January 2009

Paul Morton

features

An Interview with Jason Lutes

Jason Lutes’s fame rests on an ambitious series of graphic novels set at the end of the Weimar Republic, Berlin. It’s a grim, finely penned black-and-white work populated with a series of sallow, disaffected characters. No one in the book imagines the hell Germany will soon suffer, but despite a few moments of reprieve, Lutes’s Berlin, unlike Christopher Isherwood’s, is peculiarly joyless. There’s Kurt Severing, a wise journalist, who falls in love with a 29-year-old lesbian. An angry working-class fellow raises his son to be a fascist. A Jewish boy worships Henry Houdini.

Lutes, 41, was born in New Jersey and grew up in Missoula where his dad taught French Literature at the University of Montana. He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1991, and spent the next 15 years in Seattle where he, at one point, served as an art director for The Stranger. At the moment, he and his wife live in Woodstock, Vermont, and he teaches at the recently-founded Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction. He has a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter named Clementine.

Lutes has been working on Berlin for 12 years. The first two-thirds have been published in the form of 16 comic books as well as two handsome paperback collections, the second of which appeared this fall. He plans to finish the series in four years. We spoke by phone on December 22.

I know you grew up reading Captain America and The Avengers. Is there a reason why, as an adult, you haven’t tried your hand at superhero comics?

I’ve been approached before. Somebody asked me to do a Batman at one point and, at another point, Superman. So the two biggies. (laughs) And the people who approached me didn’t like my ideas and they were ideas I wasn’t interested in compromising. And I was very reluctant to do it. I needed the money. That was primarily the reason I was interested in doing them. But I would only do them if I could talk about the things I wanted to talk about. So the comics very quickly were scuttled because I wasn’t interested in doing the stories I didn’t want to tell.

[Doing superhero comics today] is like squeezing blood from a stone. No, a better analogy is beating a dead horse. Because the horse, at this point, isn’t even there. It’s like a putrefied puddle. Within the context of superhero comics today there’s a million of interesting different takes on the subject, but for me that basic subject matter is so -- characters die and then are brought back to life and they’re discovering the darkness of the human soul through the superhero -- so dead and gone to a point where I have so little interest.

I’m very interested in genres. Even pulp heroes are more interesting to me than mainstream superhero comics today. I’ve been working on a western that I’m really interested in seeing get done. But the superhero is so specific to comics and some big corporations are dependent on extending the life of these things so far past their expiration date.

Well I have to ask what your ideas were for Superman and Batman that had been rejected.

(laughs) I guess I could talk about it. The Superman one I don’t remember now. The Batman was going to be called “The Ballad of the Bat.” And it was going to go back to the beginnings of the Batman during the Depression. It was going to treat him sort of like a folk hero and really try to treat it realistically in the context of what was happening in America then. [He would be] this mythical defender of the downtrodden and I imagined a bunch of hobos sitting around a fire singing “The Ballad of the Bat” about this guy who would save them from the railroad dick who was trying to keep them off the trains or whatever. Sort of like a Woody Guthrie character… (laughs) Totally absurd. It was going to work though. It’s been at least 10 or 12 years since I was asked.

I always thought Stan Lee was a terrible writer. But he did something in his prose that was wonderful. If you go back to the ‘60s comic books where at the end of each comic book he would say something that meant that you could not not read the next one. He was a born showman. I don’t know if we’ve lost that P.T. Barnum quality, that feeling that these stories were events.

That’s still very much alive. To Stan Lee’s credit, at his time, they were trying to make a buck but there was a crazy inventive energy going on there. He would pace down the office and he and Jack Kirby would just come up with ideas. And he’d say, “Draw this guy who looks like a spider.” And Steve Ditko would make a drawing and he’d just dictate what the dialogue was. There’s a real wonderful, there’s a real kind of art going on there both when I read the accounts of it and when I see the finished product. Sure, it’s terribly written in the technical sense, but the kind of energy and creativity there is great. Ninety percent of what they turned out was dreck, but in the midst of all that you can’t help but hit some great inspiring high notes. And what survives is the showmanship stuff. “Let’s kill of Superman.” “Let’s make Batman all gritty and modern.” They’re always trying to find ways to get people to look. Getting people to look at those four-tone glossy covers has been with us for a long time. I do a slide-show with my students where I talk about my early influences. Marvel westerns were a big part of my childhood growing up in Montana and there’s a slide I have of the cover of a Rawhide Kid. And there’s a spiky bubble telling you why you should read it and it has “Action! Action! Action!” That’s it. It doesn’t say “Story of the Rawhide Kid.” Or “Bandits Attack Deadwood.” Or whatever. It’s just three demanding words. To a kid, you think, “There’s three times the action in here. I better pick it up.” That stuff is wonderful. I love that stuff. More and more these days, I see so much less invention and so much of the superhero stuff now is so derivative. And most of the fan boys have grown up now and make the comics, so it has a whole different feeling than [when comics were made] by guys who were Lower East Side second-generation immigrants working with more raw creative material.

The westerns in comic books are different from the westerns we know from movies. We never had the gritty spaghetti westerns for comic books.

Even at a simple pacing level. Even the early B-movie westerns were more interestingly paced than the heavy western comic book.

So why are you drawn to the western comic book?

The one I’m writing has a female main character and it’s taking a lot of cues from westerns in the movies and how they’ve gone through the maturation you just described. I was very interested in taking that basic genre both with some degree of historical accuracy but maintaining a pretty straightforward although grim action/adventure feel to it.

So like Deadwood only more fun.

(laughs) Yeah. That’s a great description. Maybe not more fun because it is pretty bleak. I’m using the standard blockbuster formula, like Act 1, Act 2, Plot 1, Plot 2. I’m using all of that. I’m simultaneously trying to explore the themes of the traditional western but through the structure of a super-traditional American screenplay. [This is] not just as a formula… The challenge is to make it something I really care about and I’m interested in. I’m not really thinking at all of the history of western comics, more the history of the western as a pulp novel or film. That’s more the content precedents that I’m looking at.

Novelists at some point ended up becoming teachers. You do at the Center for Cartoon Studies what Joyce Carol Oates does at Princeton. Different writers have different views of the worth of teaching writing in classrooms. Do you ever think, “Jack Kirby didn’t need a teacher. Why do you need a teacher? You need to figure this out yourself.”

Oh yeah, totally. There’s a lot of truth to that. Primarily what the school gives you is a concrete physical community of people. Because of your instructors and your peers you produce more work of a higher caliber in a short amount of time than you would otherwise. The other thing is because you’re not working for a big company you don’t send your portfolio to DC and then go back to the shop and draw a character you don’t necessarily care about. It’s a two-year program here and you’re able to do whatever stories you want to do, whatever you care about in an environment that completely supports that, that reinforces that with the work of everyone around you. That’s not necessarily an education, but that in and of itself is a pretty amazing thing. And it’s something that for me, after making comics professionally for sixteen years now, coming here is like a total shot in the arm. Being around people who feel that way boosted my productivity. Because it’s pretty easy to end up isolated in this field.

On top of that, because I think comics is a relatively young, relatively unexplored medium, the one thing we try to get across to people is grammar. It’s all well and good to go out there and just try to wing it and figure stuff out for yourself. But the fact of the matter is a lot of the people who have come before you have figured a lot of this stuff out already. You can shave literally years off of your progress as an artist if you are just shown, right off the bat, how to put things together. The basic mantra is, “We’re going to teach you all the rules, all these conventions, and once you’ve internalized them then you can go ahead and break them.” Once you’ve learned the basic grammar, the basic vocabulary of how to put together a visual narrative, once you’ve got that stuff down, then you can go ahead and do whatever you want. You’ll have a baseline. Then you can choose, you can invent and discard whatever elements you feel are in the way of your work.

The five graphic novelists who have attained the most mainstream attention now, I guess, are Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi. Are these truly the five great ones working today? Are there better ones who the mainstream audience has yet to notice?

I think those people have certainly earned their place in the top tier. Daniel Clowes, for me, there’s no question. He belongs at the top. If you’ve read everything that he’s done, he has constantly pushed himself to get to the next place. He’s constantly refining, he’s constantly exploring and every new thing keeps on getting better. And for Alison as well, especially Fun Home. When you look at Dykes to Watch Out For, which she did before and how she produced this book, I think it’s extraordinary. The thing about Chris Ware’s stuff is that, for me, he’s definitely at the top, like he is the single most amazing cartoonist on the planet right now in terms of how he understands and employs the conventions or inventions of comics. The thing that I think is an issue for him is that people primarily respond to the aesthetic. And you’ll find his book on coffee tables and such because it’s such a beautifully-produced comic.

Very difficult to read though.

Very hard to read. Reading comics for a non-comics reader is already a challenge. And then his work in the density and the way he plays around with stuff is even more of a challenge. And when you do engage with it it is incredibly deeply rewarding. And for me, the closest we have come to an Anna Karenina would be something by him. But I think that people’s primary response, generally speaking, to his work is on the aesthetic level as opposed to absorbing the words and the pictures together. I do think he belongs among the greats. But what I think is interesting and a little problematic in terms of audience response is that people are in a sense responding to his work for some of the wrong reasons. (laughs). That is probably more of a criticism of his audience maybe than of him. I think Marjane Satrapi is a great storyteller, a great writer. I think the main reason her work rose to prominence is because of the subject matter and the timeliness of it. [Persepolis] is a great, well-timed story. I think the fact that it’s by a woman is really great. But it’s pretty straightforward storytelling. It’s a relatively dry account of her life, which is certainly interesting. It’s the subject matter and the clarity with which that subject matter is explored that has pushed that book to the top in terms of being at the top of reader’s lists and bestseller lists.

I was most in love with Persepolis for the first quarter of it. But there was nothing that kept me going. The plot was structured like one long flat line. There was no narrative drive.

Yeah, I think that comes out of somebody who is relatively young making her first long-form comic and who is basically describing her life. When you look at Spiegelman’s Maus he did that over a period of what 12 or 15 years. It was pieces at a time, constant refinement, constant flashbacks. There was a lot of effort that went into the structure of that book, whereas Persepolis is pretty much a straightforward account. It’s certainly valuable given that. Given dramatic structure and pacing, not the greatest.

When I read Berlin I thought it’s style was similar to a lot of Italian Neorealists from the ’50s, or pre-New Wave French films. A lot of heavy blacks and heavy whites. The “shots” weren’t particularly flashy. You set the camera down and let the “actors” tell their own story. I don’t know if you were thinking in those terms.

I was definitely thinking, “No weird shots.” (laughs) I’m constantly trying to maintain a relatively stable, some may say distant perspective. In terms of cinematic influences, I know there is a lot of that in there, but none of it is particularly conscious. There’s lots of big aerial shots of the city which is all from watching film where that kind of thing happens. I guess if it was a movie it would have to be a helicopter shot. I guess these days it’s all digital.

Yeah, you don’t have the shadow of the helicopter in your book.

(Laughs) Right. I do remember being affected by Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire the first time I saw it. And there’s a disembodied feeling to that film because it’s about these angels floating around. And there’s these sweeping slow camera movements. So that probably had an effect on me. That desire to try to let the characters’ performances be the thing that the readers respond to as opposed to the fact that the camera is looking up from the ground. Shaky camera, or whatever the comics equivalent would be.

You don’t want to do a music video like Frank Miller.
 
No, certainly not. That’s all great for the story he wants to tell. One of the things that’s unexplored in comics is the subtlety. When you’re drawing pictures, and in my case it’s black ink on white paper, the tendency is to work in broad strokes. That’s why in mainstream comics there’s a lot of fights and explosions because it’s easier to get people’s attention and budget-wise it’s easier to draw that stuff. I became more interested in the smaller, more closely-observed details and the ways you could do that in comics. A big influence on me was Chester Brown. He’s a Canadian cartoonist who really slowed things down in a way I’ve never seen before. He would have something happen over several panels or have a whole page of a character staring out a window. And that changed the way a comic could be read. It became really interesting to me and I wanted to explore it more. And because I really wanted to get outside myself and explore the lives of the mostly fictional lives I’ve created, to pay attention to them and how they behave and the subtleties of their actions just became a big focus. I self-consciously try to create a novel effect using comics, which is perhaps a weakness on my part. But I wanted to create these characters and pay attention to how they behave in these situations and then observe them closely so the reader hopefully will in some way think of them as real people.

The sex in your book feels bloodless and sad. Except for one or two encounters it seems the characters in your book would be better off not having sex at all.

I’m glad you said, “except one or two encounters” because I want some of it to feel emotional and passionately engaging. Part of the original project, part of the original plan for me was to really try to explore the scope of human experience. Something that is a little bit outside my experience is a kind of objectifying disconnected sexual interaction. But I know that that happens. And I think I could imagine the reasons why that happens. My own tendency is to be romantic and to think “Love is the greatest thing ever,” and “We’re going to have sex now and it’s going to be great.” But the reality of the world says that’s not the case. Most of the time, I don’t think it’s the case. I didn’t want to shy away from that. I wanted to show that it could be emotionally distancing or manipulative or vindictive or all these different things, sexuality just being its own palette of human interactions. In the way I show human beings interacting with one another that was just one part of the spectrum. I think the bloodlessness comes through partly because of my drawing style. I don’t have the warmest visual approach, and I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, objectivity would never ever be attainable, but it’s a note I’m trying to hit. The trade-off is that things are at arm’s length. So that may be a factor as well.

When you draw naked bodies you show the flab, and the fat and the hair in places where one would rather there not be hair. You seem to really enjoy drawing the inadequacies of the human body, or at least human bodies as they are most commonly found to be.

Yeah, I just think that’s underrepresented. And I think that for me in this effort to conjure this time and place those details become important. That’s one of the small ways you can get a reader to go with you to believe these things could have happened. One of my biggest complaints I have with mainstream American film is that there’s a homogenized aesthetic in everything. Whether it’s the apartment that the main character is living in or that Brad Pitt is playing the main role. There’s just a level of beauty and carelessness. And the bad guys are the ones who are fat and forget to trim their eyebrows.

I read an essay that claimed that the reason The Sopranos connected to so many people was that it was the one show that showed trips to the bathroom realistically.

(laughs) Yeah, right.

It showed people vomiting and diarrhea. We’re all equal in diarrhea. You show early on in Berlin someone defecating in his apartment. It’s hard not to relate to that.

That’s part of the idea. Who are we kidding? (laughs) Most of the time in narrative we tend to excise those parts because they’re unappealing. And maybe that is the case. But in this particular case, maybe because it’s historical fiction and I am trying to create this illusion of a time and place those details become more important.

You’ve been to Berlin a total of five days in your life. How do you write about a place that you’ve hardly been to?

You use your imagination. I did about two-and-a-half years of research before I started the book. The city today is very different than it was then because it’s been through a war and a wall and many other things. In order to do something like this, essentially a portrait of a city, I knew if I were to go to the place on the ground, I would be overwhelmed by the actual reality. There were so many directions to go in and so many places to explore that it might actually get in the way of the project. There were certain ideas I wanted to tell. And as I read and explored those ideas grew and changed. It was pretty important to me that I not set foot there until I was confident of my own imaginary internal version of the city.

Were you thinking of the past as a foreign country?

No, more as the past as my own world, as not a foreign country. The foreign country aspect in reality and the fact that I don’t speak German were obstacles I wanted to keep away. I wanted to be there and inhabit it as much as possible. And the barriers I would have encountered in real life going there would have made that harder. I wasn’t prepared to set apart a couple of years and learn German.

You give Kurt Severing, the journalist, the best lines and the worst lines of the book. Were his bad lines intentionally bad?

Depends on which line you’re talking about. (laughs)

He writes in a lot of purple prose.

Yeah, to me that stuff totally walks the line. Sometimes he articulates how I feel and sometimes he articulates how he feels. I tend to veer towards the purple-y when I write. All those philosophical ideas. The great thing about him is that I identify with him but I also see him as sometimes a little pathetic. So he’s great for me to express that stuff. I kind of want to write and express those feelings in exactly that overwrought way. On some level I genuinely feel that way. He’s a great use for that. I don’t put things in there to make fun of him. He’s writing things that I think and feel but he’s articulating it in a more verbose way.

When you depicted the underground lesbian club did you imagine a gay club today that just happened to be in Germany 80 years ago?

In my research I found some photos of some gay nightclubs in Berlin and used that as my basis. And then I used my experience of going to gay clubs in Seattle. An all-lesbian club is something I’ve never been to… actually I have been (laughs) now that I think about it. But I definitely wouldn’t have been allowed into that one [in Berlin]. No men were allowed in that one. I tried to use my imagination to understand that kind of place. And these were the people and here’s the situation and here are some of the reasons for being here and here are some of the reasons why they would want to congregate in a place like this. What would their interactions be like? How would they relate to each other? I just tried to imagine it there.

There’s not a lot of gray in your book. Stark black. Stark white. And sometimes shades of black. And that white is very striking.

Mostly the white spaces, when I have it for a background, I’m trying to provide a space for the reader to fill in subconsciously. Sometimes you have a dramatic distance or weight that the white is supposed to have. Most of the time, I’ll have a room and there’s the characters and there’s the door, there’s the window, there’s the furniture. And then the characters talk and there’s absolutely not background at all and we see those spaces. This lets the reader absorb the physical environment and lets him put it all in there. One of the things I try to do is to engage the reader on that level so that he’s participating a little more than if everything is laid out for him. Suggestions and response to suggestions are cool things. (laughs)

Hitler hasn’t shown up yet in your book.

Not yet. No.

Will he show up?

Yeah, most likely in the last volume. I haven’t nailed it down yet. Most likely you’ll see him from a distance. No day-in-the-life or something like that.

You mentioned Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz as a great influence.

It’s a really wonderful collage-y depiction of this time and place. It feels like a portrait of a city the way “Rhapsody in Blue” feels like one, bringing a kind of modern feeling of everything happening all at once. Döblin incorporates advertising slogans and people’s thoughts and music and all these atmospheric influences are layered in this narrative in this amazing way. From all these fragmentary pieces you get a big picture that’s wonderful. It’s a very bleak book but the way it tries to conjure up on the page a living city and the way it captures everyone going about their way… it had a huge effect on the way I told my story.

Would you prefer to have put the whole thing out in one go instead of serializing it in a series of comic books?

I think I would prefer to put it all out at once. The advantages are I can think about it one small chunk at a time because there are these deadlines I’m supposed to meet even though I miss them all the time. It gives me a schedule where I’m supposed to produce the thing. It’s taken me 12 years. I’m not wed to these serialized chapters for my readership. It’s more of a necessity, because I get paid every time I finish a chapter.