Jason Lutes: Berlin

Texas Book Festival brings the author and his magnum opus to Austin

City of stones. City of smoke. City of light. 

The city is Berlin. The time is the late 1920s. The situation – let’s call it that, as if to reduce its terrible power in memory – the situation is the rise of National Socialism at the end of Germany’s Weimar Republic.

Yeah, National Socialism. You know: Nazis.

And the name of the man who captures that time in a graphic novel that he’s been writing and drawing for more than 20 years, a graphic novel now released in one elegant 580-page hardcover edition by Canada’s Drawn & Quarterly, the name of that man is Jason Lutes.

And the novel is, of course, Berlin.

The story Lutes reveals is of impressive and engaging depth, following the lives of a diverse cast of characters who must struggle to survive the coming horrors, yes, but who also, like all of us, must weather the quotidian troubles of human existence no matter what orchestrated violence threatens to rend the world.

The writing’s so damned good; and that’s the main reason, we reckon, that Lutes will be among the many authors and/or literary celebrities at this year’s Texas Book Festival.

But Berlin is a graphic novel, and so there’s visuals to be considered, too. And don’t those visuals require, for most effective communication, a commensurate level of skill? Rest assured, reader.

“Lutes' mastery of his medium cannot be overstated,” writes Pamela Polston in her review for Vermont’s Seven Days. “Berlin is a veritable compendium of cartooning techniques. His realist cityscapes are exacting, his characters' faces uniquely expressive … Sometimes whole pages of pictures, without words, tell us everything.”

In advance of the TBF booksigning – Lutes will be presenting Berlin, in conversation with author Alexander Chee, on Sat., Oct. 27, 11-11:45am in Capitol Ext. Rm. E2.036 – we asked him the two questions that we gauged most relevant beyond the narrative’s scope. Thus:

Austin Chronicle: Out of all the areas of human history, what initially sparked your interest in and moved you to choose Berlin’s particular circumstances as the ones to explore?

Jason Lutes: I chose the subject impulsively in 1994, when I was 26 years old. I saw a print ad for a book about Weimar Berlin and – not knowing anything about Weimar Berlin – decided in that moment that my next graphic novel would be about that place and time, and that it would be 600 pages long. I did two years of research before I started drawing the first chapter, and it wasn't until I had about 200 pages behind me that I realized why I had chosen this subject: I needed to educate myself about the circumstances that led up to to World War II and the Holocaust. So the book, in many ways, was a self-education.

AC: You began publishing the series in the 1990s, when National Socialism seemed to be something about as historical as it was vile. Since then, the resurgence of such nationalism and even wannabe Nazis – as seen in the U.S. and elsewhere – has become obvious and, to say the least, unnerving. Do you find yourself asking, “What the fuck?” And – because your Berlin has provided such a considered look at the rise of fascism in Germany in the Twenties and early Thirties – as if you could personally answer the question: “Jason, what the fuck?”

JL: I'm horrified by the global resurgence in nationalism, but I'm not surprised by it. I spent 22 years studying and exploring the rise of fascism in Germany, based on my own sense that the forces at work then were very much alive and bubbling just beneath the surface of American life. There are many parallels between the United States in the 21st century and Germany in 1930, among them the fact that each progressive stride – each step we take toward a world where every human life and experience is respected – stirs up the forces of fear and regression, which are then stoked and manipulated by the people who have the most to lose by any change in the status quo. I never expected the dark heart of America to be revealed so nakedly, much less for it to garner such vehement and widespread support. There are parallels, but in many ways our current moment is vastly different. Although the prognosis is not good, the future is yet unwritten.

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Texas Book Festival 2018, Berlin, Jason Lutes, Drawn & Quarterly

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