On Oct. 1, Librairie Drawn & Quarterly hosted a virtual discussion between two distinguished comic book artists, Jason Lutes, author of Berlin, and Sophie Yanow, author of The Contradictions. Despite its virtual setting, the event provided an intimate look into the creative processes and relationship between the two renowned graphic novelists.
Lutes, a New Jersey-born artist currently residing in Vermont, is nothing short of a cartooning celebrity. His comic book Berlin, a magnum opus of over 500 pages and a 22-year production time, is a tour-de-force of visual storytelling. Originally planned as a 24-magazine set, the comic chronicles life in Weimar Republic Berlin, from 1928 to 1933. The book follows Marthe Müller, a young art student haunted by a family tragedy; Kurt Severing, a bespeckled, chain-smoking journalist overwhelmed by his industry’s changing morals; and the Brauns, a working-class family, torn apart by politics. Berlin is made up of three volumes, and in 2018, D&Q published a collected version, framing all three books’ intricately-woven story as one gargantuan epic.
Yanow, an up-and-coming graphic novelist, just released her third book, the Eisner award-winning comic book entitled The Contradictions, a monochromatic, minimalist masterpiece that follows a younger, fictionalized Sophie at 20 years old. When she moves to Paris to study abroad, Sophie meets Zena, a radical vegan and anarchist activist who encourages her to become more politically engaged. In this semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, Sophie hitchhikes her way across inky European cobblestones, questions her identity, and is forced out of her personal and ideological comfort zone, all in an attempt to discover her place in the world.
“I had this sense that […] this is kind of a coming of age story […] that takes place when a character is 20, because it’s […] that kind of place […] between a more firm adulthood and […] being a kid,” Yanow said.
And yet, despite the distance between Yanow now and the fictionalized Sophie in her book, Yanow feels that The Contradictions’s Sophie embodies an intense sentimental memory. Later, Yanow likened her protagonist’s maturation to Berlin‘s Marthe Müller, speaking largely of how Lutes’ work had inspired her own, and later asked him how he found the ability to write characters so distant from himself.
In response, Lutes described his two-year research process prior to writing Berlin.
“I would read as much as I could [of] first-person narratives, [noting the] little mundane things […] like how people drink their tea or how much firewood you need to stack in the back alley to get through winter,” Lutes said.
Lutes also mentioned how his challenging upbringing as a middle-child in a quarreling family forced him to be the family mediator, which taught him empathy. He spoke on how he was frequently figuring out what family members needed in order to avoid conflict and understand each other’s intentions and underlying feelings. Later, when Lutes was in high school, he began participating in role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, where he learned to put himself into the minds of other characters and creatures. This also gave Lutes the skills to develop his characters.
“One was a writer, one was an artist, that’s comics,” Lutes said. “And then I […] put them on the stage of Berlin, and then […] watched what they would do. Everything we make is an extension of ourselves.”
Perhaps this quality of autofiction makes both of these books so well-loved by readers around the globe. In both, there exists a ferocious, universal tenderness in the authors’ approach to the lost, wandering characters, all trying desperately to find themselves in a hungry, changing political world.