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INTERVIEW: Jason Lutes Talks the Final Days of “Berlin”

by  in Comic News Comment
INTERVIEW: Jason Lutes Talks the Final Days of “Berlin”

Following a devastating defeat in World War I, Germany embarked on what its citizens hoped would be a golden model of human achievement. However, the Weimar Republic incarnation of the country’s history was bedeviled by economic imbalance, social and racial strife, and radicalized factions that demonized their foes rather than striving to understand them. As even the most cursory knowledge of history tells us, this chaos paved the way for the horrific events of the Holocaust and World War II.

For nearly twenty years, cartoonist Jason Lutes has been examining that tumultuous era of German society in the pages of “Berlin.” At the center of the comic’s ensemble cast stand journalist Kurt Severing, hard-headed and serious, and artist Marthe Müller, affable and spirited. Around them revolve desperate children, Jewish businessmen, communist laborers, art students, National Socialist hardliners, Black jazz musicians and more. The intended trilogy of books is nearly complete — with “Berlin” vol. 1 “City of Stone” and vol. 2 “City of Smoke” both published by Drawn and Quarterly.

With the publication of issue 19 this summer, the final arc reaches its midpoint as Lutes brings “Berlin” into the home stretch. In “City of Light,” the National Socialists have taken power, and all around themselves, the residents of Berlin can see the storm clouds gathering. Nobody, however, can guess the severity of the storm to come.

CBR News: Although they went in different directions in “City of Smoke,” the new arc, “City of Light,” seems to find Kurt Severing and Marthe Müller moving back into each other’s orbits. In issue 19, they are each separated from their other major partner — Kurt’s editor Carl, and Marthe’s lover Anna — so they’re both somewhat adrift, wouldn’t you say?

Jason Lutes: Kurt knows who he is and is true to his beliefs, but the way reality is putting those beliefs to the test is causing him to unravel. Marthe came in to the city not really knowing who she was, but has been figuring it out. I would say that, from my perspective, Kurt is adrift and Marthe is drifting. She’s more comfortable in that state because having an anchor or stability is not as important to her.

They work as fascinating counterpoints to one another. Do you find their dynamic helps to drive the narrative of “Berlin”?

For me, it does. How these two characters relate and interact with one another is one of the things that keeps me tied to the story. I’m interested in who they are, how their connection has developed, and where it’s going. Early on, aspects of their relationship were derived from my own personal experience, but that gradually shifted, and now I’m exploring who they are as independent characters.

Silvia also comes to a major crossroads. In addition to representing youth, Silvia crosses the most barriers of any character — she’s poor and homeless, her murdered mother a Communist, her father an unemployed National Socialist, and she’s taken in by a fairly well-off Jewish family — she’s living on the crossroads of nearly every conflict in city, isn’t she?

Yeah. It’s interesting that it’s turned out that way. I had not envisioned or intended Silvia to be a major character, much less one who crossed the boundaries you describe. I care about all of the characters to one degree or another, but these days I feel most invested in her. I know in part that’s because I had two kids in the midst of writing this book, and I want the best for them in a world where the future does not look so bright. I want the best for Silvia too, so one challenge I face is to resist compromising the story to protect her.

Interestingly, Hitler himself has so far has only the briefest cameo appearance. You’re not really looking at the major world-shaking players here — “Berlin” is really focused on the residents of the city itself and social/economic turmoil that allowed the National Socialist party to seize control, right?

One original goal of the book was to focus on the day-to-day lives of (fictionalized notions of) people who were not in the spotlight, and I’ve tried to retain that focus. In the beginning I didn’t want to bring Hitler into it at all, but as things progressed it became clear that I couldn’t do that — there was a growing Hitler-shaped void in the narrative. It’s related to my choice to leave out swastikas — the symbol and the man are so heavily loaded now, that it’s impossible for the reader to experience them the way people living at the time did. So, yes, primarily I want to explore the way the social/political/economic situation impacted “real people,” but now I also recognize the need to acknowledge and incorporate (to a limited degree) the historical actors who seized and manipulated that situation.

For all the complaints today about “liberal media” and “FOX News propaganda,” people seem to think that there was some golden era of perfect, unbiased journalism. It’s quite shocking to see Severing’s newspaper staff outright discussing the message they want to put forward and how to shape public opinion, isn’t it? (And they don’t wind up doing a very good job, I might add!)

I don’t find it shocking. It’s clearly been the case throughout the history of the printed word. “Die Weltbühne” was an explicitly a leftist/socialist publication, much like any number of political journals published today, and made no bones about its position. The difference between FOX News and a magazine like “Die Weltbühne” is that one is devoted to critical thinking on all fronts — allowing for disagreements and differing opinions within its stable of writers — while the other mindlessly repeats party talking points handed down from the corporate heads. One is full of individual human beings invested in truth and understanding in the interest of peace; the other is devoted mongering fear and hate in order to keep power in the hands of the powerful.

In the second volume, “City of Smoke,” we get to see more of the city’s subcultures, as we see gay and Black culture in Berlin alongside the social and economic upheaval that’s been ongoing. Obviously the anti-Semitism of the era is well documented, but what’s really interesting is how most of these groups — while they’re treated very poorly — don’t really see how dangerous Germany is about to become.

From all of my reading, it seems clear that anyone who was paying attention knew that things were going from bad to worse, but few could conceive of exactly how bad they might get. No one imagined something like the Holocaust was possible, in the same way that, prior to 1914, no one could conceive of the unprecedented level of violence and death wrought by World War I. We all have our fantasies of a dark future, divined from present-day evidence, but few of us can imagine the specific ways in which that darkness will ultimately manifest.

Beyond all the ongoing story threads and developing character arcs, I love the small moments when you’ll show a group of characters, each with a single thought balloon above each person showing what’s occupying their mind at that moment. It’s a great snippet into the diversity of the city and how these bigger societal issues were not always in the forefront of most citizens daily concerns. How did that storytelling technique wind its way into your toolbox for “Berlin”?

That came pretty directly from two sources of inspiration: “Wings of Desire,” the 1987 film by Wim Wenders; and “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” the 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin. The former is populated by angels who wander the city listening to the thoughts of passersby, and the latter is an impressionistic portrait of Berlin in the Weimar period, with many passages the fragmented internal voice of its protagonist, Franz Biberkopf.

Is it me, or does “Berlin” seem to reflect the United States more every year?

I thought so in particular when I started it waaay back in 1996, but over time I’ve grown wary of direct comparisons. What’s become more important to me is not to compare or prognosticate based on specific details, but to examine those aspects of human nature which underlie all injustice and terror in the world. Fear, self-loathing, insecurity; the need we feel to demonize and subjugate others in order to assure our own superiority; basic disconnection from fellow human beings. How do these things come to be, and how can we address them on a broad (or any) scale? Those, to me, are the things that are worth investigating. The temptation to, say, compare someone to a Nazi, needs to be resisted. There’s a fine line between truly learning from history and reducing it to symbolic shorthand in order to score ideological points. Not to imply that your question does that!

“Berlin” #1 was cover-dated April 1996. Can you believe you’ve devoted now nearly twenty years to this series? Is it still plotted out to run 24 issues?

No, I can’t. And it’s now slated to end with issue #22.

#19 is the first issue since early 2012, over three years ago, and you’ve produced only three issues in the last seven years. Obviously, the research involved is tremendous, but can I hope that we’ll be seeing the final three chapters sooner rather than later?

It’s been a hard past few years, no doubt about it. Suffice it to say that no one wants me to be done with this project as soon as possible more than I. My current goal is to have #22 at the printer by the end of 2016.

You’re still teaching at the Center for Cartoon Studies, correct? How do you enjoy enjoy molding tomorrow’s great cartoonists?

It’s the best job I could hope for. Every day in class, I get to work with amazing, talented people who are passionate about comics. Helping twenty people every year figure out and work toward realizing their individual creative voices is the most satisfying job I can imagine. There’s no doubt that the demands of teaching have impacted my work on “Berlin,” and it’s impossible to quantify, but my gut feeling is that my work in the classroom has a greater and more positive impact than all of my comics work put together.

Do you have any other projects coming up besides the slow burn to “Berlin’s” conclusion?

No specific comics projects at the moment, although I have notebooks full of ideas. My hobby sideline right now is writing and editing books for role-playing games, which is my other great creative passion.

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