Berlin: The graphic novel that took 20 years to complete

Jason Lutes has spent the past two decades working on Berlin – an epic, 600-page graphic novel that follows the lives of Berlin residents in the years leading up to World War Two. We talk to Lutes about the process and the changing perceptions of the comic as an art form

Berlin paints a rich portrait of life in the Weimar Republic through the eyes of several residents, including an art student, a journalist and a working-class mother. Set in homes, bars, smoke-filled jazz clubs and city streets, it follows Berliners going about their daily lives to a backdrop of riots and rising political tensions.

As the book unfolds, we see fascism taking hold in the city, forcing families and couples apart. Lute’s story is all the more poignant for the fact that its readers (unlike its characters) know exactly how it ends, and in a time of rising far right and anti-immigration rhetoric, it’s a timely look at how quickly a diverse and liberal society can collapse.

Berlin is Lutes’ second graphic novel. Initially released in installments, it has been brought together for the first time in a hardback book published by Drawn + Quarterly this month. Here, he talks to CR about how the book came about, the challenges of working on a 20-year project and how perceptions of the graphic novel have changed since the 1990s.

CR: How did the idea for Berlin come about?
Jason Lutes: I had finished my first graphic novel, a book called Jar of Fools, and for me that was very much an experience where I was getting to grips with the comic as a medium and figuring out what I could do with it. By the end of the book I felt I had an understanding of how to tell stories using comics, and with that, came this feeling I could tell any kind of story I wanted to – so the possibilities were wide open.

I ran across an advertisement for a book of photographs of Weimar Berlin and very impulsively decided that would be my next project – and I decided it would be 600 pages long.