Sarah Berger: bitte öffnet den Vorhang

November 2002
Ekkehard Knörer

Ein Artikel, der das Interview mit Jason Lutes zur Grundlage hatte, ist in der FAZ vom 31.5.2001 erschienen.

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Jason Lutes: ein Selbstportrait

Jason Lutes

im Gespräch mit Ekkehard Knörer

Eigentlich wollte ich das Interview per E-Mail führen, von New York, wo ich gerade war, im April 2001, nach Seattle, wo Lutes lebt. Aber dann kam er zu einer Lesung in Jim Hanley's Universe, den besten Comic-Laden der Stadt. Da trafen wir uns, zum Interview gingen wir die Straße rüber in ein Café in den Passagen des Empire State Building. Ich wollte ihn erst ins Starbucks an der Ecke bugsieren, aber das war ein Fehler: Die Kaffee-Kette (aus Seattle) genießt unter alternativ gesinnten Amerikanern etwa den Ruf, den Microsoft (aus Seattle) beim aufgeklärten Computer-User hat. Das Gespräch war locker, wir gelangten von hier nach da und zwischendrin war die Kassette zu Ende: da ist jetzt ein Loch und inzwischen habe ich ganz und gar vergessen, worüber wir da sprachen. Im Anschluss, es war noch ein bisschen Zeit bis zur Lesung, führte mich Lutes durch Jim Hanley's Universe, von Lieblingsautor zu Lieblingsautor (von Joe Sacco bis Daniel Clowes, zum Beispiel) und kam aus dem Schwärmen nicht mehr raus.

Berlin and Europe

Jason Lutes: Berlin
You are just back from Fumetto, the comic festival in Luzern, Switzerland. How was the reaction to Berlin, or, more generally, what are the reactions from European and, more specifically, German readers to it?

Lutes: First of all, the reaction is very positive – which is really gratifying. The thing I noticed amongst German readers: they tend to be younger. I don't know if that's the demographic or just because of the festivals. They seem very enthusiastic about an outsider addressing their history or an aspect of their history. It seems to be a kind of an acknowledgment of the importance of their history. It's unusual because of the historical comic and and American writing about a European place. I was expecting reactions like people saying "You arrogant American talking about our country" – there was only one journalist in Berlin who questioned me a little bit about what my motives were and why I thought I had any authority to take on that subject matter. And I really appreciated that, because that was kind of what I wanted to engage with. So generally it was very, very positive.

What is unusual about Berlin, too, at least in regard of the aspects of German history foreigners tend to be most interested in, is that it is set not in the time of Nazism, that it does not address the Holocaust, but – although of course being related to the time – the final years of the Weimar Republic. Is there any pressure from your publisher to put the better known aspects into it?

Lutes: I think there's been lots of history written about the period, but there hasn't been a lot of fiction and hence a kind of application of imagination. I'm not interested in great drama – and actually I am fortunate because my publisher gives me complete creative freedom. So I am not being forced to do things to sell my book better.

Talking about publishers: Do you have a German publisher for Berlin? Will Carlsen do it?

Lutes: Yes, there is a good chance. Either Carlsen or Reprodukt, which is a small Berlin publishing house. I cannot yet go on record with that, but, yes, possibly Carlsen. I'd be glad if they did it – but I'd also be glad, if Reprodukt did it.

The Fall

When did you do this project? Was it done at the same time as the Berlin comics – is it an older project?

Ed Brubaker/Jason Lutes: The FallLutes: Ed Brubaker and I have been friends for a long time and we are part of a circle of friends in Seattle who all hung out together. Ed had been moving gradually into being more of a writer – he used to write and draw his own comic books – and I was in the midst of Berlin and I knew that I was going to do Berlin for, at that point, I thought it was going to be years and years (now I hope that within seven years I will be done) and I knew that to keep from getting really trapped in it I need to do other things. There is so much I want to do with comics and I would really love to do a science fiction story, a western story - take comics and see how I can apply it to different genres. So at that point I told Ed "write me a story – and I want there to be a chase scene in it". I love the staging of action scenes, but in Berlin there is not much opportunity to do that. So it came out of that desire. I wanted to do a straightforward thriller that focused on the human aspect of whatever the main story was – and then on how in the context of that an action scene can have different meanings, as opposed to in a movie where there's lots of that kind of scenes and it becomes meaningless.

So I said "write me this story" and I didn't know where or when the chase scene would be, I didn't know if it was going to be a car chase or a foot chase and he just gave me a chapter of the script at a time, so I just did it like that and then I got to the point of the chase; I developed the characters and got used to the characters and the apartment building they lived in; we went from there to figure out how that scene was to take place.

Was it the first time you only did the graphic part in a comic?

Lutes: I'v done some other shorter things in the past, most of which I've been unhappy with, because the collaboration wasn't satisfying. For the way that I think about comics I really need to work with a writer who understands the basic grammar, the way that comics operate – and most writers in comic don't understand that. Most writers in comics, unfortunately, just couldn't get jobs in other fields. And then there's the writers who really love comics, like Ed, who really get it. They write for comics specifically.

Do you have any specific plans at the moment for other genre pieces like The Fall, a sciene fiction comic or is it, as yet, just a vague plan?

Lutes: It's kind of vague right now. My publisher (Drawn and Quarterly) has an annual anthology – so that's a venue for me to use if I want to. I have a short story right now that's in draft form, it's not a genre piece. The next side project I'm considering is a story about early American history, a western in genre, but from the point of view of a native American. I have been talking to Sherman Alexie about doing something, possibly. He turned out to be a bit of a comics fan and got in touch with me – so there's a chance we'll do something together. I am working on an adventure strip for Nickelodeon magazine for kids about a little girl who goes to this other world, this parallel world.

Does it feel very different for you to do, first of all, a genre piece and then also being "only" the art, having it written by someone else? Do you perhaps feel "less responsible"?

Lutes: In a way it does feel like that, although I never thought about it in terms of responsibility. It's not like I'm only half responsible. It does have a very different feel. What I found really good about it was that he would give me the script and I would take he script and break it down into the panels to figure out how it works and then I would rewrite some of it to make it blend better with what I was doing. And then I went back to him with that and together we came to a final decision. It was very much collaborative. So my responsibility is wrapped up in it – and as a result we both learnt a lot from each other. He tells a much more straightforward story than I do, which, in many ways, is a good thing to do (laughs). He's writing Batman now. He's trying to bring more of a mystery aspect into the whole Batman world. But, you know, it's still Batman. (laughs)


First a question about your research. You didn't go to Berlin before you started writing the comic?

Lutes: I worked on the book for four years before I went to the city. I began doing research even one year before I started, I was still finishing Jar of Fools, but very early on I knew it would be a huge project. I very much liked the idea of doing 24 chapters of 24 pages – which is the standard US format for comic books -, easily divisible into three parts. And I had the basic idea of this journalist and the artist, following their lives through the city during these years. So, then I started going to libraries, going to bookstores, scouring catalogues – and now I have two bookshelves. A lot of them just photographs, but in a lot of it there's no photographs at all. Writing from the time, writing about the time and anything related to it all that I could find. I would do that over time, when I was doing that other comic book, read junks of it, just look at pictures and get more absorbed, made notes about what I was thinking of putting into the story so that when I finished Jar of Fools I was ready to begin work on it. And then the research is ongoing, as well. Unfortunately I can't read German, but when I visited Berlin my guide took me to various bookstores, where I bought lots of old books and photographs and books by this great cartoonist who was working at the time – whose name is slipping my mind now …

Let me think, cartoonist … (desperate)

Lutes: Oh, Zille, Heinrich Zille, that's his name …

Well, I never thought of him as a cartoonist, but, yes, of course …

Lutes: There are great little illustrations exactly of the part of Berlin I can't find at other places. Like people swimming in the river or people hanging out their wash.

Did you read any novels, too?

Jason Lutes: Artwork from Berlin #3Lutes: Yes. I have this ongoing project to read Berlin Alexanderplatz. I read it and reread it. There's actually lots of things in it, like advertising copies, these are also specific references to things I couldn't find elsewhere – as well as being this amazing narrative. And the way he creates the texture of the city life.

How about film? Do you know Berlin – Sinfonie einer Großstadt?

Lutes: I love that. I saw that in class for the first time, when I was in art school and there's a really great video store in Seattle.
I also read the Thomas Mann short stories. Döblin wrote another book, November 1918, that's pretty useful.

Are any of your protagonists based on real persons?

Lutes: Visually, Kurt Severding is based on the first editor of the Weltbühne. I took a photograph of him and then changed it. I redid it several times until he became somebody separate. His personality is invented, it's not based on anybody. Marthe is based very loosely on Käthe Kollwitz, who was older at the time, but I read a lot of her journals and tried to figure out where her head may be as a woman in Germany at that time. Well, Ossietzky, of course, is a real person.

And there is this short cameo of Ringelnatz …

Lutes: Right. I actually wanted to do more of him, but I couldn't find enough translations to really understand. I was afraid I would somehow miss it, so I put him in there only very briefly.

One of the things I like a lot about your comics is their rhythm, the variability in panel structure. You obviously plan a lot and attempt lots of different things there.

Lutes: I've come to learn over the years that page structure, the actual visual language has its own grammar and its own way of interacting.
[missing part]

The next question is about your self-understanding as a comics artist. Would you describe yourself as a craftsman, in the sense perhaps of the focus on a story well told, not on effects, on your means of telling it? There is a close connection here of style and content, concerning your way of telling this historical novel in a "realistic" mode. Or would you be unhappy with this "realism" tag?

Lutes: Well, no. I don't have a definition of it. But, no, I'd be happy with that.