In the third and final part of our conversation with the Jar of Fools author, we discuss empathy for citizens of pre-war Berlin, Houdini’s belief in the existence of magic, and how Jason Lutes’s “hippy” beliefs have played a role in his comics.
Is it important that people reading the book get so absorbed in the story that they essentially forget what it’s leading up to?
Yeah, actually. I mean there are going to be plenty of reminders. Hilter actually shows up in the thir volume.
Every time you close the book for a little while—
It’s like, “oh yeah, right!”
That’s a very good observation. For me personally, when I sit down and do it, I really want to beat you there. I really want to have you understand that time in the context of the era. What was it like for those people? It was also very much an effort to understand my own world. Here we are very much in a time in history when all kinds of things are happening, and we’re not necessarily conscious of the part we’re playing.
Do you feel like we’re actually heading toward that point?
Well, during the Bush presidency, absolutely. I actually started writing this during the Clinton presidency. My cynicism about politics actually started then, but I liked the Clinton presidency. I just started thinking about how these things happened in the past, and how they’re still very present. The Bush presidency based its entire philosophical approach on those things. There’s no question about it. that’s how they got things done, and that’s how they got their got there friends rich. I don’t know any other way to explain it.
Well, yeah, sure. That’s how they won over followers. But the guys who were leading the government, I can’t really believe that they believed that. I mean, I believe that George Bush himself might. But it was a Cheney presidency. [Pause] But the big question now is something like global warming. The actual state of the planet is in question.
Something potentially even more terrifying.
Exactly. We’re talking about the human race. And the first people that are going to get hit are people in third-world countries who live close to sea level. At what point are you able to recognize that and take action? And what degree of action can you take, as a single person? When you look back at the rise of Hitler, there were a lot of groups rallying to organize behind a certain political philosophy, and obviously people on all sides got a lot accomplished that way. But then what can an individual really do?
Then one of the things that became really interesting with the writer character, he’s part of a circle of intellectual people at the time who really tried to view everything as objectively as possible, and not chose a side, because it was very clear that all of those ideaologies had downsides. At a certain point—and my main journalist character goes through this crisis—it becomes very clear that it’s going to go one way or another, but it’s very clear that it’s going to go. There’s going to be a shift in power, what can you do? What do you do? Are you going to wait and just survive, or are you going to go the other way and become a target?
When you take a movie like Schindler’s List or even Valkyrie—both of which are based at least somewhat on reality—they have this sort of American ideological viewpoint that one person can make a big difference.
Yeah, it is very much so. The idea of individualism in America has been one of the basic tenets of our existence for a very long time. You can pull yourself up by your boostraps. You can be the president of the United States. The individual matters.
Are these stories ultimately here to make us feel better about ourselves? That one person really can make a difference?
Then the question becomes: can they?
Sure, if you’re Hitler.
[Laughs] Well, yeah. That’s the other side of the token. But it really becomes a question of learning how to control masses of people.
Schindler’s work was obviously incredibly heroic, but ultimately, it becomes a matter of scale. It’s not even close.
How can you measure that, right?
Let’s shift for a second—it seems like one of your other primary fascinations is magic.
Not so much anymore. When I did Jar of Fools, yeah. Definitely magic as a metaphor, again. I was really interested in the idea that everybody know that it’s a trick. Back in the 20s and 30s, there was genuine feelings of supernatural doings. A lot of people believed that it was the devil…
What changed? Religion phasing out? People turning more heavily toward science?
Yeah, science and popular media. Houdini, during his career, was very much up front about the fact that anybody could do this, if they practiced enough. He put out a catalog of magic devices that you could buy. One of the reasons I’m especially fascinated by Houdini is that he really wanted to believe in magic. He wanted it to be real and spent a lot of time tracking down, researching, and debunking people who claimed to have magical powers. There was a spirit medium craze in the 20s, on the east coast, where people held séances and talked to the dead and all of that, and he would go around and in the middle of the event would reveal who he was and say, “you’ve been hoodwinked.” The reason was, he really wanted to find real magic. And all his career and life, he was constantly frustrated by that.
He said the closest he ever got was, he’d do this trick where his wife Bess was inside a locked trunk in a straight jacket, and she’d have padlocks all around her, and he’d be on stage. You’d see her get all suited up and get inside, and he’d raise this rod up with a curtain on it, and then two seconds later, she’d be standing outside of the trunk and he’d be inside, all locked up. He said the closest thing he’d ever come to feeling like something was magic—and they’d rehearsed that all the time—it had become such second nature, that from the moment he’d raise that curtain, it was almost like he’d lost conciousness until he was inside the trunk, because it was a purely physical activity.
The closest he ever came to experiencing magic was an aspect of an illusion he created?
Yeah, and the thing I find interesting is that it’s almost like meditation or prayer. He had rehearsed it so much that it became an instantaneous, unconscious act.
Do you feel like you have that same sort of fascination?
That I want to believe? Well, I do believe that there’s a basic connection between all matter. I do believe in a bond, and you can tune out all the background and put yourself in touch with that, you’d consider it magic. It’s primary perception. It’s the way we all interact with one another. That’s a thing I really do believe in. I don’t think it’s hocus pocus or magic. We as a culture have pushed that away.
Has this concept played a role in any of your stories?
I wrote an autobiographical story for Dark Horse anthology, and it was all about that. That’s my sort of crackpot, hippy story.