JASON LUTES interviewed by Walrus Comix

Walrus Comix Interview - Jason Lutes

Walrus Comix    |    Walrus Comix    |    March 20, 2009

An Exclusive Interview with Artist Extraordinaire, Missoula, Montana's Comix Laureate Jason Lutes

Jason Lutes is truly a treasured star in the comix firmament. His work is adult, and executed with a sophisticated ease belying his years. Informed by the great works of Herge, Spiegelman, and Uderzo, he's forged something that stands, imposing and beautiful serving as the new standard for comix excellence.

Starting with the exquisite Jar of Fools, Jason set the bar high and has never looked back. His work on Berlin is nothing short of astonishing in both it's ambition and scope, and when the day is done, Jason Lutes assuredly will be a name revered in the pantheon along with his idols.

Please check out his work at Drawn and Quarterly, where you can pick up your own copies of his colossal Berlin and Jar of Fools.

I want to start off by thanking you for taking the time to chat a bit.. You know I've known of you now, nearly 20 years - well before you became the influential, famous artist you are now! You see we have a mutual friend (Walrus Comix contributor John Nora) that went to RISD who was in the illustration program around the same time you were there… I can still remember your name bandied about back then in such reverential tones... Your inevitable success was well predicted I can tell you!

So let's start off there… I've heard the experience as a cartoonist at a place like RISD (specifically in the illustration department), was not exactly the greatest.. I would think facing the abundant snobbery, elitism and general derisiveness towards comics as art, could be a great detriment to one's growth as a cartoonist.. How did you find the experience there?

Everyone on the planet should take the first year at RISD, which they call (or used to call) the "Freshman Foundation" program. It was an incredibly challenging, humbling, inspiring and eye-opening experience -- art school boot camp in the best possible sense. After that first year things did get a little dicey. I didn't encounter derision or snobbery, but instructors and students alike were sort of clueless when confronted with a comic. They had a hard time engaging with an obviously narrative artform.

I got a lot out of RISD, but it was hard to ignore how much it was costing me and my mom, especially given how low the signal-to-noise ratio was in the world of undergrad fine art studies. Thankfully, by my third year I had taken some steps to remedy the situation by starting a student-run comics magazine and lobbying for the Illustration department to start teaching comics (which they eventually did), so those of us who felt compelled by the medium eventually carved out a space of our own.

You cite Raw as a major influence, stating you read it at RISD in the early 90s.. I had the same experience, I was introduced to it around the same time period, and it definitely had a significant impact, it really opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the medium.. Starting with Jar of Fools you were on the frontlines of the next big creative wave along side the likes of Chester Brown, Chris Ware and Joe Matt… Did you feel like you were carrying the standard so to speak with the work started in Raw?

I definitely felt inspired by the work I saw in Raw, and Spiegelman's approach in general, because the intellectual aspects of the medium were appealing to me and I hadn't seen those aspects explored much at all, so there was this sense of enormous, untapped potential. If I had to see myself as carrying the standard, though, it would not be for comics as highbrow or subversive art, but for comics as a medium with no limitations. The alternatives, and even Raw to an extent, came into being partly a response against mainstream comics, and I realized that I wanted to create something that stood on its own -- not something that was a response to a particular subculture. I wanted to make and read comics that were about other things -- life, human experience, the great big world out there.

Your style has often been compared to the 'ligne claire' method of Herge... Again, here we have a commonality.. having been born in France and moving here as a young child, Asterix and Tintin were an obsession with me and my brother - along with Lucky Luke and the other bande dessine stand bys... As a child being raised in Missoula, Montana , what in particular about this European aesthetic impacted so deeply with you ??

The visual clarity of the jewel-like worlds conjured up by the European masters certainly had a lot of appeal to me as a child, but I think the momentum of those stories, especially the Tintin books, were really what compelled me to read them over and over. I recently did some formal analysis of Tintin for a class I'm teaching, and came away with a new appreciation for how much of an engineer Herge was. His stories just have this relentless forward motion, reinforced at every turn with such fluidity and grace that the books practically turn their own pages. I think I couldn't get enough of that as a kid, and a lot of his basic techniques have found their way into my own work.

With Berlin , you found the vehicle to truly stretch out... What exactly made you decide on the city of berlin during the last years of the weimar republic as the subject matter for your magnum opus??

Like every piece of creative work I've ever undertaken, it was an extremely impulsive decision that requires a hell of a lot of follow-through. Back in 1996 I saw an ad for a book about Berlin between the wars. I read the one-paragraph descriptive blurb and thought, "That sounds cool. My next book will be a 600-page comics novel about Berlin."

How much of Berlin 's story do you have mapped out in your head beforehand and how much of it do you 'feel your way through'?

I start with a very loose structure and gradually fill in the gaps between them as I go. When I first envisioned the book it was defined by three salient moments: the May Day Massacre of 1928, the Reichstag elections of 1930, and Hitler's assumption of the Chancellorship in 1933. Starting with those three big "hooks," I then outline a secondary tier of events (real and fictional) that connects them, and then on a chapter-by-chapter basis I explore ("feel my way through") the space between them with my cast of characters. So I know how some threads of the story will end, but others will be up in the air for me until the very end.

Do you find working on a project as major as Berlin over so many years to be limiting at all to your growth as an artist, or do you think it's the opposite; that working on something of this singular scope brings with it a fulfillment far greater than breaking up your time on different projects?

I feel both of those things, by turns. Sometimes I find Berlin is inspiring and challenging, sometimes it feels like a stultifying dead end. There are a lot of other stories I want to tell, and these days I'm acutely aware of the finite number of years I have left in which to tell them. This looming sense of my own mortality, combined with the recent birth of my daughter, has increased my productivity fourfold over the last year.

Although Berlin on one hand can be taken strictly as an historical account, how much do you play with allegory and metaphor? It's hard not to draw parallels to present day...

I play with that stuff a lot, but hopefully not too much. There are certainly instructive parallels to be drawn between the Weimar period and our present world, but it can be counterproductive to draw those connections too tightly. I tend to think more in terms of the bigger overall picture, and how certain aspects of human nature recur and interact with dramatic effect throughout history and will continue to do so as long as we walk the Earth.

Your writing style has always been decidedly 'adult', specifically tartegting a different audience than the typical Marvel/DC fare.. Did you ever have any interest in Superheroes growing up as a child?

Oh yeah, for sure! I loved superheroes as a kid, especially Captain America and the Avengers. I still love the spirit and energy of a lot of those older superhero comics, but find most contemporary superhero fare pretty painful to read. I'm a fan of the pulpy, old-school superheroes, not the gritty, "dark" stuff they're shovelling out these days. Although Batman: Year One is still one of the best comics ever published.

Your stories depict the disaffected, disenfranchized.. the outsiders.. Growing up, were you an outsider? Why do you feel this is such a prominent theme in your work?

I was an outsider to mainstream American culture, but I had plenty of friends and never felt like a social outcast. I looked and acted pretty square, but my high school social circle consisted entirely of punks and geeks -- MAXIMUMROCKNROLL and the Dungeon Master's Guide were the coffee table books of choice. I guess I just have a lot of empathy for people who are economically or culturally on the fringe.

Which instruments do you use? Nibs, pens, brushes, etc..?

For all of my lettering and drawing I use a Rotring Sketch EF ArtPen with a refillable cartridge, loaded with Ultradraw ink (non-clogging, waterproof, and lightfast). I ink panels borders with the same make of pen, but the 1.5 Calligraphy model. I work up my pencils on Clearprint design vellum and complete the finished art on Utrecht 2-ply plate finish Bristol. My originals are 11" x 14".

What are your thoughts on webcomics, do you think something gets lost in the transition from page to screen?

I read webcomics from time to time, but nothing compares to the tangibility and intimacy of holding a book in my hands. Maybe that will change some day, as technology advances, but it hasn't happened yet. Reading webcomics feels like watching cable TV to me -- an entertaining way to kill time, but not something that stays with me past the point of absorption.

What artists out there today do you feel are creating the most relevant and dynamic work?

Kevin Huizenga and Anders Nilsen are pretty high on the list for me these days. I love their work and will read any scrap of paper that either one of them cares to doodle on. Kevin in particular is stretching the medium in exciting ways, expressing things that haven't been expressed before and that could not be expressed in the same way in any other medium.

Finally, what advice do you have for the kids out there that have dreams of growing up just like you..?

The good news is that while the mainstream is still trying to squeeze milk out of the undead cash cow of the superhero, book publishers have taken a real interest in other kinds of comics in recent years. That interest will continue to widen and deepen, which in turn will multiply and diversify the sorts of comics showing up on bookstore shelves. Even better, the skills you need to be an effective visual storyteller will have broader application and greater value as more and more people take the means of media creation and production into their owns hands. So if you're serious about the medium, now is actually a great time to get into comics.

And on that note, I will plug the Center for Cartoon Studies (http://www.cartoonstudies.org/) in White River Junction, VT, where I've begun teaching this year. It's an amazing, inspiring place to study and make comics, the sort of place I would have described if you'd asked me to describe my ideal comics school ten years ago.

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