an intimate close-up. There are crowd scenes, and scenes with three, two and only one person in them, and meticulously rendered drawings of the city’s architecture, and its streets, parks and bridges.
“He’s very brilliant at teasing out what comics do as a medium that no other medium can do: how he crops panels and arranges them on the page, sequences where there are no words, whole passages that are purely dialogue driven, the hand-written cursive, the typewriting fonts that he hand draws,” Sturm said. “Each one is part of the toolbox of comics. Just as he explores the city of Berlin, he’s exploring the range of the medium and doing it in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself, but enriches the medium.”
Lutes’ artistry was recognized this year at San Diego Comic-Con, where he received the Inkpot Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to the fields of comics, animation, science fiction, film and television. As meaningful to Lutes was a surprise tribute from his students at CCS, who took 159 pages from Berlin, redrew them in their own styles and collected them in a book that was presented to him at this year’s graduation.
There were moments over the years when Lutes contemplated whether he had the endurance to continue. But three things pushed him forward, he said. He didn’t want to let down his readership, which had already invested in the story and characters. He didn’t want to let himself down. And he wanted to see where his characters went and what they did.
Above all, Lutes wanted to put a different spin on how to approach history, which is often taught as a series of events and facts.
“We don’t get those direct portraits of everyday life. That’s what keeps us from inhabiting history,” he said. “Putting ourselves there is the best way to get at the ground level.”