Jason Lutes on His Monumental, Accidentally Prescient Berlin

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Jason Lutes on His Monumental, Accidentally Prescient <i>Berlin</i>

You could definitely kill a palmetto bug with Jason Lutes’ Berlin, published in small chunks over the span of 22 years and now compiled into a single, gorgeous volume. But you have other books that would be more expendable. Before now you would have had to track down the individual thirds of the book or even tried to get to it 1/24th at a time, and although Lutes had good reasons for putting it out that way, it sure is satisfying to be able to read it all the way through, especially at our current dark moment. Lutes talked to us on the phone for half an hour recently, and we managed to cover quite a lot (mostly by talking fast). Here’s some insight into what it feels like to pursue such a large project over many years, to be “accidentally prescient” and to be finally done with the book.

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Berlin Cover Art by Jason Lutes

Paste: Hi, Jason. I’ll do my best not to repeat too many of the questions you’ve been asked a million bazillion times, but some of them I’m going to have to ask because it’ll work better that way when it’s transcribed.
Lutes: That’s on me to try to come up with different answers!

Paste: Good luck! Why Berlin in particular?
Lutes: I chose it pretty much on instinct or almost a whim, I guess you might say. I didn’t know much about the time period or the place. I was living in Seattle, Washington, in 1996, and I had just finished Jar of Fools, which is my first book, and I felt like that had been a great learning experience. I had kind of educated myself about how comics work. I was thinking about what I was going to try to do next, and I knew I was going to do something long. And then I saw an ad in The Nation for this book of photographs of Weimar Germany. I read the ad copy for it that kind of colorfully described the city at the time, you know, like, technology and art and politics were all breaking new ground. Europe had come out of the tragedy of World War I and the world had changed in this irrevocable way because of that, and the future was kind of unwritten and wide open and all these forces were jockeying for position. That was all very inspiring, and I decided after I read that ad that that would be the subject of my next book. But I didn’t know much about Berlin or Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, beyond Cabaret. So it was a total impulse, and along with the impulse came the desire to do something long, and I decided that it was going to be 600 pages pretty much at random. That seemed like a good length to really tell an epic story.

Paste: Did you know how long it was going to take you to write and draw it?
Lutes: I looked at my rate of production for my previous book, for which I had done like a page a week (but I had had a day job while I was doing that). So I quit my day job and I decided to make a go of comics full time, and I calculated that I could finish it in 14 years [laughs]. Which in retrospect is really crazy to think that I did that when I was 26 years old.

Paste: You were like, “That’s a good idea!”
Lutes: Yeah. [Laughs] I can’t even… But now when I look back, I’m like, Did I really make that decision? But I remember crunching the numbers and saying, “Okay, it’ll take me 14 years…” And I wasn’t even thinking about like, “How am I going to make a living?” or anything like that. I was just like, this is how long the book’s going to take me if I can do 50 pages a year. And then, as time went on, it was hard to make a go of it as a starving artist. The individual chapters were coming out one at a time, and I was getting a little bit of money from them but not enough to actually make a living. And then I fell in love, had kids, had to figure out how to support a family. So the kind of day jobs took over more and more hours in my week. So it ended up taking me eight more years than anticipated. [Laughs]

Paste: Does it feel good to stop?
Lutes: To be done? Oh yeah! I drew the last page the week before my 50th birthday. My adjusted deadline, when I looked at it, I was like, If I can finish this by the time I’m 50, that’ll be great. That’s a good deadline. So I increased my rate of production and managed to just get it done under the wire. That was in December and all my students were finishing up their first semester of final projects, and my wife and I had gotten married that year after being partners for 20-something years. In our little bubble here in Vermont, it was just this really wonderful period. People ask me, “Was there a void when you finished because you weren’t working on this big project anymore?” But it was the opposite. I felt light on my feet and completely, for the moment, kind of ignoring the problems of the larger world in my little pocket of existence here. It just put me in a really great state of mind, and I was super-excited to get to work on my next project because in all that time I was working on Berlin, I had many, many other ideas for stories I wanted to tell.

Paste: Are they going to be 600 pages long?
Lutes: [Laughs] Nope! No more epics for me.

Paste: I’m curious about your process. Did you write the whole thing first or did you write it one “episode” at a time?
Lutes: My work is very constraint-driven. I’ll set up limitations for myself and then try to improvise within that. So initially I had this page length and then I broke it down into 24 chapters of 24 pages each, so I had these little units. Within each 24-page chapter in comics, as you know, the page is a narrative unit in itself, and then within each page there are the panels. So there are these building blocks with which you can kind of break stuff down and you can use to figure out structure. It’s a great framework within which to work because it forces you to edit and it forces you to figure out what you want to do on a given page. I made some outlines and in the beginning I had some themes that I wanted to address, and I figured out who my main characters were. And, of course, it takes place in a real place in history, so I knew that there were some dramatic and social events that were going to appear. And then I put my main characters on a train and sent them into the city. The process of writing each chapter was an improvisational exercise. I had done two years of research, so I had all this stuff in my head about the city and what it might have been like. So my characters arrive in the city by train and then what happens after that is just a result of them interacting with people that they know and meeting new people and interacting with each other until they end up taking on a life of their own. I sort of followed them around to see what happened to them. So it was very improvisational but within a kind of loose overarching structure.

Paste: Did you know where it was going to end when you started?
Lutes: I knew that it was going to end when Hitler becomes chancellor, in 1933, but as I wrote the story, halfway through it I might have one notion about how the book would end for specific characters, what the final note would be for them, and then three-quarters of the way through the book that shifted and became some other notion. The ending as it now sits in the book, I didn’t really write that until I was probably about 100 pages from the end.

Paste: So you would write one 24-page chunk and then pencil it and ink it. One at a time, basically.
Lutes: Yeah, that’s right.

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Berlin Interior Art by Jason Lutes

Paste: Did you change anything about how you drew over the course of this project? I feel like most people’s art definitely evolves over time.
Lutes: [Laughs] It was a big challenge. In the beginning there was a fair amount of, Okay, my original page is going to be this big. I’m going to use this pen for the panel borders because I want the panel borders to be thicker. I’m going to use this pen for the characters and the backgrounds, etc. I had the whole toolkit all set up. And then… that’s a big commitment. I mean, I want the art to look consistent all the way through and, like you say, I’m going to be getting older and I’m going to be changing as an artist. I think I’m fortunate in that I’m not particularly a stylist. My art is relatively straightforward, somewhat dry. I try to be kind of objective. I’m just trying to draw pretty, relatively realistic (not hyperrealistic) or naturalistic images. And I think because of that the style doesn’t really change. If you look at the first chapter versus the last chapter, I think I got to be a better artist. I would hope so, over 20 years of drawing. [Laughs] But there is a degree of detail that is required and, for better or worse, something I’ve become known for—all the crazy architectural stuff. And it wasn’t hard for me to maintain that. I think the best thing to happen to me within that book—the evolution that occurred for me personally as a cartoonist—is that I figured out how to draw less, to let lines suggest stuff instead of nailing it all down, to leave some backgrounds more open. There’s a certain level of hatching or shading that’s present in the book and I tried to keep that consistent, and that’s one of the labor-intensive aspects of it. I did change and grow as an artist, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that looking at the book, unless you’re really tuned in to drawing itself.

Paste: So a lot of what you’re saying sounds like a teacher, and you are a teacher, obviously. Have you learned anything from your students over the course of doing this book?
Lutes: Yes! That’s part of the classroom experience for me. The Center for Cartoon Studies is a really wonderful place to work because every year you get this fresh crop of enthusiastic, completely unique cartoonists who are just there to pursue their passion. The main thing that they do, to me, is inspire me, the energy they bring keeps me going. But the main thing that that did for me, over the course of doing this book, which got pretty hard sometimes because it was taking me so long, was seeing what they were producing, the level of commitment that they were bringing to their work. That upped the ante for me and kept me going back to my drawing table. And then, certainly, in individual cases there would be work that they would turn in for a given assignment that would completely surprise me in terms of how it would tackle a particular problem. And that’s one of the things I love about comics. It’s a relatively young medium. There are conventions, but there’s still an enormous amount of room for experimentation and play. That’s the most striking thing that I see when I look at their work. I set these parameters up for myself, both in terms of technical drawing and the kind of storytelling I was doing, but there are limits to what I did in this book. And encountering their work for any given assignment, from one to the next, they would be completely changing things up and going in different directions. So I couldn’t pick out a specific thing that I’ve learned, but in general they give me this sense of excitement and energy about this medium and are constantly showing me things through their work that are inventive and novel and unexpected. This medium still has that. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and it’s really great to be able to go into class and feel like the medium is so fresh.

Paste: It never feels like everything’s been done already. There are new things being done all the time. And that’s lovely! You went to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), right?
Lutes: Yeah.

Paste: What have you tried to do differently from your teachers there?
Lutes: [Laughs] That’s a great question. Because I did. I said to myself, okay, I’m going to be a teacher. I’m going to be teaching at the graduate-school level. I’m going to look back at my art-school experience, and the two questions I asked myself were: “What did the teachers do there that I really responded to and was positive and how can I integrate that into my work in the classroom?” and “What did they do that had a negative effect?” And there’s part of that in Berlin. There’s a scene in the art school in the book where the instructor is reviewing everybody’s drawings, and he walks around saying, “This is shit. This is shit. This is shit,” telling everybody that their drawings are terrible. And that’s directly out of my experience at RISD. I had a drawing teacher who did that the first day of class.

Paste: That seems very characteristic of art school in general. [Laughs]
Lutes: It comes from this kind of, You must be broken down and shown that your ego is meaningless, and you think you great and art is precious, but you can’t be a true artist until you give up all that. To some degree, I do believe that, but this kind of aggressive, abusive way of presenting that idea, I just have nothing but negative feelings about it. All it did was create animosity between me and my professors. I didn’t appreciate being insulted. [Laughs] I could totally recognize that my drawings weren’t what they could be, but I’m not going to then take that resentment and say, “I’m going to show you! I’m going to show you a real drawing!” I’m not going to take that energy and put it back into my drawings. I would just throw up my hands and be like, “Okay. If that’s the way it’s going to be, then I don’t want to interact with you anymore.”

Paste: It’s kind of a masculine way of teaching, to be like, “I will insult you, and then you will rise to the challenge. This is a competition.”
Lutes: Yes! That is a great observation. Although the one teacher who said everyone’s work was shit was a woman. [Laughs] But she had a very masculine approach to a lot of what she did. It’s just like, why is this the model? If I’m here to figure out how to use this medium to express myself, why is this weird abusive-parent model the one that we’re working with? Thankfully that was a small percentage of my teachers at RISD, but it did show me what I didn’t want to be as a teacher or even couldn’t be as a teacher, because there’s no way I could do that to somebody. And then the ones that were inspiring to me were the ones who were challenging and would challenge me to do better or ask me pointed questions about what I was doing and get me to consciously examine my choices. It just comes back to constructive criticism and honesty. In my classroom, very, very simply put, that manifests when you look at somebody’s work, the basic questions are—I don’t care what you’re trying to communicate, the content of your work is totally your choice, and I’m not going to evaluate your work according to your political views or whatever subject matter you choose to address, whether you’re doing the kind of manga-influenced fantasy-adventure story that I’ve seen a hundred times before or you’re doing some kind of deeply profound autobiographical story, the main questions are “What are you trying to accomplish?” and “Is it working?” “Are we confused?” “Is it doing what you want it to do?” “When I respond to this work and I tell you that I’m interpreting it this way, is that your intent? And if it’s not, how do we improve your storytelling to get closer to your intent?” So it’s like a workshop. We talk about content and ideas and emotional impact and all that stuff, but the focus of the class that I teach is very much, “let’s look at this storytelling engine and get it as finely tuned as possible.”

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Berlin Interior Art by Jason Lutes

Paste: Back to your publishing process. Why did you choose that 24-page structure? Is it inspired by floppies? I have read that you grew up on superhero comics.
Lutes: Yeah, and at the time comic book stores were still a going concern. There are much fewer of them now. But it was the primary way that you could get your comic seen, to have it be a floppy that showed up in a comic book store. The most forward-thinking bookstores were just starting to stock graphic novels on their shelves, and there weren’t a lot of graphic novels to stock. And as I had embarked on this 600-page project, breaking it up into pieces where I could put them out and get a little bit of money from them on a regular basis, made sense from a starving-artist perspective. So the existing marketplace was one kind of geared toward these floppies. And 24 pages was a standard page length. The size of the book mattered, whether or not it would get stocked at a comic book store; you couldn’t actually play too much with the dimensions. Plus it was this kind of readymade physical constraint that I had to work with, and that’s always helpful.

Paste: What did you know about fascism when you started writing this book?
Lutes: I knew Raiders of the Lost Ark. [Laughs] I knew the kind of comic-book Nazi that Captain America fought. I knew who Benito Mussolini was but not much more than the fact that he was allied with Hitler. I had very little understanding of what actual fascism is, was, is… I knew that there was this prevailing aspect of human nature in Germany (and all over the world but in Germany in particular at this time) that manifested in the creation of the National Socialist Party. So when I started the research process, I knew very little. Of course, I knew that the Nazis had been in power and perpetrated the horrors of World War II, but my understanding was from war movies I saw on TV, Cabaret.

Paste: And did you gain a better understanding of it mostly from your research?
Lutes: Yes. I realized much later that, where Jar of Fools was my self-education in comics, Berlin has been my self-education in where we are in the world today. And I think unconsciously I was looking at what happened with World War II and the Holocaust and trying to make sense of it because I had a very poor public school education where that stuff was glossed over, and I wanted a deeper understanding. There was an enormous amount of material about the war itself—especially in school that’s a lot of what we got—but what became more interesting to me was how it happened in the first place. Which seems like the most important thing! [Laughs] So it’s like preventive medicine, I guess. It’s the hardest thing to approach. After I was 200 pages into the book I realized that that was an unconscious motivation, trying to get a better understanding of how could people do this, what were the circumstances, what it is about human nature that makes this possible.

Paste: What do you think about the new rise of socialism?
Lutes: Do you mean of nationalism?

Paste: No. The nationalist stuff is easy to see. What’s interesting right now partially is that you do have candidates running as socialists again. Nationalism has always been there; it’s just more pronounced now.
Lutes: That’s true. I think it’s a response to the late-period capitalism that we’ve been living in, the dark fruits of which are now being reaped: everything from income disparity to climate change. This is the industrial age coming to a head, and I think it’s only natural that in our country, in this global context, that there are people who are smart enough to recognize what’s happening because it’s happening on such an incredible scale. There are people who are smart enough and brave enough to claim the title socialist, which has been turned into a dirty word. It makes a lot of sense that it’s happening now. But the same way that nationalist stuff has always been around but boiled to the surface now, it’s the same forces; it’s all the same kind of stuff being brought up because of the frictions that exist in the world today.

Paste: Does it feel weird to have been accidentally prescient about the present moment?
Lutes: [Laughs] It doesn’t feel weird. It feels unfortunate.

Paste: Maybe it’s fortunate!
Lutes: There was a point at which I was like… You know. Climate change. There’s a huge problem that, I’m sorry, it’s bigger than any other problem that we’re facing. There was a point at which I had that understanding and realization and was like, “Who’s going to care about this book about Nazi Germany?” And then the election happened. I wasn’t surprised when Trump won. I was fearful of his victory, but I wasn’t surprised by it. And then it’s just been obviously surreal and day-to-day chaos. It’s been a very unfortunate confirmation of the stuff I was explaining. It feels tragic. [Laughs] It makes sense that it’s happening. I wish it didn’t. I have kids. And there are so many people suffering in the world and suffering more now because of this stuff happening, not just here but all across Europe and other places. I guess my rationale was trying to get at what are the underlying forces. There’s the stuff you learn in history class that’s dates and events and sequences, but what is it about people at a visceral, emotional level that makes them respond to this stuff. That’s what I was really interested in and wanted to explore.

Paste: It’s so easy to think, “people just respond to this because they’re stupid,” but that’s not what you do in this book. You don’t ever paint anybody as just susceptible to that sort of messaging because they’re not very bright.
Lutes: Yeah. And that was definitely one of the goals. I was like, “What makes a person tick?” And certainly there are stupid people. There are stupid people all over the place, believing all kinds of different things, but lack of intelligence is not a defining factor. There’s other stuff going on there. And I was very interested in, “Who are these people as human beings?”

Paste: Last question, because I know I have to let you go. What do you do for mindless entertainment?
Lutes: I wouldn’t call it mindless, but my favorite pastime is playing tabletop role-playing games. I have a weekly game group, and it’s not mindless, because it’s very creative and people are engaging and fun, but I would rather do that than watch Netflix or a movie because it’s a super-enjoyable form of collaborative storytelling that I like a lot. For actual mindless entertainment, when I have a spare hour here or there, I might play some video games [Laughs].

Paste: Of course! Everybody needs some kind of release from the stress of the current world.
Lutes: Yes!

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Berlin Interior Art by Jason Lutes

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