Jason Lutes is the creative force behind the blockbuster graphic novel BERLIN, which chronicles the German capital in the years of the Weimar Republic.

Writing about BERLIN in Forbes magazine, Rob Salkowitz called Lutes’s book “one of the most ambitious, important and fully-realized works of graphic literature yet created, a real masterpiece of both story and art.”

As you can see below, Jason has provided many very interesting answers to my interview questions for him.

How did your talent for drawing first manifest?

I’m not sure exactly how it manifested, but my mom tells me that I drew a lot from a very early age. She provided me with art supplies and encouragement, and when I started copying comic books before I could write, she would even letter them for me.

The BERLIN character Marthe Müller is an aspiring artist in Weimar Berlin. In imagining her life, did you rely at all on your own experiences breaking into a career in the arts?
I did, yes. I attended the Rhode Island School of Design, and my experiences there informed my depiction of Marthe’s experiences in the fictional art school of the book. Among other things, she has a comically harsh drawing teacher who is directly based on a teacher I had my freshman year, and many of the feelings with which she wrestles came out of my own struggles with trying to find a place for myself.    
 
I understand that when you began your BERLIN series, you had yet to set foot in the city. Yet, your drawings in CITY OF STONES, overall, gives an authentic sense of place. Early in the project, which visual references did you most rely on to produce your drawings of the city?
I was living in Seattle, Washington when I started the book, about as far away from Berlin as a person can get, and the internet was not yet a useful research tool. So I haunted used book stores and libraries, and spent about two years reading everything I could get my hands on. The most important early find for me was the 1919 Pharus Plan of Berlin, which gave context to all of the visual reference I was digging up; using this map, I could figure out where different photographs were taken and start to build up a sense of the city. My goal was to immerse myself in the Berlin of 1928-1933, and a vital part of that process was reconstructing the physical place. The visual resources I used are too many to name, but the most useful ones were those that depicted the mundane, everyday aspects of the city. Postcard images of cathedrals and triumphal monuments were easy to come by; what I really needed were pictures of working-class housing blocks and dive bars and public toilets.    

By chance, have you communicated with any people who have read your BERLIN series and lived in the city during the Weimar years? If so, what have those communications been like?
Only a handful, and mostly via their children or grandchildren, who generally pass along their complements on the accuracy of my attempted recreation. One elderly woman, by way of her grandson, had kind things to say about the book, but very politely pointed out that one building that features prominently in a particular panel was actually in Dresden, not Berlin. 
 
Have you noticed any broad, general differences between how Americans and Germans react to your BERLIN?
When the book first got released in Germany I was a bit trepidatious, thinking that I might be written off as an arrogant, uninformed American taking a stab at their national history. I was quite unprepared for how positive the reaction was, and humbled by the the gratitude expressed by German readers, who appreciated that an outsider had taken the time—22 years of my life, in the end—to understand and explore their country’s past. American readers might appreciate the scope and depth I attempted to bring to the story, but for most of them it’s still just a story. For many German readers with whom I have interacted, it touches on something much more personal.

BERLIN’s fictional African-American jazz group, the Cocoa Kids, are a notably fun part of your graphic novel. Were some of your favorite real-life American jazz groups of that era inspirations for the Cocoa Kids?
The name “Cocoa Kids” was inspired by The Chocolate Kiddies, a musical revue in Berlin headed up by Sam Wooding and His Orchestra. In the course of my research, I became interested in the global impact of jazz, the influence it had in places like Berlin and Paris, and what it might have been like for African American performers to tour Europe. The Kids are based on a combination of Sam Wooding’s band and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, the latter of which featured clarinettist Johnny Dodds, who became the model for my character Kid Hogan. The scene where Kid Hogan has a clarinet solo is my attempt to capture Johnny Dodds’ solo in the song “Dippermouth Blues,” also known as “Sugarfoot Stomp.”

What are some of your favorite things about present-day Berlin?
There are too many to name, but the thing that affects me most deeply is the fact that no other city on the planet wears its history so openly, in an effort to confront and come to terms with its darkest past. Few individuals would be capable of doing such a thing with their own lives, so to see an entire city striving for this is inspiring, to say the least. In these times, when the same forces of fear and hatred that ruled Germany in the early 20th century now threaten the wider world, I find hope in the city of Berlin.
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Jason Lutes’s BERLIN is here on Amazon, here on Barnes & Noble, and here on the website of the publisher Drawn and Quarterly.

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