Once he’d made the decision to create a series of pen-and-ink illustrated books about pre-war Berlin, graphic artist Jason Lutes had to look far and wide for photographs of the German capital in the doomed days of the Weimar Republic, and its people, before the rise of the Nazi party in 1933. And before the bombs of the Allied forces turned Berlin into rubble.
“Usually, when we’re looking at the past visually, the pictures we get are the postcard pictures of famous landmarks and famous people,” Lutes told lithub.com. Not what he was looking for.
Lute’s three-volume graphic novel Berlin – compiled from 20 years of serialized black-and-white strips – is rich in historical detail; he’s a 50-year-old American who’d never been to Germany before he began the project. Yes, he located photographs of daily life, taken before Hitler, fascism, war and despair had settled over the city like a black blanket. “To imagine what life was like for people at the time, I wanted to really limit my understanding of what came later,” he explained.
More than 100,000 copies of Berlin have been sold, and an omnibus edition – including all three massive volumes – has just been published. “If there was ever any doubt of a graphic novel’s ability to achieve a high level of storytelling,” raved Newsday, “this book blows it away.”
Praised for its sympathetic character studies as well as its stark visual realism, Berlin stays focused on specific citizens: Marthe Müller, a young woman escaping the memory of a brother killed in World War I; Kurt Severing, an idealistic journalist losing faith in the printed word as extremism takes hold; the Brauns, a family torn apart by poverty and politics.
Lutes will visit the Arts XChange, 515 22nd Street S., Sunday (Nov. 18) to speak, and sign copies of Berlin. The free event, from 3 to 5 p.m., is a partnership with Tombolo Books and the Florida Holocaust Museum.
The austere comic strips stay away from overt violence; indeed, Lutes avoided including swastikas, on purpose, until the very end. Berlin is about the people, and the city, in a time of great unease – the calm before the storm.
In lithub.com, Lutes was asked about certain similarities between Weimar Germany and the present-day United States. “Here’s basically somebody who’s positing himself as a strong man who will bring us all together—spouting a lot of the same rhetoric that any strong man throughout history has spouted, including Hitler,” he said.
“We’re in a place where reality feels like speculative fiction, which makes historical fiction like my book seem quaint.”