US comic artist Jason Lutes on the 22 painstaking years he spent imagining 1930s Weimar from the remoteness of his drawing desk in 21st century America.
When Jason Lutes started his Berlin trilogy he was 28, and a self-described “starving artist”. By the time he drew the final panel of the 600-page historical tour-de-force, he was a recognised graphic novelist about to celebrate his 50th birthday. Last September, Drawn and Quarterly collected the three Berlin books as an omnibus. We chatted with Lutes about his sweeping love-cum-politics epic that spans the rise of Nazism from 1929’s Bloody May Day to Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933 and his no-less-epic own creative journey.
Is it true that before embarking on this journey, you were a 28-year-old art director for Seattle’s indie weekly The Stranger, and that it was an advertisement for a book of photographs called Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin that inspired your decision to start this graphic novel? Was it really that impulsive?
Yes that’s pretty much it! I was just finishing my previous book Jar of Fools and I felt I had come to an understanding about how comics work, and I was thinking about what to do next. When I saw the ad for the Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin book, I remember thinking, that’s it! That’s the next thing I’m gonna do. I decided it was going to be about Weimar Berlin. Also, from the very beginning, I had made a decision about how long it was going to be: 600 pages.
How much did you actually know about Berlin or the Weimar era back then?
Berlin only existed in my head at that point, thanks to Wings of Desire which I had seen when I was in my twenties. I’d also seen parts of the film version of Cabaret, but I really had no understanding of Weimar, the politics, or what Berlin really was. I grew up in the western United States, very far from Europe, and I had a very poor public high school education when it came to that. I was also a starving artist who couldn’t have travelled to a far-flung city like Berlin.
But concretely, what was it that so piqued your curiosity, enthused you so much that you’d decide to dedicate the next twenty years of your life to such a book?
In the ad, there was a whole description of the city at the time and it was a pretty apocalyptic paragraph like: “the jazz band played as the world spun out of control.” It was very evocative of the excitement of metropolitan culture combined with a pretty dire political situation. In retrospect, I realise that one of the things I was trying to do was educate myself about the circumstances leading up to World War II and the Holocaust, and that by studying this time period and this place, and by making a book about it, I could really take my time to figure some stuff out.
Do you think your ignorance emboldened you? Sometimes it might make it easier not to know too much about the scope or difficulty of a task before undertaking it. If we knew, we’d never, ever start!
I think that’s very true. My naiveté allowed me to even attempt it. The original vision was 24 chapters and each chapter would be 24 pages long. I remember crunching the numbers and thinking I could get it all done in 14 years. But I never thought out what that would mean for me as a son. I never thought “Jeez, I’m 28 now, I’ll be 40 by the time I’m done.” Forget about realising that I might be 50 by the time I actually get done!
Where did you start? At the local library looking for books about Weimar, or did you start drawing right away?
Both. I remember making drawings based on what I thought people might have looked like back then, without any reference at all. Soon enough I started to go to bookstores and libraries and I spent two years just reading and studying everything I could find in English because I didn’t read German. My very first drawing of the main character Marthe was based on a self-portrait by Käthe Kollwitz. And as she has an alliterative name, KK, I gave Marthe an alliterative name, MM. But one of my main goals was definitely accuracy. I was obsessed with details, like how the Berlin streets looked back then: I wanted to capture the essence of the city as much as possible. And then it wasn’t until I actually visited Berlin for the first time, which didn’t happen until I was 200 pages into the story, that I realised: ohhhh, this is just my own imaginary version of the city.
So, you didn’t actually see Berlin with your own eyes until 2003, when you had already published the first book, Berlin: City of Stones. Suddenly, you were here, confronted with the real thing and an audience of Berliners! It must have been awfully intimidating…
It was terrifying. My publisher had booked me to go to Erlangen and then I took a train to Berlin. I remember thinking: wow, this could render my project worthless. The real place could just show off the lie I am telling. And I remember being on the train and coming into the city and the sun was setting. It was beautiful, and when I got off the train, there was a moment when I felt very relieved that the reality of the place, in all of its texture and vibrancy, was so much more than anything I could have captured in a black-and-white comic book. It was different, but not contradictory.
So much has changed, right? You show Potsdamer Platz in the book, but having gone there now, it must still be difficult to imagine what it was like back then.
Yeah, but I loved that. I loved going to Potsdamer Platz and seeing it, because I was fascinated by how it had been completely transformed. There was a replica of the old traffic light I depicted there, so I could see that. The main thing was to soak up some little details. I remember just going to the elevated train stations to get some sense of what they were like. They were modernised but there were a few that had the old details, I could see the structure of the stairways and the platforms.
What has been the response of Berliners overall?
The thing I was afraid of was people thinking, “who is this arrogant American who thinks he can tell our story?” But it didn’t happen! I was very gratified and humbled by the fact that a lot of people’s overall response was basically one of gratitude. People were happy that I was choosing to tell this story, that I was choosing to pay attention to this period’s history; to their history.
Was there something in particular you wanted to see in the flesh while in Berlin?
The main thing I wanted to see was a public urinal – you know the early 20th century ones you still find there. Most of my visual research was done before the internet. The majority of the pictures I had were of landmarks and monuments. I really wanted to see the mundane things.
Did the internet change your work a lot? Did it just make everything much easier? Or was it better to have limited access, because too much information can be overwhelming and kill one’s creativity?
It’s a really good point. With the internet it became easy to do visual research, I could just select one street I was looking for and access the info quasi-instantly. But the constraints of the pre-digital age – the limited number of books, how I was looking at the same photographs over and over again, trying to find ways to imagine them from different angles… It did help me be more creative.
Your book is amazingly well researched down to the minutest details, from weather conditions (the snow in that winter of 1929), to facts and artefacts of the time, historical figures and events your fictional characters get to interact with – like main protagonist Kurt Severing working for the lefty intellectual weekly Die Weltbühne… How did you come up with that?
At the local library there was this one book called Germany’s Left Wing Intellectuals, and among them was Carl von Ossietzky and Die Weltbühne. I think that because I found that book before the internet existed, it brought a lot to my attention, and I wanted part of my story to involve journalism at the time. There’s a funny detail that I got wrong which is that in my story the magazine is the size of a newspaper, but in real life it was only nine inches tall – very, very small.
Interestingly, each protagonist moves through the narrative bringing their own story and perspective to the reader. At some point, it almost feels as if they take control over their own journey, away from their creator’s original scripting; as if they took the lead…
That’s exactly what they did. I put them together in a situation – and then followed them. The only structure I had was the historical events I would have to reach, like the 1929 May Day demonstrations, and then the elections of 1932 and what happened between those events. Who they interact with, what happens to them and other characters – everything else evolved organically.
As the lefty pacifist intellectual journalist, Kurt brings the political doom of the time; Marthe the artist evolves and adapts from being this awkward girl to a sexy hipster. Were you surprised by the way she developed?
Yeah, very much so. I wanted a strong female character who’s interesting, and I wanted to see the world through her eyes, to understand what the experience of a young woman would be like at that time. I was very surprised by her journey. She changes, and understands the world better as she grows. But she doesn’t necessarily get to a better place. You mentioned her becoming more sexy, but I didn’t anticipate that either. That was weird and I wonder how much my heterosexual male perspective made that happen unconsciously. So much of my work comes out of my unconscious and I think I was never sure where the journey would lead me.
So looking back, where do you think this journey lead you?
It’s almost an impossible question [laughs]. I think what I realised is that by trusting my unconscious and letting it go, by following my characters step by step, I was listening to the world and processing how humans behave and why they behave the way they do. In a way, what I was listening to was what is happening now, in the United States. The current government, the recent synagogue shooting… Even though I started this book 22 years ago, one of the things I was tuning into in the culture then is exactly what’s coming to the surface now. You know, like a railroad track, where you can see the vibration and feel the train coming, right? I feel like on some level that was what I was doing.
How did it feel to quit and draw that two-decade chapter of your life to a close?
I finished the week before my 50th birthday, and I threw a huge party for my students for finishing up their projects as well. It was a huge relief, it was like a great burden was lifted off of me, and for several months I was walking on air and relaxed. My relationship within my marriage got better [laughs].
The full Berlin trilogy finally out now!
Born in New Jersey in 1967, Lutes published his first novel Jar of Fools in 1994. The three books of the Berlin trilogy – City of Stones, City of Smoke and City of Light were released between 1996 and 2018, before being collected as an omnibus last September. In March, Lutes will be in Berlin for the release of the German translation of Berlin.