Tag Archives: jason lutes

Follow the Lutanist of Berlin

Synopsis ‘Berlin – City of Smoke’ is the collected first 8 issues of Jason Lutes’ Berlin series (1996- 2000). It is set in 1928-29, in Berlin, at a time when the currents of global politics were clashing – Communism, Nazism, conservatism. Against this backdrop we follow characters who are all trying to find their place in the City, but cannot define the world in monochrome like many others do.

Three categories of good books – deserve to be re-read, need to be re-read, deserve and need to be re-read. The last one is where “Berlin – City of Stones” belongs. It is a book with breathtaking expanse, delightful details, and a story that is excavated upon events of such significance that we would be naïve to feel we’ve understood it in one go. Or I would be, at least.

A return to this book made such joyous reading, tasting all that I had missed while gulping it down earlier. Jason Lutes, writer and illustrator, has told such a touching story, alighting on so many characters, all the while maintaining a narrative unity.

Am I gushing, or is it just that good?

It is very rare that I encounter a lengthy work of art and feel that nothing was overdone, nothing could have been cut, nothing could have be elaborated. It feels like the baby bear’s bed. Just right.

Lutes’ is the story of two protagonists – Marthe Muller and Kurt Severing. They are worlds apart, coming together by a chance encounter. Muller comes to Berlin to change the way she has been living – to learn and experience everything that life in a big city offers. Severing is an old hand here, and as a journalist he is an observer, not a doer, and records change instead of living it.

“But, are they the protagonists?” I ask myself. Are we more moved by them or by Gudrun, the communist mother? Or even by many of the lesser characters? Interestingly, Lutes has offered us many people with independent life-stories, instead of minor characters whose only role is to bolster the protagonist’s story. So, in as many ways there are as many protagonists in this comic book.

An epic story, such as this, is served by turning the smallest of people into the most important presence on the page/frame, at that time. “There is no greatness, where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth” said one who knew epic scale very well. This is why Lutes manages to make “Berlin” stay with the reader for long, and makes the reader stay long as well. We are not just reading about Muller and Severing, but are seeing the whole city speak, through its people, though its streets. It isn’t mere whimsy when suddenly we hear (or see) the thoughts of random walk-through characters such as a ticket-checker, or a traffic constable. We are being shown a glimpse of the gigantic buzz of the hive that is the modern metropolis. We are suddenly empowered with ears that hear thoughts.

Lutes himself indicates that the central nerve of the story is that of the city – Berlin. Berlin is changing and changes her people. Berlin is where people are coming for opportunity. Berlin is what is being chronicled. And Berlin is where people are fighting and dying on the streets. The million-window-eyed city is what is always heaving and breathing in almost every frame.

And Lutes is not being easy with his readers by providing a history lesson. He chooses to let the events unfold dramatically and with full fury, which to a sensitive reader is a signal to go and take a fresher course in relevant German history. We read that this is Weimar Germany, but are not told not what the Weimar Republic is. We see the Nationalist Socialists, but not their more famous avatar, and thus we are not allowed the more obvious familiarity. And most hauntingly we are introduced, posthumously, to Rosa Luxemburg, an alluring and mysterious character, who is a revolution’s figurehead, and also a lonely boy’s refuge. Luxemburg brings masses of hundreds into the streets, and inhabits the dreams of anonymous people, and yet we don’t know enough about her to be part of these masses. We are outsiders in this world, we are not cosy friends. This is not “Maus”.

One matter of consternation, however, is the way in which the faces of characters are quite indistinct from each other. It is disorienting when one cannot always distinguish between Marthe and Gudrun, or a policeman and a communist. One tries to grasp little nuances of the hair, or clothing, to anchor the characters, but to no great avail. So I found myself unable to be certain how someone’s story began or ended. Alas.

Some of the best moments of “Berlin” are not actually part of the currents of the story, but as asides. Here the characters, stories and faces stop mattering. Severing, as journalist-observer, holds up an interesting mirror to society:

“Berlin” is intended to be a trilogy, but only 2 have been released. When I re-read the second one I will discuss it here. As a parting shot I can say this about “Berlin” (meaning it complimentarily), that if ever the term “graphic novel” was to be used aptly, it would be for this book.

‘Berlin – The City of Stones’

Jason Lutes (writer-artist)

Published by Drawn & Quarterly, 2001

USD 22.95

Ligne Claire – the Tintin way of drawing

Re-reading some old comics feels nostalgic, like playing football in the mud (not that I ever did that). And so it happened when I picked up a Tintin comic recently. But what was it that felt so comfortable about returning to Tintin that I had been missing in the wider world of comics?

Why, Ligne Claire of course!

I was equally puzzled by the term when I first chanced upon it. But I think that’s what I had been missing.

Ligne Claire, French for Clear Line is a school of comics illustrating that believes that

  • lines must be distinct and uniform, giving everything shape and boundaries
  • everything within the panel must be shown crystal clearly

If you imagine the pages within a child’s colouring book you will know what this mean. A sharp image, drawn using clear lines, just waiting to be carefully coloured in. no ambivalent brush strokes or light effects.

This style, as it turns out, was pioneered by Hergé, the creator of Tintin. It went on to take Europe by storm during the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. The term itself, however, was coined much later in 1977 by another artist Joost Swarte. We in India had been well exposed to Tintin comics quite early on, and that is the reason behind the familiarity we feel for images drawn in this manner.

But really analyzing the effect of the style Hergé epitomizes can throw up startling insights. The lines are uniform, with no shading or highlighting. This implies the supremacy of form over all else. And the fact that there is no shading to offer the illusion of depth also means that the background is allowed to draw itself closer into our view. Compare the two images below to understand the difference that Clear Line holds.

Herge was fortunate to gain complete editorial control over this works, thanks to their incredible popularity. He started the Studios Hergé, a team of collaborators who helped him produce comics, and taught his protégés there his style. This developed into the ‘Brussels School’ of Ligne Claire.

The style’s popularity has risen and fallen, and occasional works adopt this method even now. Among the most popular recent works in this style was Jason Lutes’ Berlin volumes published since 1996.

Another very promising discovery for me is Peter van Dongen.

What attracted me through each of my readings, from childhood till now, are probably the details within the panels. It seemed to show me everything I wanted to know and more. Like the best of adventure stories it could be crowded with overflowing treasure chests, and intricate machines, all while the plot was advancing in the foreground. It was a cosy read, like pulling all of your toys together while playing with just one.

On a parting note, I just read how the makers of the upcoming Tintin feature film expressed the difficulty of recreating a faithful look for the film based on the comics. Technology has only now come to their rescue. How’s that for the power of the medium?