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Interviews: On Cartooning

"Hergé has been perhaps the greatest single visual influence on my own work, but my approach to making comics is quite different." Jason Lutes, author of Berlin, talks about reading as a kid.

Jason Lutes self-portraitPOV: Your linework is very crisp and clean, and remniscient of the ligne claire ("clear line") style Hergé employed when drawing the iconic characters of Tintin. That style contrasts with the unusually realistic landscapes and backgrounds of the worlds Tintin visits and inhabits. As Scott McCloud pointed out in Understanding Comics, this contrast gives the effect of allowing the reader to" mask themselves in a character and safely enter a stimulating world." "One set of line," he writes, "allows readers to see; the other to be."

Describe your illustrative strategy or style as you see it. How did you arrive at it? How do you feel it's been most effective? Did it come naturally or did you struggle to find it? When does it not work?

Jason Lutes: I agree somewhat with Scott's analysis of the relationship between the reader, Tintin, and Tintin's world, and Hergé has been perhaps the greatest single visual influence on my own work, but my approach to making comics is quite different. I'm not trying to create a stand-in or avatar with whom the reader can identify, but separate, believable characters with distinct personalities; I'm trying to place the reader more in the role of observer [rather] than that of participant.

I think this approach comes out of my own personal desire and struggle to understand our world, and the complex interactions of people with one another and their environment. My work is an improvised exploration of this complexity, as opposed to a structured, plot-driven narrative. Although my earlier work had a more internal focus, my current approach has evolved naturally from it. The challenge I face now is to keep this non-traditional approach engaging and accessible without compromising its exploratory nature.

POV: You've become best known for Berlin, a comic series that has been described as historical fiction: it is Germany seen through the lives of characters living in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the years prior to fascism and World War II. You've said you are a fan of Tintin, in which Hergé traveled vicariously through his hero to foreign places he'd never visited.  I wonder if you could talk about your own connection to Tintin, and how that might relate to the drawing of Berlin.

Students at the Academy of Art from the point of view of their figure model (detail). From Berlin: City of Stones, p. 31. Copyright Jason Lutes. Courtesy Drawn & Quarterly. Jason: Another thing Scott McCloud says about Hergé is that he created a world with "an equal democracy of form." That is, regardless of whether it was Marlinspike Hall, a Chinese steam engine, or a Peruvian blanket, Hergé drew everything at the same level of detail. As an adult, I realize now that the way he rendered the world on the page has had an enormous effect on my own development as a cartoonist, beginning when I first read Cigars of the Pharaohs at age six.

Through mastering the physical characteristics of every thing that might fill a given panel, and rendering each with restraint and only a little inflection, Hergé created a convincing reality for his characters and readers to inhabit. There is a kind of knowledge gained through drawing from close observation — an understanding of the physical world, its separate components, their interconnectedness — that the reader can see growing in Hergé when his body of work is examined in chronological order. In my attempt to recreate the look and feel of Berlin in the 1920s, I strive for a similar level of coherence and believability, but am (alas) much more prone to stylistic indulgences than Hergé ever was.

POV: How have you researched the material in Berlin? Where do you take liberties with the history — or are you even conscious of taking liberties? What inspired you to create the series?

 From Berlin: City of Stones, p. 57 (detail). Copyright Jason Lutes. Courtesy Drawn & Quarterly. Jason: After completing my first comics novel, Jar of Fools, I knew I wanted to do something that would really challenge my ability as a cartoonist. I was leafing through a magazine one day and saw an advertisement for a book called Bertolt Brecht's Berlin: A Scrapbook of the Twenties, accompanied by a short blurb that sparked my interest. Without really knowing much more about the period than what I had seen in Cabaret and inferred through Threepenny Opera, I decided right then that my next book would be about Berlin in the '20s and '30s, that it would be broad in scope and substantial in length.

Between making that decision and drawing the first panel of the story, I spent about two years collecting reference materials and reading everything I could about Weimar Germany, German culture, European history and the city of Berlin. Tacked up on the wall over my drawing table are several maps of the city from 1928, which help me envision the geographic relationships of landmarks and neighborhoods. Since comics is a visual medium, photographs, paintings, and drawings from the period are of particular interest, and the more mundane the better — it's easy to find images of the Brandenburg Gate or the Reichstag, but things like doorknobs and kitchen utensils are of much greater interest to me.

I try to be as faithful as possible to the facts as I understand them, but any story is at least partly a product of the imagination. I can comprehend a lot by immersing myself in all of the information I've collected, but my imagination is what brings it to life, and the bridging of that gap — between the received history and the conceived fiction — is both the most difficult and most enjoyable part of the process for me.

POV: How do you feel about your recurring characters? How real do they become to you as you work and live with them over the years? Do you imagine them having a life independent of the comic?

Jason: I care very much about all of my characters, recurring or not. All of the primary and secondary characters in Berlin have lives that extend past what I show on the page, and every time I draw someone's face, even if he or she just appears for a panel or two, I try to imagine something about that person beyond his or her physical appearance. After creating them, part of my job is to inhabit them and try to see their world from their perspective.

POV: Describe your working process. Do you work daily? When you begin a comic, do you start with image, or with text? What are the raw materials of a story? Do you always know what is going to happen, or does the story take turns that surprise you?

Jason Lutes - Journalist Kurt Severing reflects on the state of affairs in late 1928 (detail). From Berlin: City of Stones, p. 80. Copyright Jason Lutes. Courtesy Drawn & Quarterly. Jason: I work five days a week, Monday through Friday, from about 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. with a few short breaks. The process starts with the writing in coffee shops around town, which is more like story-boarding than writing in the usual sense; for each page of a comic I make a little thumbnail diagram to work out panel divisions and the placement of visual elements (characters, word balloons, etc.) within them, writing out the dialogue alongside. I try to make comics that integrate words and pictures thoroughly, so I need to see how the dialogue is going to fit into the page layout. Also, since an important formal unit of the medium is the page, and the turning of the page is a built-in pacing mechanism, I need to consider carefully what comes before and after each page break. This consideration of the page as a narrative measure, along with sustained left-to-right movement throughout a given story, is something I picked up from studying Hergé. Working from and remaining largely faithful to that thumbnail script, I then move on to penciling and then inking the full pages.

Storytelling for me evolves intuitively from the interaction of various elements — things I've put down on the page, formal constraints and everything I have in my head. The basic structure of Berlin is defined by a handful of key historical events, and my job is to get from one to another in a way that makes sense and feels more or less "true." At practically every level, the way I make comics is an act of improvising within structural boundaries. There's a rough plan, with a beginning, middle and an end, but how I get from one point to another is unknown at the outset, and a large part of what keeps me engaged. It's an exploration for me, and hopefully for the reader as well.

POV: Marshall McLuhan, author of the 1967 book The Medium is the Massage, wrote about the differences between what he called "hot" media versus "cool" media. Hot media, like movies and radio, he said, were dense with data and therefore demanded only a passive audience, whereas "cool" media, lo-fi and utilizing iconic forms, required active, involved audience participation. His examples of "cool" media are television and comics. Do you agree with McLuhan's assessment?

Jason: Absolutely. I love and admire McLuhan's work. The first time I read The Medium is the Massage, I experienced it as an affirmation of things I had long felt but would have never been able to articulate. While we can generalize when describing a given medium as hot or cool, all media can be said to possess both hot and cool aspects to varying degrees, and part of what I try to do with comics is figure out when and how the temperature needs raising or lowering.

POV: What were some of the first comics you read? How do you think they found their way into your work, consciously or perhaps unintentionally? Who are some of your other influences, in comics and in other forms, such as art, literature and pop culture?

Jason:The first comics I read were Marvel comics in the early 70s, most memorably westerns like The Rawhide Kid and superhero comics like The Avengers and Captain America. Some Tintin albums found their way into my hands a little later, and of all of the influences present in my work, I am most conscious of Hergé.

I am constantly absorbing things that then come out in my work, mostly from the great wide world outside my front door, but over the years, some specific artistic influences have become apparent to me. The late 1980s were particularly inspiring as far as comics go: Art Spiegelman's RAW Magazine expanded my understanding of the expressive potential of the medium; the work of Chester Brown showed me how to slow things down; and the great Ben Katchor helped me see comics as a kind of poetry.

Film has had an enormous effect on me, but more in my general development of a visual and sequential vocabulary than through the work of specific directors (although I am currently enamored of the stratum of filmmakers that includes David O. Russell, Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola). In terms of writing, I love Haruki Murakami, William Faulkner and Anton Chekhov, but I'd be hard-pressed to demonstrate how any of them has influenced my work.

POV: Although some have approached its widespread popularity, there is no exact parallel to Tintin in American comics. Why do you think this is so? What in American comics comes closest to Tintin and approximating the cult of Tintin? In other media?

Jason: That's a hard one to answer. It seems to me that any popular fictional character's appeal is idiosyncratic in nature, so finding anything "like Tintin" is likely impossible. Characters with large followings — Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, the crew of the Starship Enterprise — seem to embody something very particular even as they speak to something within a huge number of people. When I think of the most time-tested examples, the common thread appears to be an author who feels deeply for what he is creating, and even though Tintin might not be considered "deep," Hergé's discipline and devotion to his chosen protagonist is anchored somewhere in the vicinity of the Lost Unicorn.

POV: Graphic novels and comics have become popular even among mainstream audiences right now, especially with movie adaptations of non-superhero comics like V for Vendetta, Sin City, American Splendor, Ghost World, A History of Violence, and, just out at the time of this interview, Art School Confidential.  In the United States, graphic novel sales have more than tripled to $245 million in recent years. Yet bookstores still often have a hard time deciding where to shelve them: some finally have been given their own section, but often you have to look in the Humor section. Nearly every review or article written about them still includes a definition of the genre, as if a reader would have no preconceived idea of what a comic or graphic novel is, implying that the form is largely misunderstood. Why do you think it's taken so long for comics and graphic novels to become as popular as they are now? Why do you think this implied need to define comics still exists? Do you have your own definition?

Jason: I personally have no need to make a strict definition of the medium. I am more interested in what can be done with comics than how it can be described, and if I want to remain truly open to the creative possibilities, the less I define the medium, the better.

The ongoing effort to broaden the public perception of comics has been long and slow for two reasons that I can see: the preceding cultural definition in America became entrenched over the course of a century, and we still have only a handful of works that can be cited as examples of comics outside of that definition. If there were a volume and variety of comics equivalent to that found in any other medium, the question would be moot; the disappointing truth is that it would take you a week (maybe a month, tops) to read every single non-superhero comics novel currently in print in America. The simple fact is that public opinion changes incrementally because exemplary comics get produced incrementally, regardless of how much their validity is promoted.

POV: Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Lichtenstein, and other artists like Raymond Pettibon have certainly been influenced by comics and have incorporated elements of them into their paintings. (Warhol was particularly influenced by Hergé.) And of course, Art Spiegelman really struck a nerve with a literary and a mainstream audience with Maus. In the last few years, a number of literary journals have been devoting space to comics; the New York Times magazine began serializing  comics in 2005, beginning  with Chris Ware's. Although for years comics have been denigrated as a so-called "low art" category, it appears they're becoming more widely accepted and perhaps even validated as a form of art and a long literary narrative. Would you agree with this? Is "form" the right word here? Do you think that this kind of validation is inhibiting in any way, that comics are in danger of becoming less rebellious or creatively free because they're more accepted and being published in the mainstream?

Jason: I think more mainstream visibility is great, and I don't see any danger of it watering down the medium. Wider public validation is just another restraint that rebellious practitioners can (and hopefully will) chafe against.

I loathe high/low art distinctions in any case, so the crossing and re-crossing of that line is an act to be savored and celebrated, regardless of how it turns out. I consider that transgressive aspect of the medium one of its great strengths. In the way comics is both words and pictures while being neither, comics is the Trickster's medium, and as such I would be happy if no one ever knew what to do with it.

POV: How is cartooning different for you as a creative process than working in other artistic or literary genres and forms?

Jason: I love writing and the little filmmaking I have attempted, but comics is the means of artistic expression that feels most comfortable to me. It's also still a largely uncharted medium with enormous unrealized potential. I like finding new ways to communicate an idea or a feeling, ways that can't be duplicated in other media, so I take great pleasure in the invention and exploration that comics necessitates.

POV: Hergé underwent a period of despair and anxiety during which he suffered recurring nightmares filled with whiteness — certainly iconic dreams for a cartoonist! Eventually, after psychoanalysis, he emerged with a new direction: Tintin in Tibet, with its stark alpine landscapes and minimalist cast and story, was a major departure for Hergé. Do you have periods when you lose faith in your work? How have you handled them? What do you feel is your greatest creative or artistic accomplishment?

Jason: In the course of working on Berlin, I have often questioned the wisdom of my decision to take on the project, and have faltered on more than one occasion. Along with financial concerns, this occasional wavering of commitment is part of the reason it's taken me ten years to write and draw up to the halfway point of the story — 300 out of 600 pages. I usually cope with the difficult times by switching gears and doing other work, like short stories or illustration, but currently I am working on Berlin full time and am feeling content and optimistic about it. No doubt more struggle awaits ahead.

Hopefully when it is complete, I will be happy with Berlin and regard it as a worthwhile accomplishment. Aside from that, the piece I like most is a short story called "Rules to Live By," which appeared in a little-seen anthology called Autobiographix. It's the only directly autobiographical work I've ever done, and documents a difficult and transformative period of my life.

POV: How does politics influence or impact your work in comics (or not)? Has it had a lesser or greater effect over the years?

Jason: The specifics of day-to-day politics don't have much of an effect on my work, but I'm drawn to larger questions of human nature and how it has informed politics throughout history. Although my decision to write and draw Berlin was not consciously motivated by American politics, and came instead out of a desire to "read history and know my place in time," relating present-day politics to those of Germany in the 1920s is inevitable, and brings with it a host of parallels and contradictions.

POV: What are you working on now?

Jason: I recently completed writing a comics novella about Harry Houdini (illustrated by Nick Bertozzi), for Hyperion Books and am currently at work on chapter 14 of Berlin: City of Smoke, the second book in my Berlin trilogy.

Rebecca Bengal conducted this interview via email for POV

Related Links
Drawn and Quarterly: Jason Lutes
The artist's page on his publisher's website.





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It was obvious to me that Tintin in Tibet had to be the climax of an intense personal drama — played out so movingly by Hergé in the snowy and desolate plains of Himalaya. All I had to do was unearth the story...”

— Anders Østergaard

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