22 years is longer than some of our readers have been alive – but that’s how long it took writer and artist Jason Lutes to tell the story of Berlin, a 600-page, hyper-detailed look at the German city from 1928 to 1933 in the last years of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Berlin’s look at history follows the stories of more than a dozen major characters, crossing lines of class, politics, race and sexuality, from the jazz clubs to the working class to those both empowered and left behind by the changing times. Real-world figures occasionally appear, but the most important character, as the cliché goes, is the city itself, where these characters’ lives go on even as many never even meet one another.
Published by Drawn & Quarterly, Berlin is now complete in a couple of forms – a trilogy collecting the three arcs of the story, and a huge, one-volume hardcover. Just as readers will finally get to take in the full sweep of the series as one extended work, creator Jason Lutes has plenty of perspective on the work that’s been the focus of his creative life since 1996.
Newsarama spoke with Lutes for an extended talk – and even got a few hints at how he plans to follow up this magnum opus.
Newsarama: Jason, first off – congratulations on finishing Berlin.
Jason Lutes: Thank you!
Nrama: It sounds like you had a very specific timeframe you were working with in the story itself, this particular period in history. But it also sounds like there were some very spontaneous elements to the plot that arose as you were writing the story.
Nrama: So, I’m curious as to whether there were any elements to the structure of the story that changed as you were working on the book.
Lutes: Yeah – it was so long, and I knew it was going to be so long from the beginning, that the last thing I wanted to do was figure out everything that was going to happen out of the gate.
So, I figured out who the two central characters were, and I knew certain historical events that were going to happen and when they would happen. From there, it was a matter of following the characters and seeing what happened when they ran up against those events.
But the actual physical structure of the book – each chapter is 24 pages long, and comics are very much affected by how each page is part of the narrative, how each panel is part of each page. So, those were narrative building blocks I could use to build towards whatever the next thing was.
The page count I had settled on, so at certain points I identified events and when they took place – for example, the May Day demonstrations of 1929, I knew they would take place at the end of Chapter 8. Working through the story involved following the characters one page at a time, one scene at a time, and then following secondary and tertiary characters as they showed up. So, that all kind of grew out of improvising from the very beginning.
Nrama: The little “Who’s Who” or scorecard of characters you have in the back – once I got to the end, I was surprised at how well I’d been able to keep track of who everyone was while I was reading the book.
Lutes: That’s great!
Nrama: Maybe it’s a little easier when you’re reading it in a couple of sittings, as opposed to issue by issue…
Nrama: But I was wondering if that was a challenge for you, as a creator – having to remind yourself, for example, “So, where was Pavel when his story left off?”
Lutes: Yeah, certainly. I would go back and review stuff. I imagine readers had a similar experience – they would sit down and read one of the floppies, and then they’d read another one a year later when I had a new issue out and they’d lost their other copies and they’d go, “Wait, who’s this character again…?” [laughs]
And I had the same experience, because it’d take me so long to write and draw the story that I’d often be sketching out a scene and going, “Okay, this character’s in this scene, but what’s the last thing that happened to them…?” And I’d go back and reread the issues to find out.
It’s funny, because when I was putting together that portrait gallery at the end, I had to go back because there were characters whose names I didn’t remember! There’s very little dialogue where people’s names are actually spoken. I knew who the characters were, and I knew who they were in the story, but I didn’t remember what I’d named them. So, I’d have to go back and find out what they were – there are some characters whose names are only mentioned once.
Nrama: In a 600-page narrative.
Lutes: Yes. I’d have to pore over those pages until I could find, “Oh! That’s his name!”
Nrama: When you create something, the person you are when you started is often very different from the person who finally finishes it. And with Berlin, we’re talking about a large portion of your life and career. Did you find that how you’d changed as a person affected how you approached the later chapters of the book? Obviously, with the Weimar Republic, what’s going to happen to it is going to happen to it, but the perspective you have from life and what you’ve experienced – did that affect what you wanted to do with the characters?
Lutes: Definitely - and that’s a good way to put it, how you can’t help but change as you’re going making something. And that’s an essential part of the process - if we didn’t change while you’re making something, I don’t know how useful that thing would be! That’s part of art.
This book was very much a learning experience for me - about the world, about the wider world, about things outside of myself, about comics. The challenge was trying to maintain a certain amount of consistency - to make sure that it all felt part of the same work to the reader while 20 years of my life went by as I was making it!
I would say yes, whatever I’ve been experiencing at different points in my life has been some subtle influence on the actual story itself, but the most obvious one to me was the character Silvia Braun, who’s introduced as the daughter of this working-class family. When she was introduced, I didn’t think I was going to see much of her, that she was going to be an important character – but she turned out to be one of the main characters.
I think that my concern for her, and my desire to see what happened to her, and my hope for her future - that all grew out of the fact that I had a daughter, who is now 12 years old. So, roughly halfway through writing this book, I had this little girl whose future I was naturally concerned about as a parent.
That’s the most obvious way a life experience impacted the book. Beyond that, the impact was mostly just the subtle ways that people interact with each other - nothing that stands out.
Nrama: I did get that sense of parental protectiveness toward Silvia, because she’s one of the most active characters. Everyone else is living their lives, but her circumstances become so dire so early in the book that the question of her survival and her adjustment to circumstances becomes a major question – she’s trying not to starve to death.
Lutes: [Laughs] Her concerns are more immediate!
Nrama: Reading what you’ve described in other interviews – you have these jazz elements in the book, and you’re figuring out how to put the characters in the midst of these historical events, and that almost seems like a jazz process, that improvisation around the beat of history. Was the process like that, or was it more involved?
Lutes: No, I think that’s a very fair analogy. There’s the structure imposed by the historical events, and then there’s…the pages have a meter, the panels have a rhythm. And I’m playing with that, and kind of composing in my own way.
I’m not a musician! Chris Ware is actually a musician, and he actually works in a similar way - you can’t tell it, but a lot of it is improvised panel to panel. That’s a truly jazz-like way of doing comics. But I think you’re right, there is a relationship there, between having a structure, a regular established structure, and then figuring out ways between the set points of that structure.
That’s where comics come alive for me as a writer – I don’t want to know what happens next, because that what’s keeps me engaged in the story. I’m curious about what my characters will do. If I knew every single thing that was going to happen, I wouldn’t want to write – it’d become dead.
Seeing what would happen next, that kind of improvisation – that’s what let me finish the book, to stick it out, because it was, if you will, a melody that I wanted to see come to a conclusion.
Nrama: Going back to history itself – there was an exhibit about Renaissance-era Venice at a museum in my area last year, and they had these amazing giant aerial maps of the city that Leonardo da Vinci had done with an army of assistants, where they’d go and sketch the streets from a second-story window, and he’d try to put it together into a scale aerial point of view, centuries before there were planes.
Nrama: I bring this up because you have this visual recreation of Berlin, and yet you had to do that from such a distance. The city is obviously a character in the story, but there’s a sense of, “I know where the characters are at any given moment.” It’s almost a three-dimensional environment where you can recognize the background elements of one street or another in different scenes.
My question is: What were some of the challenges creating this sense of place from decades ago and maintaining this consistency, especially given that you didn’t set foot in the real Berlin until well after you’d started the book?
Lutes: That was very much one of my goals – that sense of immersion, to create an almost three-dimensional space.
At the time I started, there wasn’t any Internet…well, not much Internet, it was around but it wasn’t everywhere. So, I had to use this combination of paintings and photographs and maps and so many other things. I remember specifically in the opening section, there’s this page where the two main characters emerge from a train station and find themselves in the middle of Potsdamer Platz, and I remember at the time looking up the photograph of Potsdamer Platz I used for that drawing, and looking at maps, and trying to figure out which direction the photograph was taken from, and which street connected to which street.
That was the first step towards doing that throughout the rest of the book, where I’d identify these places – I had this great period map from 1928, which is actually reproduced in the endpapers of the complete book – and identify where people lived, and what streets they were on at any given point in the story.
That might not be apparent in a surface-level reading of the book, but it was an important part of it. For me, a major component of story is a sense of place. It makes me believe more in what’s going on, and it makes the story feel more grounded, if it’s happening in a physical environment that makes sense.
I gotta find that da Vinci map!
Nrama: One thing that’s interesting about Berlin is that it’s not didactic – I love the musical Cabaret as much as the next person, but there are a lot of depictions of the Weimar Republic in fiction that come down to, “How could we have been so naïve, not seen what was going on around us?”
In this story, people know the past, they have this awareness of what’s going on, but they’re caught up in living their lives, in surviving their lives. The past weighs on the present, but it’s still something that can’t avoid repeating itself or making modern life markedly worse – when you’re living your life, you’re not always going, “Well, I have to make sure the world’s not going to fall into disrepair.”
Lutes: [Laughs] “Gotta fight fascism today! Don’t forget to fight fascism!”
Nrama: Well, there’s more of that today then there was back then. But what kind of perspective did you want to take with the book in terms of past and present?
Lutes: I wanted to understand what people were going through when Europe was on the cusp of such dramatic change and such tragedy. Yeah, there were some people who were naïve, and there were some people who saw what was coming and tried to warn about it, and there were some that tried to thwart the forces that were gathering. But like you said, most people were just trying to get by – focus on survival, and hope for the best.
That’s something most people in the world can identify with – you worry about your day-to-day existence, and you work towards your next paycheck, and you try to feed your family. And if you have time, you can go out and protest, or take physical action against an impending negative outcome. Those are the challenges that face us today, and that faced people then, and that have faced anyone in history who has been in a similar situation.
Nrama: Also, given that art plays a major role in the story, what perspective do you have on the connection between art and artist in terms of how it affects this story?
Lutes: The goal is not to retell history -the goal is to retell human experience. And it was very much a self-education – I had to teach myself. I didn’t have any preconceived notions, I didn’t have this idea that, “I’m going to demonstrate facts by having these characters do these things!” The goal was to understand. The goal was to investigate.
You can try to figure out everything in a story in advance, like I said, and it dies because you knowwhat’s going to happen at every moment, or you can explore your ideas in kind of an investigative way and see what happens. And I find that much more compelling and interesting, when I treat art as a process of exploration with an open end.
It’s funny how many similarities there are now, between the book and the modern world. For a long time, making Berlin felt like stepping into a pocket universe that had some resonance with the real world around us, but not a direct resonance. So, it’s very strange to live in our current moment and feel like the walls have fallen away and it’s very much connected to the current state of life in America.
Nrama: Do you see the story as ultimately being about connection or disconnection?
Lutes: I see it as about connection. I think human connection is probably the most important thing in our world, and the increasing level of disconnection that’s occurred is very disturbing, and one of the clear reasons why our moment has the qualities it does now. But I see the book as being very much about the power of human connection, and the importance of it. It’s not a conscious theme, but it’s something I value highly, and something I think a lot about, for sure.
Nrama: Do you find yourself wondering about your characters, and what’s happened to them since you left them?
Lutes: No, actually. I care very much about them, and what happened in their past lives before they entered my story, but when the story ends, or when a given character goes off-panel, I very much want them to live in the imagination of each individual reader. And I have no notion what will happen to them there, but I’m not going to think about them! [Laughs]
I’m not going to do a sequel – I love it when a story ends in a kind of open way that allows room for different interpretations or possible futures to exist.
Nrama: You’re working on your next project, it’s going to be a series of 96-page things – the first one is going to be called Arizona 1865, correct?
Nrama: I understand that you don’t want to talk too much about a work in progress, but I am curious as to what particularly interests you about stories of the past examined from the perspective of the present.
Lutes: One of my favorite pastimes is tabletop roleplaying games – I have a weekly group I get together with, it involves a lot of collaborative storytelling with imagination and improvisation – it’s like my favorite form of entertainment.
If you look at any point in history in any place in the world, it’s an incredibly interesting place without vampires or any fantastic elements. There are a lot of “Weird West” stories for example, the old West with zombies or the like, and there’s a very clichéd and codified notion of what “The West” was from Westerns in movies and television and so on. But it was an incredibly rich, complicated time with all kinds of interesting people, and I’m taking a look at Phoenix before it was even a city, just tents on a river. And there’s all these forces at the time, and how they were interacting with each other, and it’s just fascinating…and it’s so much weirder than anything you could make up.
I bring up the roleplaying games because those have those imaginative worlds we’re creating from whole cloth, and it’s very fun and interesting because we’re creating them together. I get a very similar experience when I look at history – not from the perspective of what happened on what date, but, “What was happening on the ground? What was life like for a 16-year-old Mexican girl at that time? Why did the Union Army in Arizona at the time have ¾ of their enlisted soldiers of Mexican descent, and why were there about a dozen different tribal groups in the area at that time?”
When you start drilling down into any of this stuff, at any part of the world at any given time, there’s an endless amount of rich, fascinating detail, and that’s what I like examining. And there’s plenty of that in this place – it’s the frontier, like the city of Berlin it has all kinds of potential for things to happen, there’s the Anglo-European influence coming in, the Mexican influence coming in from the South, and no one knew where it was going to go. That kind of situation is fascinating to me.
But one of the draws was that I wanted to tell a Western story from the perspective of people who aren’t usually the focus of a Western story – the people who are just living their lives, who aren’t the marshall, aren’t the outlaw, aren’t the cattle rustlers.
Nrama: What stage are you at that work so far? Are you still researching, have you started drawing…?
Lutes: Most of the research is done; I’ve outlined about ¾ of the story, and I’ve drawn (at the time of this interview) the first page. I’m drawing smaller, I’m drawing simpler; I want it to be in color, so the first pages are a test. The drawing style is going to be different from what I used in Berlin.
Nrama: Any general thoughts on concluding Berlin, or anything you’d like to say to the fans?
Lutes: For the people who started reading it and stuck with it, I want to thank you for your patience. For the people who started reading it and stopped at some point, I completely understand! No hard feelings! [Laughs]
I’m grateful that it’s done, and I’m grateful that it’s finding an audience. And I’m grateful for all the conversations I’m going to have about it with people who’ve discovered it in the future.