When most people think of Germany and World War II, their thoughts go straight to Hitler and the Nazi party. For writer-artist Jason Lutes, the more interesting story was the largely overshadowed failure of the Weimar Republic and the transformation of Berlin from one of Europe's most progressive cities to a center of evil and repression.
A decade ago, Lutes began chronicling that story of Berlin before the war in the 24-part comics series "Berlin," from Drawn & Quarterly. The first eight issues were collected as "Berlin: City of Stones," an the second collection, "City of Smoke," will be released this month. At the center of the story are Kurt and Marthe, two progressives seeking love as various political forces vie for control of post-World War I Germany. But the story spirals out through the city, bringing in dozens of characters as their lives intersect.
Now two-thirds of the way through the massive project, Lutes spoke with CBR News about "Berlin," his creative process, and what's in store for the final eight issues.
CBR: It has to feel good to realize you're two-thirds done with "Berlin."
Jason Lutes: That's big for me. It's a very significant milestone. It just means I've got one last long haul.
How long has it been since you first started "Berlin?"
Probably when I first started thinking about it was like 1998 or 1997. So at least 10 years ago. The first volume, it took me a long time. This one also, I guess. I'm averaging four or five years per [volume] at this point. It's been a big part of my life.
Where do you stand on book three? How do set about creating "Berlin?"
It mainly at this point consists of notes of what's going to happen. It's really a question of laying an early solid foundation. And a lot of it has been improvisational. But there is a framework within which I'm working. But if it's too locked down like that, it's not as interesting to me to tackle. If I have everything figured out it feels more like a chore when I sit down to draw it. I leave some of it open as I sit down to put it on the pages.
Before you started working on "Berlin," how thoroughly did you plan the overall story arc?
I knew was three things: One was the historical events, so that would give me something. Then I was going to follow the lives of the main characters, Kurt and Marthe; I decided I was going to follow their journey. And the third was I knew it was going to be 24 chapters of 24 pages each. I guess it was somewhat arbitrary, but I find in my creative pursuits I give myself some seemingly random constraints. With those pretty basic ideas, it was just a question of doing tons and tons of research and letting the world fill in.
I was like, okay, a quarterly book, that'll take me six years!
Why did you decide to create a story about Berlin during the Weimar, which is completely overshadowed by the rise of the Nazis?
Partly it was that instinct, I wanted to humanize German people. I wanted to have a counteraction of that great weight of villainy and evil that's been placed on the German people, and somewhat deservedly. It's such an easy way to objectify and distance yourself from something. The more you point your finger at something else, you aren't going to recognize when you behave that way in some small way.
I also knew the more I read that Berlin was the most progressive city on earth. There was freedom of thought and expression and ideas. They had more going on in art and science and philosophy. And then I was interested in the Weimar Republic as a political experiment. They bit off more than they could chew, but it was a pretty impressive attempt to forge a democracy out of the ashes. I just became fascinated in the story of why things went the way they did. World War II happened and all you hear about is the war itself. But I wanted to figure out why. That's what interested me more.
Do you have any personal connection to the story?
It turns out I am of German descent, but I didn't know that when I started the book. My family history has not been well documented. It turns out that's where my dad's side comes from. The way I usually work is I pick something to work on and ideas present themselves out of my unconscious. The more ideas came out and the more connection I had to them. Just strange things, like what a typewriter is and what it allowed people to do.
Did you know much about this material before starting "Berlin?"
I didn't really know that much at all. I had an American public high school education. The history classes I had were pretty horrible. I had one on World War II, and the week started off with the teacher putting in a videotape, and the first image was bulldozers pushing bodies into a hole. That was the first sight I got of the holocaust. And people didn't know how to talk about it. I was just kind of puzzled and appalled.
Later, after I went to art school, I was thinking about what to do next and those questions came to mind again.
What were some of the strangest things you found in your research?
There's stuff to discover around every corner. At the time in the Reichstag, which is the German parliament, there was something like 52 political parties represented. That's unheard of in America. After World War I, what happened and what came out of that; Germany losing and then the king disappears, and everyone rushed in to stake a claim on the future of the country.
"Berlin" is hugely layered with history and character interactions. How hard is that to pull all those pieces together?
It's a very messy thing. The challenge is trying to fold them all into something that reads. I try not to have an agenda. I try to look at my characters very objectively, as much as I can, without a manipulative, dramatic goal, although it's read that way to some people.
That sort of has turned out to be the biggest challenge, to keep all the plates in the air. The hardest part is making sure the reader is really clear about who the different characters are and what's happening to them in their different perspectives in their stories. And people have said they couldn't tell who was who. Some times it's successful and other times it's a dramatic failure. Those challenges are pretty interesting.
But I wanted to be more impressionistic and I didn't want to follow any conventions of how to tell a dramatic story, like Hollywood's three-act standard. I just didn't want to do that. I wanted to take a very unconventional approach, allow my instincts to take the narrative. I wanted it to be an exploration of the possibilities of the stories that could happen. And then I have to be the sheepdog, making sure it goes in one direction, it doesn't get bogged down or overwhelmed.
How much effort do you put into getting all the historical references accurate?
A German historian might take issue. As someone who doesn't read German or speak German, it's a challenge. With historical events, my notebooks always have a timeline, so if an event affects the story I can reflect that. But the book's coming out in Germany, and my German publisher has been really good about checking that stuff. And luckily so far it's been place names wrong, and once I did a train station that was totally wrong. My publisher sent someone out to take photos, and then I redrew the train station from the photos for the German edition. So I try to be accurate.
That being said, there's a point I have to allow my imagination to take over. That's where it's going to live. After filtering through that data, I see my job as using my imagination to make that stuff come alive.
Have you been to Germany since creating "Berlin?"
I had the first seven chapters done before I went. I had never set foot in Germany. I've gone over twice since then, and I'm going in October when the second book comes out.
Were there any elements or settings from the book that you wanted to visit?
The thing I really wanted to see was the most mundane things. I have a cousin living there and he lives in a working class district. There's not much photographic evidence of day-to-day life, like how the doorknobs look, but even in this particular part of town, or the patterns in the cobblestone. That's the stuff I became the most interested in. And then just getting a more immersive sense. Like taking trains different places. I'd looked at tons of maps, but getting a sense of how it laid out, where was easy to travel to and where it was hard to get to.
The city itself, it's been altered significantly. Between the war and the division, it changed a lot. So it's very fascinating. It's one of these places now I feel like I'm in love with it.
As you've made a sizeable emotional investment in "Berlin," did you have any personally significant experiences while visiting Germany?
The biggest emotional reaction I had was one of humility. What I had to come to accept was all it's ever going to be is my imaginary version of that city in that time. It's my highly idiosyncratic, American idea of that place. When I took a train into the city, I was afraid seeing the real place would change everything, my imaginary place would be shattered. The sun was going down as we went through outlying districts, and I remember feeling like I didn't get it wrong, like a sense of relief. All my work had paid off. But there's no way I could capture it. It's this complex urban environment with lives intersecting, and what an amazing and scary thing that can be -- that's what a city is. When I actually enter into the real place today, there was just a sense of complete humility. There's no way I could ever capture it.
Do you have a title for book three?
It'll be "City of Light," which I hope the Parisians won't get pissed off about. When I called the first book "City of Stones," people said, "I never heard it called that." But I wanted to get at how cities have these different aspects. So I chose these different titles for various reasons, to show the different aspects.
You haven't yet included Hitler in "Berlin," or at least he hasn't appeared. Will he show up in the third book?
He will show up. He's not going to play a prominent role, though. Despite my initial effort to not have him in there at all -- it's such a powerful image, his face and that little mustache. I wanted to avoid it. The Nazis had such a big presence in Berlin, it was ridiculous to avoid it. I know at least one scene how he fits into it.
You include in "Berlin" several different characters having homosexual experiences and a whole homosexual culture.
To me, that's a sign of a progressive culture. They still had to exist as a kind of underworld. These clubs, you could visit them, but it wasn't completely out in the open. For the time it was an incredibly open place. If you were gay and had the money, that's where you would go. So it's a reflection of that kind of possibility.
And then I also decided early on I wanted to get as many kind of human relationships in there as possible. In a sense, kind of touch on the broad aspect of human interactions. Not just sexually, but in all different ways.
What is your process like when you sit down to take your notes and create pages? It appears that you spend a lot of time on panel and page design.
I feel like if I have one sort of skill that I'm really good at, it's that. I draw well enough to get people to read my comic, and I write well enough. But I don't think I'm really great. But the thing I'm good at is the thing people don't pay attention to, the architecture of the page. When I write a script I have an outline for a chapter, and when I write the script the thumbnails and the script go together. So I'll have a thumbnail on the page and it'll have the different panel shapes and what goes in them, and right next to that I write out the dialogue. The words and the pictures, it's very important to me to have them both happening at the same time.
Do you have a timeline in mind for finishing the last eight issues?
Right now I'm teaching at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, and that wraps up in the spring. I think, realistically, it'll take me four years to do the next book. I'm saying that because it might get done sooner. Hopefully not later.
I'm 40, so I sure as hell better get it done. There's other stuff I want to do.
What else do you have going on?
I'm actually working on three different projects in a writer/editorial capactiy, but I can't talk about them. I won't be drawing any of these. I developed the stories with each individual artist. Together we would plot it out and figure out what we wanted to do. In the next two or three years hopefully one or more of those will see the light of day. Yeah, life is pretty busy.
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