At the close of City of Smoke, the second collection of Jason Lutes’s critically lauded series Berlin, the artist hit the project’s two-thirds mark. Lutes has devoted much of the last dozen-plus years of his life to the series, designed as a 24-chapter exploration of pre-war Germany, stopping along the way to collaborate with Ed Brubaker on 2001’s The Fall and Nick Bertozzi for 2007’s Houdini: The Handcuff King (part of a larger Hyperion series edited by the author). He also does time as a professor at Vermont’s Center For Cartoon Studies.
Berlin, however, seems the major focus for Lutes for the time being, and the investment has paid offm most recently with a 2009 Einser Award nomination. We kicked off our interview with a discussion of the project’s genesis, how an ad for a photography book in the back of The Nation led to a project that would consume more than a decade of his life.
Are you doing comics full-time?
No, I teach comics at the Center for Cartoon Studies up in Vermont. James Sturm started the Center up. And I also am the series editor for this Historic Americans series for Hyperion. Houdini was the first book in the series.
The one you did with Bertozzi.
Yeah. There’s also a Thoreau one and we just finished an Amelia Earhart.
It seems like a good fit. You tend toward historical stuff, generally.
Well, I’m typecast now. It’s not really a particular interest of mine.
No, no. When I started Berlin, I didn’t know anything about Berlin in the 20s. It was partly a self-education in history, but I no particular predilection toward history. I wanted to know more about stuff outside of my experience. Jar of Fools was very much about stuff I knew about personally, and I wanted to explore stuff that I didn’t know about as well.
How did that become something you wanted to write 12 graphic novels about?
It was just an impulsive decision, and I’ve learned to trust when I have the impulse. When for no apparent reason, some part of me says, ‘hey, do that,’ and I can’t immediately understand why, that’s usually a good reason.
Can you point to a specific trigger? Did you see a movie, did you read a book?
There was an ad in The Nation for a book of photographs. There was a four paragraph summary of the book that was very colorful. I thought, that’s what I’m going to do next. It’s going to be 24 chapters long, 24 pages each, and that was it, [laughs].
What are you, Rainman?
[Laughs] I’m a really big believer in intuition.
Twenty-four by twenty-four.
A big part of me is a formalist. A lot of by work is intuitive, but the way I think about comics and play around with comics, there are a lot of formal issues and constraints are really usual engines for creativity.
That’s such a specific constraint, though.
Yeah, I know. It was weird, it was random. Twenty-four pages is a standard comic book size.
Without the ads.
Yeah, yeah. The raw book is 24 pages long and I thought about how I wanted it to be a trilogy from the beginning and 24 chapters of 24 pages fit. It was just an interesting structural challenge.
So, you see an ad in The Nation—did you buy the book?
I did buy the book. Before I actually got the book, though, I knew that’s what I was doing next. That was my first look. I had only the vaguest notion about it. that was my first glimpse. And then I started to haunt libraries and used book stores and look for every possible thing that I could find on the subject.
Did the original book, once you bought it, prove to be a big influence?
No. It was interesting, because it was mostly photographs. There were a couple of photographs that were intriguing and made me want to investigate more, but it was essentially like someone had taken a lot of publicly available photographs and made a book out of it. It was a very unremarkable book, but it was, for better or worse, the gateway. That was 12 years ago.
When does an actual story begin to develop?
For like two-and-a-half years, I just read stuff. When I first had the idea, I had no characters in mind. I just had the setting. And then, as I read certain things, I got a lot a inspiration from photographs. August Sander was a photographer working at the time. He travelled all around Germany, taking photographs of people at the time. a portrait would, say, “school teacher” or “priest.”
Different stations in life.
Right. Some of them are quite famous, but he would just list their job.
He’s like the Studs Terkel of pre-war Germany.
Actually, yes. But purely visual. It was just photography. And a lot of his books of photographs are widely available today. So I discovered all of these great books of the time. I read this book at the time called Berlin Alexanderplatz, by this guy named Alfred Döblin.
That had a really huge effect on the way I wrote the story and gave me a great understanding of the time and place, much more so than any of the history books that I read. It was a novel written by a guy who was living there then. It was very much a collage of the city. Even though it had a plot and characters, it was also a portrait of a whole new kind of life for these people. Television and radio were a new thing, and the city as a metropolis with automobiles was totally new way for people to live, and this novel is a great distillation of that.
In the two years that you spent research the book, were you ever afraid that it just wouldn’t come together for you?
No. there was certainly the possibility that I wouldn’t be interested in the subject, but I think because I had the initial intuitive impulse, I just sort of trusted that there was something there for me, and I discovered that, as I read stuff, whatever my unconscious interests were, would just sort of bubble to the surface through what I consumed. And then, just looking at those books of photographs, I’d see really interesting looking people, and those people would become a character in the story.
And then pretty early on, I decided that one was going to be a man and one was going to be a woman and then one would be a writer and one would be an artist, because those are the two aspects of comics. That became writing and drawing. I didn’t know what would happen with that, but I knew that they would have a relationship and maybe there would be some kind of a metaphorical thing happening there.
It’s kind of a meta approach. It’s not about comics, but it’s about the elements of comics.
It wasn’t important, it was more like an organizing principle, the same way that I chose the structure at the beginning, I decided one would be a writer and one would be an artist an they would see the world in their respective ways. Those are two sides of comics and maybe their relationship will become a metaphor for how words and pictures work together, but what happened was, they became people to me, and it became about these two characters having an actual relationship and not about their relationship as a metaphor. She ends up not really knowing who she is and he becomes really frustrated with the fact that all he does is write.
[Continued in Part Two]