Jason Lutes has been plugging away at what is – so far – his magnum opus for twelve years now, and he’s just reached the two-thirds point of the epic saga. Berlin, his twenty-four issue fiction about the final years of Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919-1933), published its sixteenth issue earlier this year, the concluding chapter of the recently released second collection: Berlin vol. 2: City of Smoke. A richly challenging series about a divergent cross-section of Berlin residents coping with the financial, political and social crises of a country still recovering from the cultural and military humiliation of World War I, Berlin touches on nearly every aspect of the German culture in the years leading up to the ascension of the Nazi Third Reich. Reached by phone after a long day teaching class at the Center for Cartoon Studies, Jason Lutes took time to talk to us about Berlin. Newsarama: Jason, Berlin recently reached 2/3s completion. How does it feel to see the home stretch in front of you now? Jason Lutes: (laughs) Good. The second book was definitely the hump to get over, and I feel content – well, relatively satisfied, as much as I can – with the way the second volume pulled together. For the first time in a long while, I’m actually excited about what lies ahead.
It has often felt like a chore or a difficult task that I have to face, though by turn it sometimes also exciting and fun. And right now, with 2/3rds behind me, I’m a little bit charged up.
NRAMA: I can see why it is sometimes exhausting. When you started this series, what was it about Berlin, circa the late 1920s and early 30s, that you found so compelling, and how did you decide on the focus for the story you’re telling?
JL: It was a very impulsive decision, not based on any … I had very little knowledge of that period of German history, and like most of my creative endeavors, it started with an impulsive decision to follow up on a specific subject. I just followed it – not to the bitter end, yet, but I chose it really at random and plumbed its depths as much as I am able.
The more I got into it, the more I read about it after making the decision, the more I found that was genuinely interesting to me, and that resonated with the way I look at the world and the things that are going on the world currently. The deeper I got into it, the more sense it made. But it was initially pretty arbitrary.
NRAMA: You really make an effort to show as many parts of the culture as possible. The main characters Kurt, a leftist, cynical writer, and Marte, a small town woman who draws portraits and dives into the Berlin nightlife, but we also seeCommunist sympathizers, black jazz musicians from America, struggling workers – how do you balance everything?
JL: Precariously (laughs). You know, some parts are balanced better than others. I think it is very much keeping a number of plates spinning in the air and trying to make sure that I don’t just keep adding plates to the point that it becomes so confusing and chaotic that nobody can follow what I’m doing. I set a couple of plates spinning, which was the relationship between the two main characters Kurt and Marthe. From there, I chose points to spin off from, following secondary characters, always with the intent of portraying, or at least touching upon, the different social strata, showing the lives of people from different walks of life who were all living there at the time. I wanted to show both how their lives were related in some ways and not connected at all in other ways, but mainly, how they all wove through the time and place they inhabited.
Probably, the biggest challenge has been exactly that – keeping them all balanced so that the reader’s attention isn’t so fragmented that they cannot follow any of the threads, but diverse enough that you get a richer idea of the place and time. Like I said earlier, ultimately, I’m pretty happy with the way it’s gone, but readers do tell me that they get confused about which character is which sometimes. It doesn’t help that it’s been coming out at a very, very slow pace over the past ten or twelve years. That also led to a lot of questions on the part of the reader.
NRAMA: This era is mostly remembered for leading up to World War II and the Holocaust, and in addition to the Jewish suffering, we’re seeing here that influential portions of the German culture were rife with all types of unrest and uncertainty, lots of prejudice and bigotry, weren’t they? It seems that we’re witnessing a descent into a people who are so absorbed in looking out for themselves that they can’t see what’s happening to their neighbors.
JL: Yeah, yeah, very much. The series of events and factors that led up to all the horrible things that followed could not – I mean, there were very prescient, very smart people at the time who recognized the direction in which things were going. Those voices were few and tended to get lost in the cacophony of various people who were calling for this or that. There was so much going on, and it was such a confusing time for a lot of people. They were trying to forge a new kind of government out of the power vacuum left by a monarchy. World War I had basically been a disaster for the German people. It was just a very, very unstable environment with a lot of forces vying for power, so I would say that most people on the ground had the sense that very, very powerful things were happening, and they could see it happening all around them. People fighting and protesting, and very few people did not have a strong political stance. But in terms of where the whole society would eventually lead, I think there were only a handful of people who really saw the writing on the wall. Most people were just carrying on with their immediate concerns, trying to get by.
NRAMA: You also deal extensively with homosexuality and race in the second arc. How much did those minority issues open up the tensions of the city to you?
JL: From the very beginning, I’d made a list of aspects of human existence that I wanted to try to touch on. I’ve never had a political goal with this story; I’ve never had a point that I’ve been trying to make. It’s really been an effort to make a portrait, as much as I am able. It was sort of a two-fold challenge. One was to try to recreate a time and place which doesn’t exist anymore and which I had no experience of, so to use my imagination combined with historical research to create something. Second, I wanted to show the diversity and depth of human experience within that time and place.
I remember, initially, when I was setting up to start the book. I made a list of the kinds of things I wanted to touch on, and one of them was the five senses. I wanted the reader to be able to see, hear, smell, touch, taste things – put details in there that would convey as full a picture of the time as I could. Along with that was, well what is the extent of human sexuality? I can’t possibly touch on all the different nuances and variations, but I can try to address some aspects of sexuality that were there. In retrospect, Berlin at the time was known for being a very attractive hotbed for that kind of life. If you were a homosexual living anywhere in the vicinity of Berlin and you weren’t completely repressed or closeted about it, that’s the place you went.
That diversity is also how the city relates to it being at the forefront of cultural progress in lots of different ways. The Weimar Republic ended up being a failed experiment, but at that time, there was a lot of intense activity of all different kinds. Creatively, the art world had amazing things happening, and scientific discoveries and technological advances were happening every day. It was a very exciting place. I think that my attention to sexuality and to the idea of having diversity of characters – bringing in some American jazz musicians – allows me to see things from a different angle. It’s all an effort partly to get out of my own way. It’s very easy for me as a writer to unconsciously, reflexively sort of write what I know about, without really challenging myself to get out of my own experiences. Part of the goal was that, to deal with characters, situations and feelings that I haven’t personally had, to try to empathize and explore those facets of the characters – whether their racial background or sexuality or whatever.
NRAMA: Although Berlin is fiction, Jason, actual historical events do occur throughout the story. How strictly does your story connect to the known truth of the time, and how liberal does your timeline allow you to be with your story?
JL: The hard historical events are pretty strict. All the ones that you could look up in a book or on the Internet, a specific event, it pretty much happens when it actually did happen. The creative license that I take is along the lines of not knowing exactly how something may have looked or exactly how... Mainly, it’s visual stuff really, where I end up having to make stuff up. Or situational, like I can’t quite figure out how charitable homeless shelters were run at the time. One of the characters ends up in a Salvation Army shelter, and I know that they existed then, but I don’t know anything about how they operated. Sort of like a soup kitchen. There’s a soup kitchen in there too, and I had to sort of piece together little hints from photographs and a couple of personal accounts that actually mention these things, and then I try to piece things together. So that gaps that I end up closing creatively are subtler and more mundane. The bigger details, like specific speeches given on certain dates or the May Day demonstration or the death of Gustav Stresemann, those all happen when they did happen in history.
NRAMA: You’ve been working on this story for at least a decade now, Jason. How tightly did you plot the series when you started, and how closely are you hewing to the original idea of where you would end up?
JL: My best working method that I’ve developed has been to create a loose structure and then improvise within it. So at the very beginning, I decided that Berlin was going to be twenty-four chapters of twenty-four pages each, so I knew how long it was going to be, to the page. I had a very specific page restriction, and one of the challenges there – there are two sides to it: There’s a nice structural limitation on what I can do, so I really know how much real estate I have to work with and what I can accomplish within that very limited space. But it also of course is a restriction on how long the story can be. So I knew the hard page count, and I decided that it would be divided into three volumes, and that each volume would have a loose theme to unify it. The first book is City of Stones, the second City of Smoke, and the last one will be City of Light, and that to me, the way that I envisioned those three different subtitles was partly to explore the city through those very general terms, but also as a kind of progression from material to immaterial, moving from stone to smoke to light is a kind of disintegration. So that was a very loose organizing principle that I used, and I decided that it was going to go from 1927 to 1933. I broke down a timeline to figure out the relevant events that happen to affect all the characters, then figured out roughly where those would occur over the course of the entire story. From that stage, basically, I’ve been drilling down farther and farther, working out the details as I go.
It’s kind of like if I drew a really rough map of a continent, then at each stage, I go in and refine that map a little more so that I work out the ins and outs of the coastline and all the little details. Then the final refinement is when I write the chapter and nail it all down. It’s a very loose skeletal over-structure, and then I string together from one peg to another. I improvise whatever connects those two things. That improvisation comes out of all the research and all the reading. I’m just trying to feel, once I’ve created the characters, trying to put them in that environment and feel out what they would do and what would make sense.
NRAMA: It seems to me that one of the biggest problems with tackling a historical fiction like this is the dissociation from the historical culture modern readers face. The characters in Berlin, they’ve only recently gone through the economic turmoil of being World War I’s great loser, right?
NRAMA: Communism is looking for a toehold all over the world, especially Europe as well.
JL: It was a good opportunity because of the power vacuum, yes.
NRAMA: With all that in mind, how do you try to get all that across without readers having to do extensive wiki'ing?
JL: (laughs) I guess that if anything, I err on the side of not being expository enough. When I go back and read City of Stones, I feel like I was too expository, like there were too many characters trying to explain things, so that’s a tough balance to figure. Part of the goal of having a character who doesn’t know very much come in from a small town was to allow the reader to see the situation through her eyes. So Marthe is exposed to all this with you. She may be confused, and the readers, if they don’t know much about the history, may not understand all the implications of what people are saying, but my hope is that ultimately, they’ll be more interested in what happens to the characters, and that stuff will make more sense as they get farther along. Or they’ll just care about what’s happening to the characters and not really worry much about the background. Although ideally, I hope in some way, it is provocation for people to do the research. I think one of the great things about Internet access is having the resources to quickly fill a gap in our knowledge.
The other direction, being too expository or having some kind of text preamble where I try to set the stage, none of those options appealed very much to me. The trade-off, of course, is that it does feel chaotic and confusing at times to be immersed in this history.
NRAMA: Eight more issues to go, what’s next for the residents of Berlin?
JL: It’s all going downhill.
I guess that’s obvious. It will be happy and sad (laughs). I guess the surprise to me is that Silvia Braun, the daughter of Gudrun Braun, has become a prominent character, which I never anticipated. Her story is going to be the meat of the last book. Her relationship with David Schwartz, the Jewish kid, is big. The three books are also defined by sets of relationships: in the first volume it’s Kurt and Marthe, in the second it’s Kid Hogan and Pola the cabaret performer, and in the last book it will be Silvia and David. And then, I honestly can’t tell you much else (laughs). I know some of the facts; I can tell you that Hitler’s going to come to power.
JL: Beyond that, I’ve begun working it out, but none of it is nailed down enough that I can give you much more.
NRAMA: All right. We’ll be waiting to see how all the pieces fall together then. Anything else in the works you’d like to mention?
JL: Last year I did a book about Houdini (Houdini: the Handcuff King) through Hyperion. I feel I have an endless amount of comic stories in me, and I’m a very slow artist – obviously. I am trying to hook up with artists who are willing to draw the stories that I write. The Houdini book was a result of that effort, and out of that book has come an Amelia Earhart book from the same publisher (which is written by Sarah Stewart Taylor, broken down by me, and drawn by Ben Towle). And I have a western in the works that may come out through a French publisher first. That’s my other big project right now. It’s a western that tries to turn the genre on its head a little bit, or at least look at it through a different lens.
Berlin vol. 2: City of Smoke is currently available from Drawn & Quarterly.