City of Stones, City of Smoke – Katherine walks the streets of Berlin with Jason Lutes
This week Katherine Farmar has a very special treat for us. Jason Lutes carved a reputation for himself with Jar of Fools, which started life in Seattle’s The Stranger before being collected later by Drawn & Quarterly, along the way earning him praise from many, including the New York Times and Chris Ware. Later came his absorbing series Berlin, a literally years-in-the-making tale of multiple characters set in the inter-war Weimar Republic era in Germany, a comics work which can happily sit alongside longer-established prose works on that fascinating era such as the novels of Christopher Isherwood. With the excellent Canadian publisher D&Q releasing the long-awaited second part of Jasons’ Berlin saga, City of Smoke, and a fresh reprinting of 2000’s City of Stones, it was the perfect excuse – not that we need an excuse! – to chat to Jason about his intriguing, Weimar-era tale of the German capital, the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont where he now teaches and about prising the lid of a Jar of Fools. Over to Katherine and Jason:
(the cover to book two of Berlin, City of Smoke, by Jason Lutes, published Drawn & Quarterly)
Katherine Farmar: I’d like to start by asking about the inspiration for Berlin. What was it about that city in that particular period in its history that made you want to create a comics series about it, especially one with Berlin’s wide scope?
Jason Lutes: I was finishing up my previous book, Jar of Fools, and thinking about what I wanted to tackle next. I knew I wanted it to be big – expansive where Jar of Fools had been intimate – and about characters who were distinct from me. As it neared completion, I recognized that the characters in Jar of Fools were all embodiments of aspects of my own personality, and I found myself wanting to get outside of myself more, to try and inhabit the lives of people very different from me.
Although the decision to write and draw a 600-page book about Berlin between the wars seemed arbitrary and impulsive at the time (made as it was immediately upon seeing a magazine ad for a book on the subject), the more I researched the period, the more interesting and resonant it became to me. I do not speak or read German, had never been to Germany, and knew close to nothing about the Weimar Republic, so I saw it as an interesting challenge – one that would test my technical and imaginative capacity as a cartoonist. From the beginning the goal was to create a portrait of the city and its people, using all of the tools I had at my disposal.
(arriving in Weimar-era Berlin, the wide streets, the grand buildings and sophisticated citizens – and the horribly maimed sons of the trenches of the War To End All Wars, in an early scene from Berlin: City of Stone by Jason Lutes, published D&Q)
KF: Expansive is a good word for it. One of the things that’s so striking about Berlin is how many characters there are, and how even very minor characters who only appear in a couple of pages are given their own perspective on events, which, combined with the attention to detail in the setting, gives the work a uniquely rich texture. How do you manage to juggle so many characters, and how do you approach the task of researching the background? For instance, do you ever find pieces of information or visual references that you want to use, but can’t? Are you ever tempted to fake it?
JL: Oh, I fake it all the time, but usually only in the sense that I don’t corroborate every last detail. I research as much as I can, but there end up being so many gaps that I have no choice but to let my imagination fill them in. Each bit of research – every photo or personal account or artifact – is like a dot added to a page, and my imagination allows me to pick images or patterns out of the growing accumulation of dots. I find great stuff all the time that I decide against using, but it all feeds into a greater understanding of the time and place where the story occurs.
It’s certainly a challenge to juggle characters. In my planning stages, I make lists and diagrams in an attempt to weave their stories together in a satisfying way, but invariably ideas get cut, some of the players recede from the stage, and new ones step out. When I set out on this project, I saw Kurt and Marthe as the main threads that would carry the story, and that plan still holds; what I didn’t expect or plan on was who the various secondary characters would be, and what I would be exploring through them.
KF: Can you talk a little more about the secondary characters? Did any of them take you by surprise, moving the story in an unexpected direction? And in general, how much do you plan in advance? The story of Berlin seems very carefully constructed.
JL: The story of Silvia Braun, Gudrun Braun’s daughter, has become much more central than I ever anticipated. I see it now as a vital thread, but when she first showed up I had no notion of her mother’s eventual fate, or what it would mean for the Braun family. Pavel, the beggar who takes Silvia under his wing, was at first just a walk-on part, but his perspective became interesting to me and his role grew to reflect that.
In a way, nearly all of the characters besides Kurt and Marthe have been unexpected. In many cases I would draw a crowd scene or incidental encounter, then follow one of the “extras” to see where he or she would take me. In the earliest conceptual stage, before I had written or drawn any part of the story, I had several sketchbook pages of secondary characters intended for inclusion – a boxer, a Communist agitprop theatre group, a female intellectual – but only one of them, Carl von Ossietzky (who was a real person), has made it into the story so far. The rest have walked in off the street, so to speak.
(the less glamorous side of city living in City of Smoke, art and (c) Jason Lutes)
I generally work a chapter at a time, but once the story reached its midpoint it became necessary to work further out. Currently I’m plotting the entirety of City of Light, the final book, before I get down to the serious business of page engineering, writing, and drawing. My initial planning consists of a very loose structure, a simple timeline defined by real historical events like the May Day Massacre or the [stock market] Crash of 1929. From there I’ll decide how much calendar time I want a given chapter to span, make a list of which characters need to move forward, break the chapter down into scenes involving those characters, and decide how many pages to devote to each scene. Each chapter has a strict limit of 24 pages, and I’m a big believer in invention born out of limitations. My biggest challenge as a storyteller is to utilize those 24 pages efficiently, jumping back and forth across a broad cast of characters without short-changing any of them, while maintaining a pace that’s satisfying and appropriate to the overall narrative. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t.
KF: It’s interesting you mention the 24-page limit, because that’s one of the most common external constraints on comics, due to the way they’ve historically been serialised, and a lot of comics creators have been abandoning it as new publishing models arise. I find myself wondering sometimes if this is entirely wise, since a lot of the time it seems to result in a loss of structure. In any case, it reminds me of this entry on your blog where you talk about the “sweet spot” between high and low levels of detail in visual art. Can you expand a little on your artistic philosophy (if that’s not too grand a word) and how it informs your work?
JL: Constraints are the catalysts of invention. They provide structure, as you note, and they force the artist to be creative in ways he or she wouldn’t otherwise choose. I often devise constraint-driven exercises for my students at the Center for Cartoon Studies.
I see the “sweet spot” thing more as a matter of taste than a philosophy. I can appreciate photo-realistic rendering (whether traditional or electronic), and I can appreciate the spareness of the work of an artist like Mondrian, but the visual art that really grabs me is the stuff that gives me just enough information to provoke my imagination without filling in all of the details for me. The stuff that asks me to participate and work a little, instead of being so “high resolution” that there are no unanswered questions, or so opaque and open that there’s nothing to hold on to.
I try to keep my own work in that middle zone. There is a degree of exposition in Berlin, but I try not to spell everything out for my readers, trusting them to fill in the gaps in their knowledge of Weimar Germany on their own. On a visual level I strive to make the world of Berlin feel alive (animated by the reader’s imagination) by laying in enough detail to suggest authenticity, but not so much that my characters are caught and frozen in a dense web of lines. When I err, it is usually on the side being overly dense.
KF: I’m glad you mentioned the Center for Cartoon Studies, because I wanted to ask you about that. How did you come to be involved, and what’s your experience there been like?
JL: James Sturm, another D&Q cartoonist and an old friend from Seattle, moved to Vermont and co-founded the Center for Cartoon Studies with administrator extraordinnaire Michelle Ollie in 2004/2005. I love talking and thinking about comics, and I had always wanted to teach at an intensive adult level (having taught mostly kids before), so as soon as James started nudging me I began looking for a good excuse to move to east. My girlfriend is from Vermont, and her folks still live here, so being able to get our 2-year-old daughter within proximity of her grandparents made the decision a lot easier. The school is an amazing institution, a testament to James’ vision and Michelle’s organizational and fund-raising acumen, and it’s become a cornerstone in the revitalization of the small town of White River Junction. In a lot of ways it embodies my fantasy of what a comic book school should be like.
Teaching is by turns inspirational and frustrating. Being able to talk about and work on comics with other people who are passionate about the medium is an enormous pleasure, and one for which I am very grateful at this stage of my life and career. There are around 36 total students (an average of 18 per year of a two-year program), all of whom move to this small, relatively isolated railroad town (the radio motto of which is, “White River Junction: It’s not so bad!”), which can be a difficult experience for some. With such a small population, group chemistry has a huge impact, and that kind of thing can be hard to predict or manage; some classes play out perfectly, and others feel like pulling teeth. All of the teachers I’ve consulted in my efforts to get a handle on the process tell me that’s just a fact of teaching, but even so, I’m trying to learn from the pitfalls of my first year and think constructively as I head into my second.
In short: I love the school and I love teaching!
(a beautiful landscape frame from Berlin: City of Smoke in which the heavy black almost glows like a city night; art and (c) Jason Lutes)
KF: Just to return to Berlin: you’ve been working on this one great project for over ten years now, and you’re into the last third of the work, the home stretch, so to speak. Are there any projects you have in mind for when Berlin is completed? And how do you think it’s going to feel when you’ve finally drawn a line under it?
JL: It’s going to feel really good. It’s been a struggle on many levels, and I will be very relieved and happy to finally complete it. There are many, many other stories I want to tackle – no end to them, actually – and I am eager to do so. Recognizing the finite number of working years I have left, and how that limitation makes it impossible for me to write and draw even a tiny fraction of the work I feel I have in me, I have begun to write comics for other artists to draw. Houdini: The Handcuff King (with Nick Bertozzi) was sort of a test run for me on that process. I will still work out the pacing and staging for these stories, but someone else will do the hard drawing work, while I continue to write and draw the stories to which I feel the most attached. I have many ideas, in many different genres, and for most of them I or my publisher will be hiring artists.
(I couldn’t resist borrowing this photograph from Jason’s own blog showing the arrival of Berlin: City of Smoke to his home)
I will certainly be sad to close the book, so to speak, on the characters that inhabit Berlin. It’s a cliché, but your characters do become part of you after a while. Or, perhaps more accurately: they always were a part of you, and over time you get to know them (yourself ) better. I felt this very strongly when I finished Jar of Fools, and I know I’ll feel it with Berlin, but I think it will be easier to let them go. In that sense my efforts to get outside of myself in telling this story may pay off; the more separate they feel from me, the more they live on the page itself, the easier it will be for me to let them go on without me.
KF: Jason Lutes, thank you very much for sharing your time and thoughts with us. Jason’s second Berlin collection, City of Smoke, has just been published by the good people at Drawn & Quarterly and is available to order now. You can keep up with Jason’s life and work via his blog Coyote Vs Wolf. Katherine is a regular contributor to the FPI blog and also muses on comics over on her own blog, Whereof One Can Speak.