From The Comics Journal #228 (November 2000)
In 1994, Jason Lutes released his debut graphic novel, the Xeric-funded Jar of Fools, to unusual praise. Perhaps the strongest and most visible endorsement came from Scott McCloud, who called the book “an instant classic” in a promotional blurb. McCloud’s enthusiasm was generally echoed by the rest of the book’s readership, particularly in Seattle, where it was originally serialized in the alternative weekly paper The Stranger.
The unique appeal of Jar of Fools was driven home for me at a lecture McCloud gave in a Seattle bookstore shortly after the publication of Understanding Comics. His talk was accompanied by slides of artwork that illustrated various points he was making about the medium. When a panel from Jar of Fools was shown, the audience broke into spontaneous applause.
Part of the acclaim was for Lutes’ thoughtful story of a down-and-out magician and his troubled relationships. But what set Jar of Fools apart from other debuts was the way it was told. Lutes has more than just a facility for drawing comics; he has a concrete, guiding vision of how the medium works. As a result, he displays a mastery over aspects of the visual language of comics that many cartoonists don’t even consider.
That alone would make Lutes’ work worthy of attention. Additionally, Lutes has responded to his particular challenge — how to follow up a successful debut that was singled out for praise by comics guru McCloud — with remarkable audacity. His current series Berlin, a broad portrait of that city and its inhabitants before WWII, is due to be collected by Drawn and Quarterly early next year — and yet Lutes will still have completed only a third of the project. By the time the third and final collection is finished, Lutes will have spent an entire decade working on Berlin.
Anyone with the patience to follow him down this path will surely be rewarded by Berlin’s elegant pacing, thorough research, and sensitive characterization. Those who look closely will also discover that at the heart of this sprawling narrative is its very opposite: a kind of subtle visual poetry that occurs in each panel with the juxtaposition of words and pictures. Fortunately for readers of this interview, Lutes is as adept at revealing this process in conversation as he is in his work.
The interview was conducted in three sessions, mostly in Lutes’ apartment, from the fall of 1999 to the summer of 2000.
GREG STUMP: I want to get your take on what it was like to go to Berlin having drawn it, and then actually getting to see what you’ve envisioned in your head and what the difference was between the two. You just got back from Berlin in late July.
JASON LUTES: Yeah. It was my first time there.
STUMP: What surprised you about the way it was in reality as opposed to what you imagined?
LUTES: Unfortunately, I didn’t get to stay very long. I came in on a train from Frankfurt, and the sun was setting. The train was moving, it was like practically silent. It was really, really quiet, it felt like we were coasting. It was a pretty intense experience to see the buildings slide into view. I was very apprehensive because I was really worried if I saw the real place and it was very different than what I imagined it to be, it would throw the whole project into crisis. [Laughter] I was actually concerned it would be so disheartening that I wouldn’t be able to go on. I was really nervous about it. But actually, the parts that still remain from the period I’m writing about were exactly the way I imagined them to be. It was really gratifying.
STUMP: Because you’ve done such a thorough job of using reference?
LUTES: I guess so. Yeah. And I read enough stuff, and I tried to imagine it thoroughly. The beginning for me was looking at all the photos and reading all the stuff, that’s the map. It’s not the territory. The big thing I was worried about was that the feel of it would be very different than what I imagined. I saw the Berlin I imagined there. It was a very positive experience.
STUMP: You were going there because the first Berlin collection, which I guess will be published early next year, is also going to come out in a book form from a German publisher.
LUTES: Hopefully. The publisher that did Jar of Fools over there, Carlsen, had flown me over for a book-signing tour. And they expressed an interest in doing the German edition of Berlin. We haven’t signed a contract yet. But they’re interested.
STUMP: What was the response from German readers to the book? I think that would be kind of the weirdest contingent because you’re writing about their history, not yours. I don’t know if they would have thought it presumptuous on your part. Did you get any comments like that?
LUTES: Well, that was the second big concern. The first concern was, “Will it be like I imagined it?” And the second concern will be, “Do they want to kick my ass?”
STUMP: They would be, not outraged, but —
LUTES: Who is this arrogant American, and all that.
STUMP: Who had never even been to Germany before.
LUTES: I was there for Jar of Fools, and a lot of people who loved Jar of Fools came to the signings, and some would have copies of Berlin in English for me to sign. So it was really great. I met a lot of my German readers. And all the comics readers had a very positive reaction to Berlin, they were really into it. They had questions, like, “Why Berlin? Why did you choose to do the story about this time and place?” But none of them were even the slightest bit like disrespectful or upset.
STUMP: Although I’m sure you could find people.
LUTES: Absolutely. This is a very limited audience: people who already buy comics. And the comics audience is not necessarily the most sophisticated, historically aware audience, here or there. Over there, they’re definitely better educated and know more about our history than we do, but they’re still a very friendly audience. And if you were to take that book and expose it to an audience that was more of a mainstream German audience, I think it would obviously be very different.
The only halfway negative response I got was when I was interviewed by two journalists in Berlin. Both of them were really, really nice. And one of them, after hemming and hawing a little bit, got around to asking, “Who do you think you are?” [Laughter.] And my response to her was, “Europeans have been doing their take on American culture for decades.” There are plenty of European westerns, Europeans imagining what the Old West was like. There are European film noir style comics that sort of try to get at Los Angeles in the ’30s, and often ring false. And I think that’s what I’m doing. This is my take on another culture while not having a lot of personal experience with that culture, and a lot of it probably will ring false. But it’s a work of the imagination. The big risk being that I’m actually taking on some serious historical issues. That’s what makes it a non-genre work, and opens it up to a certain kind of criticism. I’d be really, really interested in hearing what a German historian or a scholar might have to say.
STUMP: What was their response when you brought up the fact that Europeans have long been doing films and novels set in America?
LUTES: They laughed and said, “Good point!” She was really gracious, but I could tell that was bothering her.
STUMP: Somehow America represents something to Europeans —
LUTES: Arrogance? [Laughter.]
STUMP: Well, something very specific. When they imagine America, I think, to a European, they have a sense of what it means to be in America. Whereas I don’t think the average American has a similar sense of what it means to be in Europe. You know what I mean? It has much less of a history than European culture.
LUTES: And they’ve all had a hand in it. They have relatives that live here, a lot of them have come here as students, and lived here for a year or two…
STUMP: America is, supposedly, the “Leader of the Free World.”
LUTES: We’re the dominant culture in the world. No doubt about it. They all watch American TV, they all watch American movies. Every movie in the movie theater I saw there was an American movie. I found that very tragic, obviously, because there’s a hell of a lot about American culture, especially the culture that makes it over there, which is embarrassing and soulless in my eyes.
STUMP: Right, right.
LUTES: That’s why I’m excited about what I’ve chosen to do because I’m looking at European history and finding things that are exciting and much more interesting to me than a lot of things that I see in American culture at large. Although more and more I’m thinking the next thing I do is going to be thoroughly American.
STUMP: But you won’t be done with Berlin for how many years?
LUTES: Probably another five, six.
STUMP: You’re doing the first collection, which is the first third— it’s 24 issues total —
LUTES: First third, right.
STUMP: So that’s eight issues. From reading the first seven issues, I still have a sense of it as leading up to something, setting the stage. Do you think it will stand alone as a novel?
LUTES: The first eight?
LUTES: No. It won’t be as contained as I would have liked. It’s not all set up. Some things are definitely set in motion, and some things have started to develop. One thing I’ve had to sort of accept is that I’m not telling a plot-driven story. It’s a broad portrait of a city, and it has a pretty wide cast of characters. There are certainly going to be motivations that are going to come into conflict later in the story, and there’s events in history that bring conflict into the story. But I see it more as a portrait of time, and the people in that time, than a plot-driven narrative.
STUMP: Do you think people will object to that approach? Will readers find it not up to what they are expecting from a long book?
LUTES: Yeah, I’m concerned about that. I think that’s very possible. On the front it will say Berlin: City of Stones, Book One, so it’ll be clear that it’s just one part of a larger thing. I am concerned that people will be disappointed in that it won’t fully stand on its own … But that’s the nature of the beast. [Laughs.] What I set out to do can’t really take any other form. You make the final assessment based on the end product.
STUMP: Which we won’t know until 2006.
STUMP: How do you see it as you’re about to wrap up the eighth issue? You have some sort of sense of semi-closure.
LUTES: Yeah. Absolutely.
STUMP: And what is it? [Laughs.]
LUTES: If anyone reading doesn’t want to know what happens in Berlin #8, they should skip this section. The eighth issue all happens in one day, May Day, 1929. It’s all about the May Day demonstrations that occurred on that day. It starts in the morning, with Gudrun Braun and her two daughters having breakfast. Then it follows this Communist demonstration through the course of the day, and the ensuing police intervention. In the course of that, things get out of control, and the police start to fire on the crowd. A lot of people believe this was a turning point in German history, in the Weimar Republic’s lifespan. Basically, people were very unhappy with the government on all sides, and things got out of control. On this day, things got so bad that a number of people were killed. Shot by the police. Unarmed people. They were just shooting into the crowd because the crowd was terrifying them. It was a mob. And one of the people who gets shot, in my story, is Gudrun. So the closing to the first eight issues is her death.
She’s become my favorite character, and I didn’t set out to make her symbolic or anything, but it made sense for her to be victimized by the particular cultural current in which she finds herself swept up. She’s just sort of carried along by what was happening, and without any negative actions on her part, she ends up getting killed. A victim of circumstances. So the first book will end with the climactic moment that closes both Gudrun’s life and a certain phase of German history. Thereafter things really started to go to hell. But in terms of the characters, her daughters are now motherless, and the next eight issues will partly describe what happens to them, how they survive.
STUMP: That’s also sort of mirroring the Rosa Luxemburg figure. I don’t know if this is exactly right, but there’s another woman who gets shot—
LUTES: Yeah, she was shot by the Freikorps, the acting police force at the time, in 1919. It’s some kind of reflection on that. Both women who have certain political beliefs, the difference being that Rosa Luxemburg was a charismatic, driven political activist, and Gudrun just wants something better.
STUMP: One thing I sort of noticed early on in Berlin compared to Jar of Fools is the interior monologues you give the characters. In Jar of Fools you do give the characters’ internal feelings in thought balloons, but they’re more likely to be symbols and pictures. In Berlin you have these characters who are writers, and you’re revealing their inner lives from their journals or whatever they’re writing. I assume that’s a conscious strategy? I don’t think I’ve ever read a comic from you where you’re actually the narrator.
LUTES: Right. I don’t think I’ve published anything like that. I’ve tried it and been unhappy with the results.
STUMP: Because of what specifically?
LUTES: Well, the narrative voice in a comic book is stranger than it is in literature. When it’s all words, there’s a certain leeway because it’s all the same matter, the same stuff. In a book, the words down on the page are actually some sort of narrative voice, there’s a different feeling to it. Every choice I make in every part of the arrangement of word and image is the analogous narrative voice of comics. Whether I intend a particular juxtapositional effect or not. It’s all —
STUMP: A silent narrative.
LUTES: It’s hopefully invisible, or at least transparent. I’ve tried writing comics with a narrative voice, an anonymous narrator, and I’ve been very unhappy with the results. Even small notations like “Meanwhile…” or “Hours Later…”
STUMP: I’ve never seen that in your stuff.
LUTES: I think that breaks the spell. I’m definitely trying to create some sort of suspension of disbelief. Even the journals are very problematic to me because the tense doesn’t quite fit. They’re written in the present tense, but if you’re writing in a journal, you wouldn’t really write that way. So hopefully people won’t notice that or be too distracted by it.
STUMP: It’s not inconceivable that someone might write that way.
LUTES: Well, I rationalize it by saying you might, but both Kurt and Marthe do. They write about things after the fact, but in the present tense. They’re reliving the day. So it works because if I write them in the past tense, there would be too much distance between the words and pictures. You’d immediately be thinking, “Oh, they’re writing about the past,” which is not how I want it to feel. I really would like to write a comic with a kind of literary narrative voice that describes things like smells. Omniscient narration has great appeal because you can flesh out parts of the story or describe things you can’t explain otherwise. It’s obviously very rich. You can do an enormous amount there. But trying to make it work is really a problem.
So I avoid that issue by just doing it visually. When there’s an aerial shot, that’s the “voice” of an omniscient narrator. Somebody flying above the city looking down.
STUMP: But the thing about that is that when you’re reading a comic, a reader is much more apt to skip over the details that you might want them to linger on if you’re writing a story. You would point out what you want them to notice. A lot of times, I think, maybe some of the subtleties of comics get lost because the nature of the act of reading is such a —
LUTES: So fluid.
STUMP: Yeah. And you tend not to linger over those details. That’s something an omniscient narrator might pull out and point out something to be paid attention to.
LUTES: Well, you can do that, for instance by focusing on an object. I’m reminded of David Lasky’s story where he had dinner with the artists’ model, and the whole conversation is broken up by panels depicting fragments of the table between them. You can do it visually, definitely, but I agree that it’s more work. We just tend not to absorb this stuff. One of the most gratifying things that’s happened recently was when I read what Scott McCloud wrote about Jar of Fools in Reinventing Comics; he noticed a lot of things that I put in there which nobody had ever noticed before. Because he was analyzing it, he took the time to pay attention to what I put in there. Stuff that other people would just digest instantaneously on the fly, and think about.
I think it’s a combination of a problem with the way people read comics and the way that we absorb visual information in general. Which we learn through watching television and film. Rapidly, skimming the surface, not going any deeper. The appreciation for the potential richness of a still image, even photographs or paintings, has diminished a lot, I think.
STUMP: As far as an average person being able to appreciate a composition, maybe, or — ?
LUTES: Right. Or to stop and really just look at one thing for a while. I remember in art school one of our assignments was to go to a museum and pick a piece — we had a number of pieces we could choose from — and scrutinize it for a couple of hours, take it apart and figure out what was going on with it. And then write an analytical essay about it. That was a really great exercise for me. If I hadn’t taken the time to look at the piece I chose, I would never had found the narrative. For me, that was a really good lesson. How we, myself included, don’t pay attention to that kind of stuff. We consume images like candy, when they may have complex aspects that can be absorbed, turned over, returned to.
In Berlin, I use a lot of things repeatedly, and at different points in the story, referring to each other, and unless you’re actually paying attention, you won’t notice. Except the really obvious ones.
STUMP: Like what specifically?
LUTES: Like in issue #7, there’s the “Do You Love Her”/“I Love You” thing where Margarethe speaks into Kurt’s ear from the left early in the issue, and Marthe from the right later on. The images refer to each other. Between those two images, in between those whispering mouths, is the figurative space of Kurt’s head. It’s hard to describe. I was trying to use the structure of the book and also create some sort of resonance between the question, “Do you love her?” at a point at which he hasn’t really thought about it much, and the later statement of Marthe’s love for him.
Earlier, the one that’s totally lost is between issues three and four. [Stump laughs.] In #3, Kurt has a flashback about Margarethe, his friend — and previous lover — and remembers the first time he met her laughing on a park bench. She was actually hysterically laughing, she was crying. Then, in #4, he sees Marthe in a bar with her friends, and the drawing of her laughing is a mirror image of the earlier drawing of Margarethe. There’s a panel where he’s looking at her with a surprised look on his face, recognizing his former lover through her.
STUMP: Sure, sure.
LUTES: But nobody notices that.
STUMP: Well, it makes sense hearing you describe it. Do they not notice it because it takes place in separate issues?
LUTES: Partly. I don’t necessarily want people to notice consciously, I want it to happen on an unconscious level, but I think it’s probably missed entirely because it’s too subtle. Capturing the expression on these faces is just impossible. You can’t really read Kurt’s expression the way I drew it; I was attempting to do something entirely with the visuals, and that’s no doubt why it failed.
STUMP: When I was asking about the inner narratives of the main characters: is that a specific device for getting more in-depth with the characters in a way that you couldn’t with Jar of Fools? It seems like you’re trying to get deeper into a character by giving them an internal voice that’s different from what they say to other people.
LUTES: Exactly. And also, I use thought balloons in Berlin, but I tend not to use them for inner emotional monologues. I use them for more random thoughts.
STUMP: Like fragments.
LUTES: Right. They’re more fragmentary. While choosing not to use an omniscient narrator, I still wanted a way to get at the texture of emotions. By using journals, I can excerpt them whenever I choose to and juxtapose it with other things.
STUMP: It’s a good solution because you can also use that to sort of drive the story. Remind people what’s happening through the voice of another character. It’s a way to get around that lack of a narrator.
LUTES: That’s why I chose it. And I’m pretty sure they’re going to be the only ones who do that. They’re the two main characters, she’s an artist, he’s a writer, she writes in cursive, and his is all typewritten, those contrasts … That scene where they kiss for the first time — they both narrate. I use excerpts from both of their journals, juxtaposed with images, some of which are suggestive, not literal.
STUMP: Do you remember specifically?
LUTES: It’s not an entirely successful sequence. Partly —
STUMP: When have you ever done anything that was entirely successful, Lutes? [Laughter.]
LUTES: Here’s the picture, here’s an image where her feet actually lift off the ground. [Berlin #5, page 23] This is the only page where I’ve done this so far. Here, this image is a literal representation of the feeling that’s she’s floating and then this diagram and this external shot react with the text but are visual non-sequiturs. Here I was using his narration, his perspective on what it’s like at the moment they first kiss, and then you get her perspective. And they’re very different perspectives. But between the two of them, this moment occurs.
STUMP: I want to ask about your transition to different styles of cartooning. The initial stuff you gave me is mostly formal games and iconic stuff, and now you’ve sort of made this gradual transition to doing more humanistic or realistic work, while still using the language of comics that you explored in the earlier stuff.
Was that a deliberate change? Or was it more of a gradual evolution…
LUTES: Nothing very deliberate. On different projects, things are very deliberate, but in the evolution of the way I work, it’s all been a kind of stumbling from one thing to the next, very intuitive. I’ll find myself in a situation, I’ll respond to the situation with whatever tools I have available, and eventually, over time those responses become more refined in a particular direction and I’ll follow it.
The formal stuff was me saying, “Oh, look at this great medium and what can we do with it.” A lot of it has to do with not knowing what I wanted to say, which is a problem that many artists have, especially when they’re younger. I want to say some things, and I’ve chosen this medium to say them in, but how the hell does this medium work?
STUMP: Do you think formal experimentation is an outgrowth of not knowing exactly what you want to express? In arts in general?
LUTES: A lot of it is just noodling. I think there are two basic ways that aspiring cartoonists begin to draw comics. The first way is to do autobio stuff in which there is little self-reflection or interesting thought because their life is all they can think to make into a story. The other way is, “OK, I know there’s nothing I want to say. [Laughter.] And because I don’t know what I want to say with the medium, I guess I’ll just say things about the medium.” And I fell into this second category.
It’s not conscious at all for me. It was just what I was drawn to — the experimenting, the thing itself, to see what it could do. Without any foresight at all as far as what I’d do with it in five years. It was more like, “Oh, this is really neat.”
STUMP: What were you interested in artistically before you discovered comics, then? Or before you decided that comics were what you wanted to do?
LUTES: In high school, I drew. I’ve been drawing my whole life. And drawing for whatever reason is a really great thing — easy way to make friends. To some degree, I seem to have some natural affinity for it, so it’s something I did in part because I was good at it. It would be really hard to put into words why those initial stages of drawing were pleasing. Why is it pleasing to make a record of a thing you see, or to create on your own? There are obvious reasons, from the act of creation to controlling something by putting it down on paper.
STUMP: Or using drawing as a way to learn to see the world.
LUTES: Yeah. More and more that is what it’s become to me. It’s a way of seeing. It’s highly idiosyncratic from person to person. I wasn’t very directed or focused at all — it was just like, “Here’s something I like to do.” I was either going to art school or going to study writing somewhere. They were both things I liked to do. I ended up choosing art school because I felt that anybody can write — in the sense that anybody can put two sentences together — but I seemed to have some natural drawing ability so I should probably pursue that. It was really not very calculated or anything. Just the thing to do.
STUMP: Is that a pattern that you notice with cartoonists, with your friends who do it? The visuals seem to be the most important thing, and then the expression sort of gradually emerges as they mature.
LUTES: If it emerges at all. Endemic to comics is this problem where the visuals come first, for the reader and, usually, the cartoonist. It’s always been that way, and it’s just a huge, huge weakness of the medium. There’s this struggle between getting carried away with the fact that you can draw; it’s cool and fun to draw cool, fun things without any regard to the fact that they may completely detract from whatever you’re trying to say. When you look at the comics on shelves in comic shops, every page says that to you. It’s all about the drawing. People buy it because of the drawing, if they’re hugely successful it’s because of their visual appeal.
Very rarely, there are people who are considered great writers in mainstream comics — but take away the pictures, and we’re talking pretentious hacks for the most part. It’s really comics’ greatest — weakness isn’t right, because it’s obviously a strength — but it’s the great seduction. That is the seduction. The visual element. It seduces the reader, and it seduces the cartoonist. Even in my relatively mundane work, I’ve made visual choices that are more flashy than useful to the story. I think most cartoonists are easily seduced by that.
STUMP: As you get more experienced, you’re checking that impulse hopefully.
LUTES: Yeah, more and more that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to maximize the more interesting formal aspects of the medium without becoming too flashy. I don’t want the flash to distract from the content. I also don’t want to be over-manipulative. I’m trying to create a space within which the reader can come to their own conclusions, or put things together for themselves.
The most affecting art, in my experience, allows for that kind of interaction. When the artist creates this space, the observer or reader enters into it and puts things together for themselves. Even though you can set up a very specific space, as long as you allow them enough room to make the connections on their own, the lasting effect of it is going to be more powerful. And it’s going to be more personal. Ideally, I’d like to point readers in a direction but allow them to come to their own conclusions.
STUMP: There’s one quote that you gave in that Cups interview along those same lines, where you said that you wanted to sort of take away the work that the reader has to bring to reading the comic: “I don’t want the reader to work too hard. Work is necessary if you really want to affect somebody, work helps. But at its best, it will just kind of wash over you. I try to have things go down easy.”
Are there consequences to that approach? Because some might say that a problem with comics is that it doesn’t allow for the kind of nuance or ambiguity that other forms of art can deal with — their greatness evolves from their subtlety.
LUTES: Absolutely. The basic components of comics are word, picture and sequence. My God. There’s an incredible, an infinite world of nuance and subtlety that can be achieved there. It’s just that those directions are the less sensational, the less flashy. Less seductive.
Because comics involves such a direct act of creation on the part of the cartoonist, and subtlety or nuance are not fun and exciting things to create — actually [laughs] I do find them fun and exciting — the tendency is towards noise and smoke. Subtlety demands a higher degree of self-control to execute. I have no doubt that a depth, a richness, comparable to that attained in any other medium is possible in comics. No doubt whatsoever. It’s just that the means of achieving that depth are completely different. It’s really quite easy in a sense, but it requires developing skills that are relevant only to comics, in such a way, with such effort and with such concentration — most of which goes into unlearning a century of pre-established conventions — that very few people have even scratched the surface.
STUMP: But even if it’s theoretically possible to reach that level, I wonder if the average person, who doesn’t generally read comics, can really attend to those depths.
LUTES: I think I know what you’re saying. I think that’s true of any medium, first of all, and it has to with personality, taste, and preconceptions. Any work of art you create in any medium will face the challenge of finding an audience willing to give it time and effort. I feel like a personal resonance with the subject matter, not what and how the author is saying what they’re saying, is what allows meaning to be conveyed at the deepest levels. When you have at least the foothold of an interest or affinity for the subject, then you can understand more. I think some of the greatest writers or artists are the ones who understand really basic human traits, coupled with a sense of the larger world. Which is why I’m not terribly fond of a lot of these alternative comics that deal with the twentysomething club-going lifestyle, a milieu that has very little relevance to anybody outside of it. Even if such a comic contains a deep examination of human existence, the public sense of it will be that it never goes beyond that culturally-specific surface realm. Which is fine, as long as those cartoonists are content with that niche market.
STUMP: If you had to give your theory on why the subject matter of comics has been so limited beyond what you think it needs to be to achieve these levels, is it all circumstantial? Comics’ marginalized place in the culture? Or is it just that the creators themselves tend to be self-absorbed, with limited interests?
LUTES: Well, it’s certainly a self-absorbed medium from the get-go. You’re working by yourself, you don’t have a lot of interaction with other people on a regular basis. If you ended up drawing comics in the first place, you’re most likely an incredibly meticulous, controlling artist, especially if you’re one of these alternative comics auteurs who does everything himself — penciling, lettering, inking — we’re control freaks, and generally, tend to lead hermetic existences. Some are more social than others. And most of us have found this niche where we can operate, and feel comfortable and have complete control. So I think it does tend to attract people who have a very limited worldview. Which is sort of OK in the respect that a lot of us create work for an audience that has that same worldview.
The kind of comics we’re talking about are financially — what’s the word — unfeasible; [Stump laughs] there are no immediate rewards; it’s an incredibly time-intensive medium because you’re doing it all yourself. All of these things, and the things you mention contribute to the fact that it’s been very limited. The whole time I’ve been excited about comics and pursuing them and being into them, I feel like there’s something there I’m trying to get at it, that I know is there. I glimpse it in other cartoonists’ work, and occasionally I’ll experience the satisfaction of touching it myself. I don’t know if anybody else gets that on the receiving end … but it’s tremendously exciting to know that the potential is there. At this point, I’m confident that the potential is there. It’s just a matter of getting at it and making use of it.
But it’s a bastard little medium. I guess we’re actually better off than the poetry market, possibly [laughs] but in terms of processing and understanding comics, people have been completely poisoned by the newspaper strip. My best experiences with readers have been from people who have come to my work without any preconceptions because they were not comics readers. The whole reason I tried to make Jar of Fools “go down easy” was not because I didn’t want the content to be affecting, but because I wanted anybody to be able to pick it up and read it.
STUMP: Do you think Jar of Fools falls into the same category of cartoonists who bring in too much from their own narrow experiences, though? And that Berlin is maybe an example of your attempt to break free of your own experiences?
LUTES: Yeah, yeah. Definitely. Jar of Fools is narrow for very obvious reasons — essentially set in my neighborhood, addressing very introspective and personal concerns — but narrower also in the sense that each of the main characters is basically an aspect of my own personality. Very clearly. My dad is a Jungian analyst…
STUMP: He’s a psychiatrist?
STUMP: Does he ever give you analysis based on your work?
LUTES: Only in sort of tangential ways. He doesn’t really concentrate on anything. If we’re talking about different archetypes or facets of people’s personality, if you want to look at Jar of Fools as a Jungian, and analyze them as part of you, all of the different characters are different archetypes, different aspects of my persona. My understanding is that there are six basic archetypes. There’s boy and girl child, young man and woman, and old man and woman. They all have Latin names that I can’t remember.
STUMP: Is this a connection you made after you created Jar of Fools?
LUTES: Completely after. Going into it, as with all my work, it’s almost purely intuitive, and that was the most interesting thing about it. My dad brought up this subject, and then I looked back at Jar of Fools and I saw that it made complete sense. I knew that the story was about things that interested me, but I had had no idea it was such a direct portrait of the different facets of my personality.
Although the reason the categorization exists is understandable, the whole notion of autobiography as a genre of alternative comics is somewhat ridiculous in that every comic from an alternative cartoonist is autobiographical. Because they are in every line of that comic. Crumb is a perfect example. If Crumb draws a salt shaker, his personality is invested in that salt shaker.
STUMP: But there are more explicit ways of being autobiographical, too, obviously.
LUTES: Right, right. There’s a broad spectrum there. I didn’t intend Jar of Fools as an autobiographical story, but of course, in a sense, every story says something about the teller. Each character in Jar of Fools is a different aspect of my own personality given voice. With Berlin, I’m actually making a concerted effort to conceive of each of my characters as independent, separate from myself. Obviously, I find something sympathetic in each of them, because I am creating them, but I’m just putting more effort into understanding the world around me as opposed to something more hermetic.
STUMP: Now what about the argument that the universality of your experience is what makes it resonate with people? And then when you try and go beyond that, you risk the danger of not having a direct understanding or connection with what you’re talking about. That’s obviously a danger that you would hope to compensate for by, I’m assuming, your research and finding ways to incorporate your own human impulses within other peoples’ lives.
LUTES: I think research is the very concrete way you can point to that. But more important and absolutely essential is imagination. I can do all the research I want: the right clothing, the right cars, the right architecture — but I have to somehow get into that space, get into that place and time, by absorbing as much of this information as possible and then trying to imagine it and imagine what it’s like to be another person in it. That step — the step imagination allows you to take — is absolutely the most essential part of having some kind of universality, or being able to create a story, that people will be able to identify with. And understand and believe it for whatever it is. Whether or not I’m successful at doing that depends on the individual and probably breaks down on a panel-by-panel basis.
STUMP: In the course of writing Berlin, are there times when you’ve had a difficult time imagining what things would be like? Have you had to write around that?
LUTES: I haven’t had to write around anything yet. The opposite, in fact. Sometimes I’ll be inspired by something I read or a photograph that I see, and I’ll build something around that.
For instance, in the first issue of Berlin, there’s a policeman in a traffic signal tower, which I saw in a photograph. There’s a photograph of Potsdamer Platz in 1928, showing the traffic signal tower, with a caption identifying it as the first traffic signal in Europe. You can make out the silhouette of a policeman inside. He’s in there for a reason, obviously because he’s directing traffic. But the little control panel that I drew him manipulating is invented, and I’m sure it’s inaccurate. I imagined what might be inside that box. The whole scene was inspired by finding that photograph, what it means for human civilization when traffic has gotten to the point where a signal is needed, so I took that and built something around it.
Other times, I’ll write a scene in which certain things need to happen, and I’ll do specific research to try and find out how those things would occur. What the relevant visual and other information is that I need to sort of flesh that out. With varying degrees of success, and plenty of situations where I fill in the gaps or make stuff up that I can’t corroborate.
STUMP: The historical context raises a lot of different obstacles: not just the specific details of the time and place, but also I’m thinking of just the way people would talk to each other, or the way that people would feel and respond to a situation 60 or 70 years ago. It must seem somewhat daunting.
LUTES: Yeah. My solution is to just plow ahead. I could really worry about all that stuff. And I do. The writing feels very stiff to me because I have people speak in this somewhat formal manner in order to evoke a past time. In the ’20s and ’30s, people talked very much like we do in a lot of ways, but I try to find some kind of middle ground between “old-time dialogue” and period slang or idiom. I try to imagine what communication between individuals was like while trying to give modern-day readers a degree of familiarity. Most of time I just plow on.
I remember Chris Ware saying something to me once when I met him in Chicago. He said that in the period work he does he gets obsessed with things like how far away do people stand from each other when conversing. Like the whole space between people had to be of a different nature. That’s the stuff: When you’re drawing a panel and two people are talking to each other, how far apart should they be?
STUMP: On the other hand it’s also going to give you the reward of realizing things like that, which never would have occurred to you.
LUTES: Yeah, absolutely. The man who my mom’s involved with right now is a retired general in the United States Army. He was stationed in Germany for a while. He told me that whenever you enter a room, you shake hands with everybody in the room. Even if you know everyone, you go around and shake each person’s hand in greeting. And even if you’re there for only a brief time, you shake everybody’s hand again before you leave the room. He said that was a really distinctive cultural aspect he remembered. I would love to be able to incorporate that into my comic, except it would be tedious. [Laughter.] It would just take up too many panels.
STUMP: That’s a perfect example of a problem, a certain problem you would encounter, that in another medium would not be a problem.
LUTES: No … In film, you wouldn’t show every scene with people in a room where they shook everybody’s hand. The film would have to be…
STUMP: But you could do it in a much briefer space of time…
LUTES: I try and do the same. You use shorthand, you signify things. You use shorthand or representative cases to sort of stand-in or indicate certain cultural or social modes. If you look at Berlin, there are actually a lot of people shaking hands. [Laughs.] In fact, there’s a panel, I think it’s at the end of the third issue perhaps, where Severing meets Marthe’s friends at this cafe and he shakes somebody’s hand and between the panels — at least if you’re German — you might imagine him shaking everyone’s hands. There’s plenty of closure space, plenty of room, for that to occur.
STUMP: Is there an example of another project, either a film or a novel, with a historical approach similar to what you’re doing, that made you think you could be successful in your own project? Or that inspired you in any sort of way to tackle something like that?
LUTES: No. I really can’t think of one in particular. I think my initial desire and the direction I took was internally driven. As far as I can tell. I’m sure on some level, there are things that have affected me and made me want to do this. But I’ve always been interested in that kind of question that everybody has when you’re on a highway overpass and you look at all the cars going by and you think about all the individuals and their separate lives and where do their lives lead them and how do they interact as a community, or non-community, as the case may be.
STUMP: In both Berlin and Jar of Fools, the city seems to be just as much a character as any of your people. Seattle especially is so specifically a part of Jar of Fools. Did you envision that, or was it based more on the fact that you just wanted to use your immediate surroundings for your reference? Or was there something about Seattle that made it seem appropriate content-wise?
LUTES: I like Seattle. And Jar of Fools was such an expression of things I was feeling or things I had felt in my life, that it felt appropriate to draw on my immediate surroundings.
STUMP: Was it fortuitous? The coincidence of you being in this situation to tell the story, and you being in the right environment.
LUTES: The city just coincided. They sort of went hand in hand. I had just come from Providence, which also has sort of a melancholy feel to it. I have to say that every day Seattle is losing its melancholy. [Laughter.] The development continues. In Jar of Fools there’s a lot of Providence also. It’s a combination of the two places. If you know Providence, then you’ll recognize a lot of it. If you know Seattle, you’ll recognize Seattle. A lot of people may not think of those places as melancholy, but that’s part of what I recognized in them … and one of the things I love about certain cities. Or places where human beings gather and erect structures. They are representative of something. They mean things. How a city grows and develops and what shape it takes is all an outgrowth of the people who gather there plus the actual landscape the city grows in. And I find cities endlessly fascinating.
STUMP: Does Seattle mean something in Jar of Fools? Someone who doesn’t know Seattle may not be able to pick up on it, but does the story being set in Seattle — or maybe it’s not?
LUTES: It’s not set in Seattle. At one point, Ernie receives a letter, and I obscured the name of the city when I showed the address. Because I didn’t want it to be a specific place. It’s very clear to anybody who’s lived here, or lived in Providence, that it refers to those two cities. But if you’re a non-resident, it doesn’t matter where it’s set. I don’t care. It’s not supposed to be a particular place. But the feeling of it was definitely drawn from these two cities.
The notion of a city and its inhabitants as an organic, interacting thing is something that’s always fascinated me since I understood that people lived in groups. That’s a big part of the inspiration.
STUMP: What specifically about Berlin, the situation before World War II, convinced you that it was interesting enough to devote that much time to it?
LUTES: Um … the specific inspiration was reading an issue of The Nation, in which I came across an ad for a book called Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin. There was a colorful one-paragraph summary, something to the effect of, “In the late ’20s, the world was beginning to disintegrate, and the jazz bands played on …” I don’t remember the exact quote. The only image was a photograph of Bertolt Brecht putting on his spectacles, with a slightly bemused, weltschmerz-y expression. I think I was close to finishing Jar of Fools, I must have still been working on it — and I read this one-paragraph summary that suggested things that had been going on then in science, and the arts, culture.
Something in that spoke to me, and I immediately thought, “That’s the next thing I’m going to do.” I knew nothing about Berlin in the ’20s at that point. I had a very vague idea about what was going on, but as it turns out, it’s, of course, an incredibly rich period that a lot of people have mined for a lot of things. So I sent away for that book and it was my first glimpse into that world. The more I read about it, the more I became really, really interested. The first issue doesn’t sum it up, but it touches on a lot of the things that drew me to it. Berlin was in a lot of ways the capital of Europe. Other than Paris, it was the urban center of continental Europe. World War I was over … This is one of the things we’re talking about trying to imagine ourselves in the time: Before World War I the Western world was a completely different place. So the world after World War I is the world bereft of a certain innocence.
STUMP: The idea of this eternal progress, that things would keep progressing and reaching this hypothetical state of utopia or something, had kind of collapsed.
LUTES: I’m just a layman, so scholars and historians will have to forgive my naïveté here. The borders broke down. Communications had reached a new level. World War I was a world war because it involved so many different countries that previously would not have gotten involved with each other’s affairs to the degree and on the scale that they did. The world had taken its first steps toward globalization, essentially.
On a cultural, social, individual human level, the kind of effect that had is inconceivable. Because we’ve lived in that world our whole lives. It was a period of time after the shit has hit the fan for the first time, and it’s going to hit another time; what happened in there? What happened that allowed it to happen again, even though it had just happened? What were all of the elements? There was an explosion of human endeavor in the wake of the war, while Europe was still reeling and trying to recover. Expressionism gave way to Dadaism and other movements that responded to the cultural tear, the dissonance between supposed human progress and the hundreds of thousands of victims of the war.
Politically, the creation of the Weimar Republic was remarkable, its intellectual aspirations imposed half-heartedly on an imperialist society. The perennial human experiment of creating a democracy in the wake of a monarchy, and how that situation interacts with German culture, is interesting. All of that stuff was exciting — and, by turns, depressing — to discover.
STUMP: And obviously, you see some sort of parallel between this preliminary to a catastrophe and now. You see this as somehow being relevant to our own situation.
LUTES: Yeah, I do. I mean, on the one hand, I am just trying to create a purely fictionalized historical narrative without a whole lot of very specific or direct relevance to our world, but obviously, on some level, I am finding some relationships between things that were going on then and things that are going on now.
STUMP: So when you say your approach to your projects has been intuitive, you must have some flexibility in this project, too. You must be finding even now that what you’re doing with it is different than what you had originally set out to do, to some degree, because over time it’s inevitable it would change.
STUMP: What’s the difference between what you originally set out to do and what you’re finding you’re accomplishing?
LUTES: Jar of Fools was very much me making it up as I went along, and the more I did it the more structure kind of developed on its own for better or for worse. With Berlin, I set out with more of an idea of a direction or a shape I wanted it to take. But I think I learned a lot with Jar of Fools; in the very beginning, I had these almost dream-like visions of what I wanted it to be. It ended up not being anywhere close to those things. Those visions had a lot to do with the potential I sensed, that I was trying to get at. I got close to it, but I didn’t get near the shape of the thing I was going for when I first set out.
With Berlin, I think I understand that I can’t get at those things and that I will find something else just as interesting along the way. The intuitive process is much more integral. I set out with directions in mind and no specific rules. It’s turned out to be an extremely exploratory process. Investigating that place at that time, through my work, is exciting to me. To create my version of that world and go into it and find the people in it and examine the world I imagined existed then. It’s a very exploratory process. I have definite directions in which I’m moving and so far I’m still following them, and as result, I’ve found that this intuitive process has produced things that are better than I could have imagined. I didn’t know what I was going to find and didn’t have a set idea of what I was going to find. As a result, what I’ve found is really exciting. It feels like discovery. And hopefully, that carries over in the work to the reader. If it wasn’t interesting and engaging to me, I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s not totally open-ended but directed and investigative in its process.
STUMP: But the strange thing about comics is the way you’re having to release it is in this serial form. A novelist going through the same process you’re going through would be revisiting everything he had done up until the completing of the project.
LUTES: Writers get the luxury of having drafts. There are ways of working in comics where that’s possible. On the scale I’m doing it, it would take forever. It’s already taking me a very long time, and there are going to be revisions to what I’m doing. To produce a comic on the scale I’m attempting using drafts, I’d have to go back and revise extensively; the end result would be changed according to everything found along the way. I’m not going to be able to indulge in that, partly because it’s not financially feasible for me to work for six or eight years on the drafts without getting paid for the work. It’s something integral to comics and to the approach I’ve chosen.
STUMP: I guess from a financial standpoint, you have no choice but do a book in this format that does seem like it has no future, 24-page comics every six months for $3.50 or whatever. I love to read comics, but I have a very hard time in sustaining interest in even ones that I like. Whether it’s yours or whether it’s Black Hole, I’m much more likely to read something that’s a self-contained unit. Do you have a problem with the format, that it’s a practical necessity?
LUTES: Oh, absolutely. If I could somehow just make a living drawing and writing the whole book over a period of six years, and publish the thing complete at the end, I’d do that.
STUMP: Doesn’t the deadline of the individual issues at least spur you on?
LUTES: Definitely, yeah. That’s true. When I did Jar of Fools, it was one page a week for The Stranger. Those deadlines definitely put a fire under your ass to get the work done. But the market is weird. I feel guilty about my readers a lot of the time because the issues are so erratic. When they do read them, they’ve long since forgotten what happened in the previous issue. The best, the kindest of them actually go back and read everything over every time I do a new issue. [Laughter.] For which I’m very grateful. [Laughs.] But it’s one of the inherent frustrations. And then there’s always the repeat purchase aspect, where people buy the individual issues and then most of them are going to buy the collected book. And I feel badly for that, but I also have to make some money.
STUMP: Yeah, you’re milkin’ ’em.
LUTES: Suckers! [Laughter.]
STUMP: I’m curious to get your response to something that Spiegelman said in his interview, that one of the obstacles he faced was the idea that you can’t create spontaneously as a cartoonist in the same way that a painter or a writer could just, out of sudden “inspiration,” create something. There’s another layer to the process of being a cartoonist that isn’t necessarily present in other mediums.
LUTES: I think that it can be done.
STUMP: Sure, there are cartoonists that do it.
LUTES: They can, and they’re very inspirational, very immediate. They can just put it down. But most of us get caught up in the panels and formal, conventional stuff. For Lynda Barry, drawing comics seems to be a sort of a channeling experience. She works directly in ink. In that Funny Ladies documentary, she described drawing the outer border of the strip very methodically, entering a trance-like state while she was doing that, then starting to hear the characters talk in her head and going right in and writing and drawing a comic without doing any preliminary work at all.
STUMP: I guess there have been plenty of cartoonists who have worked that way, in fragments that lead to a larger whole.
LUTES: Working in a more direct way?
STUMP: In that, they tend to work in very self-contained installments. And that’s not what you’re trying to do. And obviously, your process is different as well. Do you ever find yourself envious of another process — waking up and not knowing what you’re going to do?
STUMP: Not at all.
LUTES: No. I think the main desire I have is to work on something else. To use my same process — I like my process, the reason I use it is I like it — but to do something that takes place in our time. [Laughs.] Or to address something that I can’t address in Berlin. It’s going to be another four- to six years before I finish the book, and along that way, there are bound to be things that I am going to think about and want to address that I can’t.
STUMP: I guess anyone can get into a rut in terms of their process, and to try to do something totally different would somehow be helpful as an artist.
LUTES: Yeah, I think so. I do short pieces on the side which have that effect. For instance, I did a couple of pages for The Stranger which were really fun and completely different. I disengaged from what I was doing in Berlin, and then when I went back …
But also, just a simple break can have the same effect. Whether I’m working or not. If I take a month off, things happen in that month internally so that when I sit back down at the drawing board, entirely different things come out of me. Whether I choose to spend that off time engaging in other forms of art or doing other things — like social interaction or participating in the world in an active way — all of it will affect the work I do afterwards.
STUMP: Give me a concrete description of your working methods. You have a very complicated process: drawing thumbnails for everything, redoing pages, redrawing, lightboxing, etc. Did you arrive at that by trial and error?
LUTES: Just over time, feeling out what works. I had dozens and dozens of false starts. Epic comics that only reached three pages. It wasn’t until I really started to fully engage when I started to do a structured story, that I started to do thumbnails. But thumbnails are probably the most enduring part of the process for me because that’s when I’m writing the comics. I’m working with the picture and the word there on the page. I need to have a little miniature version of the page and to see how the page operates.
My basic procedure now is that I do a thumbnail script, 24 pages in thumbnails, each of which is about an inch and a half tall by an inch wide. I write the script next to that on the paper. I can’t do the script by itself. I have to compose the page and write the words at the same time. And then I take the thumbnail after it’s all written, and revise it. I try to do all my editing and revisions at that stage.
Then I rule out the Bristol pages, all the panels according to how I’ve structured them in the thumbnails, and I trace the panel borders onto a piece of vellum. I’ll start to do the pencils on the vellum. A given panel or page, at the most, is redrawn three times, each time. For instance, in one panel, I’ll sketch in the figures, and then at a certain point I’ll put another piece of vellum on top of that and refine them. Redraw them. Clarify them. Basically, looking at my underlying sketch and picking out the lines that I want.
Then I take my final pencil version, which is very clean — if you photocopied it, it would look very similar to the final, inked version — and I photocopy it onto plain white paper [Stump laughs], tape that to the back of the Bristol board, and then put that on a lightbox, so that when I turn on the lightbox, I can see the photocopied pencils through the Bristol and I ink on the Bristol.
STUMP: It sounds like it would be a draining way of working.
LUTES: When I get going, it’s great. I mean, it’s not fun working at the lightbox for long stretches of time. Look, I’d love to come up with another way of doing it. [Laughs.] I didn’t start using a lightbox until probably about halfway through Jar of Fools. It sped up my working process, believe it or not. It sounds very complicated, but I’m so used to it that it goes pretty quickly now. By doing these multiple levels of penciling, there’s less fiddling. I’ll sketch out my initial panels and not be terribly attached to it, there’s no erasing because I make the initial sketch and then trace it onto another scrap of vellum, leaving stuff out as opposed to erasing. Or I’ll trace one figure from the initial sketch, and then move the vellum, and trace a second figure closer to the first. I can compositionally rearrange things without having to erase and redraw; if I do the initial sketch and it’s framed wrong, I can rearrange things when I redraw. Because my comics can be visually complicated, there’s often a lot of elements I need to fit together, and this system is a very easy way to manipulate them.
STUMP: Now, Pete Bagge was talking about his working process in his interview, and he said he thought it was pretty much the same as yours. It’s not quite the same because your style of drawing is so different, but he said sometimes you can very easily kill the life in a drawing by the repetition of it somehow. He said that the first doodle version of what he drew was the one that had the energy he liked.
STUMP: And then he would try to recapture it, and it didn’t quite click. Is that a problem?
LUTES: Well, yeah. But Pete’s from the Expressionist school. In fact, he’s said that Berlin is too cold for his tastes. [Stump laughs.]
STUMP: I assumed from reading Jar of Fools that you fit into the stereotype of the lonely, introverted middle-class kid who draws for attention and who is maybe not weird, but sort of melancholy and isolated. You know what I mean?
LUTES: Yeah, right.
STUMP: A lot of cartoonists seem to have had that experience, at least in cycles. But it sounds like you didn’t have that, you had more of a normal mainstream upbringing.
LUTES: Maybe more so. As a kid, I was on the introverted side, but I definitely made friends through drawing. Both in grade school and high school, I had a pretty social existence, with a fair number of friends. And in fact, in high school, I was kind of a social butterfly. There were all the different cliques and I could easily move between them. Everybody kind of knew me, partly because my drawing made me sort of a mini-celebrity in school. And I didn’t necessarily shy away from that. So in that sense maybe I was a little more “normal.” [Laughs.]
STUMP: Where do you think the creative impulse came from? A lot of cartoonists who fit that stereotype might say that their whole career would stem from this impulse to be liked.
LUTES: I don’t think that was a big part of it. Part of it, but not a big part.
STUMP: It was more the joy of creating.
LUTES: That’s a great description of it. A joy of creating was the driving force. That sense of accomplishment.
STUMP: There was a time in your early teens, I guess, when you were reading superhero comics.
LUTES: Yeah, but I was never really … a lot of people, good friends of mine, like Tom Hart or Ed Brubaker, when they talk about comics from that era, they can refer to issue numbers, and artists and writers. It’s very common for cartoonists, so-called alternative cartoonists in our age group to do that. And in those conversations, I always feel unable to contribute. I feel kind of clueless.
I remember I read X-Men, I read The Avengers, The Defenders, my whole life I’ve been reading comics. Before I could even read, my Mom would read comics to me. Because I loved the pictures so much. I remember the earliest comics I read were Kirby westerns, because I lived in Montana, and I really badly wanted to be a cowboy. [Stump laughs.] I had picture books about cowboys and these Kirby comics: Kid Colt, Two-Gun Kid, and Rawhide Kids — all the kids. [Laughter.] The superhero stuff I read was mostly other people’s comics. I loved comics, but I never really … I mean, talk about ongoing, never-ending soap operas. I could never keep track what was happening in any given comics series. I would read an individual issue of Amazing Spider-Man or a run of four or five issues, but I would have no idea how that would fit into the context of the overall sprawl of the Spider-Man mess.
STUMP: Was there an age when you kind of realized there was a certain hollowness to it?
LUTES: I became disinterested when I was probably in junior high. And then Heavy Metal became real interesting.
STUMP: So you didn’t have too big of a gap. Maybe someone like Tom Hart, to take someone arbitrarily, someone who read superhero comics, then got disinterested and had a big gap of not reading comics for a while, and then would eventually pick them up after seeing Love and Rockets and whatnot. You sort of had a more gradual, evolving …
LUTES: It seems like it’s a continuum to me. I think I went from superhero comics to Heavy Metal without much of a gap. I remember at the same time there was some underground stuff, some friend of mine had some underground stuff I was sort of looking at, too. Which was more interesting, obviously. Both Heavy Metal and the undergrounds are perfect reading material [laughs] for a boy that age.
STUMP: Do you have a memory of anyone comic that blew your mind at a certain point in time, that changed your conception of comics?
LUTES: Well, among the things I remember being particularly affected by was Hergé, because in the university community of Missoula, Montana — where I grew up — Tintin was the kind of comic that kids in the families of college professors read. For whatever reason — because they were European, or they were considered to be more mature than American comics. And I remember being really fascinated and loving, totally loving Hergé more than any American comic I could find.
STUMP: What about later on?
LUTES: There were the Kirby westerns, or whoever else was drawing them, there was Herge, and then I read whatever I came across — I had that Golden Age Heroes book Jules Feiffer put out, and loved poring over The Steranko History of Comics — but I don’t recall being particularly moved by anything until Heavy Metal. It was definitely a big deal. It was my transition towards a more adult-oriented thing. It’s the only comic book I ever bought back issues of. In no small part because of the sex.
STUMP: Is this getting closer to when you left for art school?
LUTES: Yeah. All through high school, I was pretty into Heavy Metal. There were some other non-mainstream comics that friends had that I was reading. Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated, but Heavy Metal was the hard stuff.
I remember reading Starstruck, which ran serialized in Epic. Starstruck was the first comic I read that really felt exciting in the sense of something that moved beyond the established narrative boundaries of comics. It sparked my imagination, got me involved in a way that most comics didn’t. It was pretty intelligent.
STUMP: I’m sorry, this is by — ?
LUTES: It was written by a woman named Elaine Lee, and drawn by Michael Kaluta. It was very dense and complicated. Part of the appeal must have been that it took place in this very well-realized science fiction universe.
STUMP: Have you gone back to it since?
LUTES: I’ve acquired some issues of it, but I haven’t gone back and sat down and read it since then. But I think it’s the best science-fiction comic yet written.
STUMP: It holds up, is what you’re saying.
LUTES: It’s really very good … and strangely enough, it turned me on to Thomas Pynchon. Because they cited him as an inspiration. I think they dedicate it partly to him. I was a kid of 17, 18 years old, I had no idea who Thomas Pynchon was, but his name stuck in my head. I didn’t read any until later, but the whole reason I picked up Pynchon eventually was because I read about him in Starstruck. And Pynchon altered my understanding of narrative and language in a pretty big way.
So that was a big deal. And then, when I went away to art school, I gave up comics completely. That would be my gap. If you say a lot of cartoonists have this gap, mine was when I went to art school.
STUMP: But at RISD you were involved with a comics club that you started.
LUTES: But that didn’t happen for a year and a half. So there was a year and a half when I was trying to focus on “real art.”
STUMP: That can be a necessary thing …
LUTES: Oh, I think it was. I think it was totally necessary. I’m not saying it was a bad thing. [Laughs.] I think it was a great thing to engage with the world of fine art and then realize how much of a crock of shit it can be. [Stump laughs.] Not always, obviously. But art school is filled with artists whose medium of choice is bullshit.
STUMP: But I remember reading those editorials from that comics club, and there was a very optimistic …
LUTES: [Laughs.] Yeah.
STUMP: Very optimistic tone to them. You went through this period where you were always a part of some sort of collaborative group where people are supporting each other and holding each other up. Like the group at RISD, and then the Seattle group which was more informal but became an actual thing. Was that something that you noticed, were you deliberately trying to do…
LUTES: No, it wasn’t deliberate at all. It was instinctive. I started the Penny Dreadful Commission at RISD, a student organization that created and published a comic book.
STUMP: You got a grant from the student government to do it.
LUTES: I got a grant from the student government to do it. And we did it for six or seven issues, I think, over the course of two and a half years. It wasn’t like I consciously said, “I want a group of people to do this,” although that’s hard to imagine since I did go to student government meetings and do lots of organizing. Like anything I’ve ever done in my life, it’s hard to really point to the reasons why. I just felt the need to do it. So I did. I don’t think anybody really suggested it to me. I can’t remember the specifics, but in retrospect, it seems like it just happened.
STUMP: Sure. [Lutes laughs.] What changed your optimistic tone? I know we just talked about this. But there was a very sort of bright-eye and bushy-tailed “comics are going to change the world …”
LUTES: I’ve gotta say, I’ve never said: “Comics are going to change the world.” It was incredibly enthusiastic and optimistic, but it wasn’t like, “Comics are the only medium …” I never felt that way. I gotta go on record with that.
STUMP: OK. What from those art-school years has stayed with you, as far as artists you were exposed to outside of the world of comics that inspired you in a particular way?
LUTES: [Pause.] You know, there weren’t any artists that particularly inspired me. There was a lot of thinking that inspired me. I was exposed to feminism in college and that was great. That was a really wonderful, eye-opening, revelatory experience that completely changed the way I saw the world. I read Ways of Seeing by John Berger, which was also great.
There was a woman instructor at school named Janet Zweig who taught a couple of classes on bookmaking, conceptual books, and visual narrative. She was coming at it from a totally different, fine art and graphic design perspective. So I was exposed to a lot of the same ideas that exist in comics but framed in a totally different manner, addressing totally different aspects. It’s more like approaches to thinking about visual narrative that I found inspiring, as opposed to individual artists. Although I do recall being deeply affected by some early woodcuts by Edvard Munch I came across and developing a stronger appreciation for Duchamp, Magritte, and Warhol.
STUMP: Were there specific novelists or filmmakers that you became exposed to that … there’s that period of time in your early twenties where the things that hit you are important. When and who hits you makes a big difference during that sort of searching period.
LUTES: In that period I had my first really profound romantic relationship, and that was —
LUTES: All-consuming and life-changing, and it’s affected everything I’ve done until today. It was that profound of an experience. And Jar of Fools is in a lot of ways very directly drawn from that thing that happened to me.
STUMP: So your high school experience romantically, it wasn’t the same sort of mind-blowing, all-consuming experience, neither was it the hopeless, lost, searching-for-companionship thing. It was kind of a dipping into the romantic waters. Not shaking you to your very foundations.
LUTES: As much as you can be shaken when you’re in high school, I think I was. I was in love in high school. I remember my English teacher who was kind of an ex-hippie, Mr. Bradburn. God rest his soul, he died on the ski slopes of Aspen. He loved tellin’ us the way it was.
STUMP: [Laughs.] Right, right.
LUTES: Putting us in our place. His thinking was that, as high school kids, we thought we were the center of the universe, and that we knew the score, and he just really enjoyed shaking us up, letting us know that there was a lot more to the world than our little parochial minds could conceive. I remember at one point in class he said, “None of you know what real love is yet. You may think you’ve been in love, but you’ve never been in love.” And I actually argued with him. I said I had been in love.
STUMP: That may not be totally fair.
LUTES: On his part?
LUTES: Oh, no. I think he was totally wrong. I felt like I had been in love, and to this day that relationship with the girl I loved in high school, I believe I really felt it deeply.
STUMP: You may not have the perspective to appreciate it in its entirety, but you can still feel it so absolutely.
LUTES: Oh, yeah. Something other than — it’s certainly connected to lust — but it goes beyond that and pervades your experience in a much different way.
STUMP: How can we integrate this story about you and the — the thing I remember you saying that totally struck me as being at odds with the typical cartoonist adolescence sex life was the junior high slumber party story. I gotta get this in somehow. I’m trying to think of a way to segue it.
LUTES: You say, “You’ve talked a little bit about your social life in high school.” [Stump laughs.] “It strikes me that it’s very different than …”
STUMP: Right, right. “Can you think of a specific anecdote?”
LUTES: I had a lot of girlfriends in high school.
STUMP: I had girlfriends in high school, too, but I wonder if that’s atypical of some cartoonists’ experience. That’s sort of a pathetic observation.
LUTES: It may be. I think it’s part of the nature of the cartoonist being a reclusive person who is socially uncomfortable. I was certainly socially uncomfortable in high school.
STUMP: But you were able to make that leap somehow at an earlier age.
LUTES: Very early on I understood, I think, that love for another human being was a very important thing. I remember in high school, coming to the conclusion that that was my reason for living. That was it. And that realization was really deep. I think in some ways it’s a little more complicated than that. [Laughter.] I still think the point of existence is communication with people, whatever form the communication might take.
STUMP: But how did you get in the closet again, I can’t remember.
LUTES: The closet.
STUMP: The slumber party closet! [Lutes laughs.] I’m fascinated by this because it’s junior high school …
LUTES: OK. There was a girl called Stacey Gervais. [Stump laughs.] And we had a mutual interest in each other. At one point we had a mock wedding in the quad at our junior high school.
LUTES: Yeah. It was just part of this strange ritual of junior high.
STUMP: I never married anyone. I never even heard of that.
LUTES: Mock weddings are actually not an uncommon thing. [Laughs.]
STUMP: Conducted by other people?
LUTES: Yeah. I remember there was somebody presiding over it, and there were actually witnesses and stuff. And it was all very much a joke. We obviously had feelings for each other, but we did not know how to articulate them or how to act on them. So we’d do things like have a mock wedding, or she would have me over to her house and make me put on gym shorts and then I would get an erection and we wouldn’t really know what to do. [Stump laughs.]
STUMP: Make you put on gym shorts?
LUTES: Yeah, because she found that, for whatever reason, arousing.
STUMP: That’s interesting.
LUTES: She would make me put on gym shorts, and her best friend would pull them down while I was wearing them. There were two of them there. [Stump continues to laugh.] It was a very strange scene.
And then one night, Stacey was having a slumber party at her house, and I think there was probably about eight or ten, no, that’s probably an exaggeration — probably eight girls. At her house. All girls.
STUMP: “Popular” girls? Cute girls?
LUTES: I wouldn’t say popular girls. Cute, definitely. She called me up at like nine at night, and said, “We’re having a slumber party, why don’t you come over?” And I put down the phone and I ran to her house. I think later on I figured out it was about six miles.
STUMP: Six miles?! Wow!
LUTES: I ran six miles to her house, but it was in a part of town I never went to. It was a totally foreign part of town. So it was this very strange adventure. I got to her house and her parents were home, so I had to figure out how to get into the slumber party unnoticed.
LUTES: Well, she opened up her second-floor bedroom window, and we were whispering back and forth. And she said, “Climb up here.” And there was an awning, a solid wooden patio roof, sticking out from the house that was strong enough to stand on.
STUMP: This is a weekend.
LUTES: It must have been like a Friday or Saturday night.
STUMP: And …
LUTES: And so I climbed a tree, climbed onto the roof, and they pulled me in through the window. And I spent the rest of the evening there, not the whole night, but a good part of the night. I must have walked home at three or four in the morning. I remember it was starting to get light out.
STUMP: Would your parents have noticed if you had not come home?
LUTES: No, my mom was very …
LUTES: Her only rule was that we couldn’t keep anything from her. So if we did drugs or anything, we had to tell her about it. She preferred that we tell her about it. And to not go more than 24 hours without calling. But otherwise …
STUMP: But that’s an amazing position to be in, you’re in junior high, you’ve made it into a slumber party and your parents are OK with you calling home and saying “I’m not going to be around tonight, Mom.” [Laughter.] I’m serious!
LUTES: I guess so.
STUMP: What could be more exciting? That’s exactly what you want at that age.
LUTES: I guess so, but since that’s what I had, maybe I didn’t realize what…
STUMP: You’re spoiled…
LUTES: OK, I’m spoiled.
They were all watching Friday the 13th on HBO, but after it was over, I proceeded to play spin the bottle with eight girls. Every time the bottle pointed at somebody, they had to kiss me. And whenever Mrs. Gervais would knock on the door — I guess because it was getting kind of raucous — they would throw me in a corner and cover me with bean bags and pillows. [Stump laughs.] So her mom would look into the room, and I would be there, but she wouldn’t be able to tell.
STUMP: So you never got caught.
LUTES: Never got caught.
LUTES: I scaled up to second-story bedrooms on occasion.
STUMP: So you’ve been a romantic from a young age. Like a cliché, from the balcony, swim the deepest ocean, climb the highest mountain. [Laughs.]
LUTES: But at that time, hormones were definitely involved. [Laughter.]
STUMP: Let me ask you about your parents really quickly. Your mom — that’s a pretty amazing mom to have.
LUTES: My mom is amazing. My parents divorced in 1976 in Montana and my mom moved to California to live with her parents for a year, to get on her own feet. She took my brother and sister and me with her.
STUMP: Was that traumatic for you?
LUTES: Yeah, divorce is definitely traumatic. I think of the three of us, my sister was too young to really understand what was going on, my brother totally shut down and turned inward, and I just freaked out. I was very vocal and expressive about my sadness.
STUMP: To your mom?
LUTES: To both of them. Mostly to my mom, I’m sure. I was really upset by it. But it didn’t take me long to realize that it was obviously the best thing for them to do, because they’d both been very unhappy.
STUMP: What age was this again?
LUTES: I was seven.
STUMP: That’s a pretty young age to have to deal with that shit: divorce, and moving around a lot. You were starting over more than once.
LUTES: I remember when I went to high school, freshman year in high school was ninth grade. And that was the ninth school I had been in in my life.
STUMP: Fuck, man. That definitely fosters an outsider mentality.
LUTES: Definitely. And I’m sure the drawing was a big social lubricant. It was a great way to sort of bridge gaps.
STUMP: Did you find that as you kept moving you got better and better at making friends, or dealing with the situation?
LUTES: That probably was a factor. I have never felt particularly good at making friends. I’m in a situation now where I work at home after not having a regular job or going to an office or having that kind of environment where there are pre-existing social structures. The idea of having to go out and make new friends is one which I never really considered before in my adult life.
STUMP: What was the relationship with your dad like before and after? You must not have seen him quite as much as your mom, obviously.
LUTES: No, and I was kind of intimidated and scared of my dad. My dad was a very dark personality, from my point of view as a child.
STUMP: What did he do?
LUTES: He taught French and French Lit, but he was also interested in psychology. And later, after he retired from teaching, he became certified as a Jungian analyst.
I think he was a very loving father, but the divorce cast a pall over our relationship. My overall impression of him was one of mystery and darkness. And especially when I remember being very young and coming across the word divorce in a book. I asked my dad, “What does ‘divorce’ mean?” and my dad said, “That’s when people who are married stop loving each other. And stop being married.” And I said, “You and mom will never get divorced, will you?” And he said, “No, of course not.” So when it actually happened it was like this betrayal. It was probably my first experience of putting your trust in someone, or your trust in a situation, and having it be destroyed.
STUMP: So your dad — I’m kind of reaching here — was your dad’s perspective that of living in a godless world, or did he ever talk about it?
LUTES: He never explicitly talked about that, no. There was no religion in my family. I think there were one or two forays to a local church to sort of expose us, to give us the option of it.
STUMP: Oh, sure, sure. That’s probably wise.
LUTES: It was nice that they made us aware of that. But there was never any explicit presentation of spirituality in our family.
STUMP: I wanted to bring up the fact that you had a serious accident that undoubtedly changed your outlook. After art school, you came out to Seattle. Almost immediately you’re in the hospital.
LUTES: My third day in Seattle.
STUMP: Oh, God! Third day! That’s brutal.
STUMP: What was your thinking, when you came out to Seattle — “I’m going to go take the world” …?
LUTES: Take Seattle! [Laughs.] No, in fact, just like every decision I’ve ever made in my life, it was impulsive. I didn’t know what to do after college. Since I had done an internship at Fantagraphics in Seattle the summer before, it seemed like the place to go. I guess I decided I was going to try and get a job at Fantagraphics. But they hadn’t told me I could have a job.
STUMP: So then you ride your bike downhill…
LUTES: I’m riding my bike downhill and a car pulls out of a blind alley — I was on my way to a house painting job to make a little money, and a car pulled out, and I ran into it and flipped over. The handlebars turned sideways, went into my abdomen — didn’t puncture my abdomen but slammed into my abdomen —
STUMP: How fast were you going? Thirty miles an hour?
LUTES: I was coasting downhill, Harvard Avenue right near the highway. Twenty miles an hour?
STUMP: Are you haunted by this?
STUMP: Not at all.
LUTES: Well, to this day when I see a show like ER and they have their trauma victims who have some of the same things done to them I had done to me, I’ll have a very visceral response. And I’ll vividly remember the horrible experience of being intubated.
STUMP: Did you lose consciousness?
LUTES: No. I flipped over the handlebars onto the car. I put a dent in the guy’s hood with my head. I was wearing a helmet. The guy got out of the car and asked me if I was all right. And I said I felt fine. I got up and I was a little shaky and I said I was fine and then thankfully this man asked me to take a moment and think about it. And as I was sitting there thinking about it, I felt something … wrong in my abdomen.
So he drove me to the hospital. It would turn out that my spleen had been pulverized into three pieces and I was hemorrhaging internally. To the degree that I was sitting in the waiting room and I felt the world … recede from me. The other people in the room couldn’t look at me because it was clear there was something really wrong with me. And I also had lost my glasses, so the whole world was blurry. And I was in a strange city, in a strange hospital.
STUMP: Did you start to lose it, or were you in shock?
LUTES: No. Oh, no. Maybe I was in shock. I was definitely starting to panic. I remember at one point, they did an MRI [Magnetic Resonance Imaging] scan of my abdomen to see what the state of things was. I remember at that point they had to move me off of the gurney onto the table to put me in the machine. And when they did that 1-2-3 move like you see on TV, my abdomen was so completely full of blood — my lungs couldn’t expand because of all the fluid — that when they moved me [laughs] that was definitely the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life.
And then, I remember staring at the ceiling and thinking to myself, over and over again …
STUMP: “I’m finished.”
LUTES: No. “Live.” I was thinking, “Live, live, live.” And thinking about this woman with whom I had had a relationship. That’s sort of all I could think about.
STUMP: Did you have to go to the waiting room in the sense of like — every time I’ve gone to the emergency room, I’ve been distraught about the fact that they are very nonchalant. [Lutes laughs.] You sit in the waiting room and you’re …
LUTES: … dying, in my case. Yeah.
STUMP: Well, sure.
LUTES: I was! There was nothing visibly wrong with me except for the fact I had no color.
STUMP: “Fill out this form, please.” Did you have to fill out the form?
LUTES: I filled out the form. And I went and I sat down.
LUTES: They couldn’t tell. And I didn’t know what was wrong with me.
I actually got up, and I went up to the desk, and I said, “You know, I’m not sure what’s wrong, but something is wrong and it’s getting worse. And I can tell it’s getting worse. So is there any way somebody could see me?” And they figured it out pretty quick.
There was one moment in which I was left in a hallway in the basement of the University medical center, a brick hallway, alone. The person who had been pushing the gurney left me there, outside the MRI room. I was completely alone, in this hallway, in this strange city, knowing that I was bleeding to death internally [laughs] and it seemed like an eternity of nobody within sight. It was the most, definitely the most alone I ever felt. [Laughter.]
STUMP: Realizing that everyone dies alone…
LUTES: Right. At that point, I remember two doctors walked by, in the middle of a conversation, and as they walked by they stopped talking and looked at me with these kind of quizzical looks on their faces like, “Why is this person here?” And then they picked up their conversation and went on down the hall …
STUMP: So you were put under, surgery, came out of it… what did you feel?
LUTES: Well, ultimately I felt great.
STUMP: You wake and you realize “I’m alive.”
LUTES: The first feeling I thought was, “I made it.” [Laughter.] When I went under, all I did was think, “This could be it. Good night.” And when I woke up, I was just totally grateful and thankful. And totally thankful to some degree that I could feel the pain.
They had me on a morphine machine. It was really funny, they had this team of doctors that called themselves the Pain Team. [Stump laughs.] They wore these little buttons with the word “pain” in a circle with a slash through it. They were monitoring the use of the morphine machine, which was this little thing on a portable rack. It fed into my IV drip, and I had a button I could push to give myself a dose whenever I needed it. And I basically sat there with my thumb on the button. [laughs] They would come in with their clipboards and ask me to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10, and of course, I would be like, “Eleven.” [Laughs.]
The difference between on morphine and off morphine was indistinguishable. In the palette of pain, it was all just one shade. I couldn’t distinguish between degrees at that point.
STUMP: How long did this go on for?
LUTES: I was in the hospital for four days. I was recovering for about six weeks.
The accident wasn’t the most traumatic part by any stretch … they put in a catheter, and that was bad. But at that moment, I didn’t care because I wanted to live. [Stump laughs.] You can stick whatever the hell you want in me. Sodomize me, I don’t care. [Laughter.] Let me live.
But the absolute worst, most violating, horrible experience besides the feeling of almost dying itself was after they intubated me, the putting in of the tube through my nose, the tube that goes up your nose and down your throat into your stomach. The insertion of that tube, and the extraction of that tube were the most traumatic things I experienced. That was absolutely horrible. You’re suddenly made aware of your nasal passage by having a long tube forced through it violently, and then what it feels like to have something forced down your throat.
STUMP: So did you go through a wide range of moods during this convalescence period?
LUTES: No. I remember that the strongest emotional feeling I had was getting out of the hospital and going back to the friend’s house I was staying at, because I didn’t have my own apartment yet, and looking at myself in the mirror and crying because the person I saw in the mirror did not look like me. I’d always been kind of heavy — or at least my self-perception is that I’ve always had a little extra weight in my face and my body — and the first time I looked in the mirror after the hospital I saw a gaunt person who looked nothing like I had ever looked in my life. I literally looked like an entirely different person. There was no photograph from my past that I could say I looked like. And that was pretty affecting.
LUTES: In a lot of ways, the Al Flosso character in Jar of Fools represents the old man in me, who was awakened at that point. It was an aging experience. It definitely added some years.
STUMP: Both physically and mentally.
LUTES: Physically now I’m in line with any other 32-year-old man. I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been. I do have a foot-long scar up my abdomen. But at the time, yeah. Physically, mentally, spiritually, it added years. For six weeks I couldn’t lift up a phone book. I had to move in an entirely different way and recuperate.
STUMP: Did you come to the conclusion that your previous conception of your mortality was more of an intellectual, abstract idea, rather than a true understanding?
LUTES: Well, I think all of the things we were talking about, about me sort of having an appreciation for being alive, were affirmed. It all felt in line with the way I already saw the world. People often talk about when they have an experience like that, valuing absolutely every second of their life. And it certainly emphasized that feeling, but I already had that feeling.
More than that, it had more of a profound effect on my sense of self. As opposed to my philosophy of the universe. It had a more profound effect on who I am, as opposed to how I see things.
STUMP: So, you came out to Seattle thinking that you’re going to be in comics, this accident happens and it kind of forces you to sort of alter your plans. And what was your game plan from there?
LUTES: I remember calling Kim Thompson while I was recuperating, and laying a guilt trip on him: “Here I am, I just got into this terrible accident.”
STUMP: You don’t know anyone in Seattle.
LUTES: Well, the friends I was staying with I knew. But besides them, Fantagraphics was the only connection.
STUMP: So the situation is [laughs] Fantagraphics is your life support…
LUTES: My one lead.
STUMP: It just, the idea, of having to depend on Fantagraphics to save your life…
LUTES: It’s worse than being left on a gurney in a deserted hospital hallway. [Laughter.]
STUMP: What did Kim say?
LUTES: Well, he definitely hemmed and hawed, and he eventually just gave in. I called him enough times that he couldn’t really resist anymore.
STUMP: Gary would’ve just not answered the phone or returned your calls.
LUTES: I guess. I think I specifically targeted Kim because I knew he was a more sympathetic person. [Laughter.]
STUMP: So not too far after you were able to recover, you started working at Fantagraphics.
LUTES: I started at Fantagraphics in October. It was right after I finished my recuperation. I lasted there for a year.
STUMP: Before you did the internship, what was your expectation of Fantagraphics like?
LUTES: When I did my internship, I was 22. I was young, and my only perception of alternative comics was what I would pick up at the store. Like a lot of printed matter, they seem valid, professional. Primarily they seem to come from some elevated place.
I remember when I got the street directions to the Fantagraphics offices from Dale Yarger, he said, “There’s a chain-link fence around it.” My mental image of it was a sizable building.
STUMP: A fortress. A compound! [Laughter.]
LUTES: Not necessarily. Not a compound.
STUMP: Like Waco.
LUTES: But the parking lot had more than two spaces in it. [Stump laughs.] Or however many it actually has. So I was definitely surprised that it was a house.
STUMP: But did the aesthetic of it sort of conform with your expectation of this casual, thrown-together…
LUTES: Oh, no. No, it was kind of horrifying. Again, I did an internship there and then I came back to work there in a year, so it was just horrifying the first time around. As far as I know, I started the whole intern thing.
LUTES: I wrote Dale Yarger a letter, saying, “I’m interested in being an intern.” And he said, “Well, we don’t know how to deal with that kind of thing.” And I told him, and thereafter, they had interns. I’m sure a good part of their labor supply has come from internships.
STUMP: The good thing about the internships is that you do learn a lot.
LUTES: Oh, yeah. I learned tremendous things.
STUMP: If you have any legitimate skills, you’ll get to use them.
LUTES: I definitely learned a lot. And actually, I loved working with Dale. Dale was really, really a wonderful, welcoming, and sane presence.
STUMP: I think back then there was a little bit more of a different atmosphere there than later on. Because you had all these cartoonists that are working there — people like Pat Moriarity and Jim Blanchard. It seemed like alternative comics were going to break out.
LUTES: Yeah. Although, I was pretty quickly disillusioned [Stump laughs] because I was mainly working on Eros comics.
STUMP: Were you aware of that before you came out?
LUTES: Yeah, the previous summer I had been exposed to it a little bit. Most of the work I did in the year that I worked there was for Eros books, but by the end, I actually got to put together a Feiffer book, the Love and Rockets tenth-anniversary book, and I art directed the issue of Pictopia that Chris Ware did the cover for.
STUMP: So those must have been satisfying.
LUTES: Near the end, it was great. But the first six to eight months were deeply depressing. Not just because of my recent feminist education [Stump laughs] but because my whole life I’ve just been kind of disturbed by exploitative representations of women, the dehumanizing effects of extreme objectification. I remember when I was a kid seeing Hustler and being totally creeped out by it. The sense of rawness and the … the almost visual violence in something like Hustler was also in some of the Eros comics.
STUMP: Was part of what was depressing about working at Fanta just the gut realization that the comics industry is financially pathetic?
LUTES: Yeah. I mean, that was probably the big disillusionment. That this was the bread and butter. And that the Hernandez Brothers were not — although they actually did make some money for the company, they were not carrying the company. Neither was Dan Clowes. Guys like Pete Bagge were not the ones bringing in the money that sustained Fantagraphics. So that was obviously the biggest part.
At that time and to this day I don’t have a problem with porn per se. I remember Talk Dirty by Matthias Schultheiss was a great Eros comic. It was one of the few good things that Eros did. It’s excellent, really. But most of the stuff they did was just … crappy. And that was depressing. It’s one thing to publish porn and make money off of it, but to publish BAD porn … [Laughs.]
STUMP: And your daily workday is absorbing bad porn.
LUTES: And during the production of it, spending a lot of time and effort coming up with a good-looking design …
STUMP: Making the bad porn look “good.”
LUTES: Right. Exactly.
STUMP: So that wore on you, but you did get to do some other projects.
LUTES: Eventually I got to do some other projects. And I got to work on the Journal on a regular basis. Although that was incredibly, incredibly stressful; I remember more than one time when the Fed Ex guy was there waiting to take the boards away while Kim hovered around my desk waiting for me to put the finishing touches on some pages.
STUMP: Were you doing this on PageMaker?
LUTES: Oh, no. This was all mechanical paste-up. This is way before they had computers. They had that horrible typesetting machine which exuded toxic chemicals and spewed out — what do you call them, when they’re continuous? — galleys. You’d program in the type you wanted set and then the thing would spit out this paper, this developed paper.
STUMP: I never worked with that.
LUTES: Oh, man. It was nasty. But every page had to be cut and pasted up. There weren’t any computers.
STUMP: I do think that the changes in technology have helped publications like the Journal immensely.
LUTES: The Journal is actually put out on almost a regular basis now.
STUMP: It’s hard to imagine how they actually did that, pasting up the Journal. By now it seems absurd.
LUTES: Even now thinking back it’s hard to imagine we did it. Because those things were thick. But that’s how all print magazines were produced, of course, and before that, it was all handset type.
STUMP: And you have to make changes. You’re always making corrections.
LUTES: Yep. Little words moved here and there.
STUMP: It’s a lot easier to do that on a computer.
LUTES: I think the Journal looked better back then, surprisingly enough. [Laughter.] But that’s just my personal bias.
STUMP: Were you looking to get out of Fantagraphics and move to The Stranger, or how did that come about? The Stranger being the alternative weekly in Seattle.
LUTES: The Stranger started in ’91, about the time I came to Seattle. Maybe even in the same month.
STUMP: By Sturm…?
LUTES: By Tim Keck, but with James in some sort of partnership along with a few other people, I can’t say who else specifically had a share in the venture back then. That year they were kind of developing and proving themselves in their little 12-page or 8-page paper. And I became friends with James Sturm because he was publishing Cereal Killings through Fantagraphics at the time. So he and I were friends. Not close friends, at that point, but he’d come around the office and we’d talk and hang out, we got along pretty well.
And then I quit Fantagraphics and didn’t know what I was going to do. That was the second time I gave up comics. The first time I gave up comics was to go to art school. And the second time I gave up comics was when I quit Fantagraphics. Because it had become too depressing. It had broken me. I gave it up, and I said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I’m going to do some performance thing, I’m going to paint, or I’m going to find some other way to get at what I want to say, whatever that may be. But I can’t operate in this world anymore.”
STUMP: Can you be more specific? Was it the sheer unlikelihood of it that depressed you?
LUTES: It was really this attitude that pervaded.
STUMP: Because back then it still seems that there was that optimism about alternatives.
LUTES: But not within the company. There was no ray of light, there was just this feeling that pervaded at that time, like being painted into a corner. Fantagraphics fighting from their position in a corner, and making — there was zero optimism. There was zero inspiration. Why do comics if you’re just going to be defeatist about it? The whole point becomes that you are the underdog. Or that you are somebody who is oppressed. And not only that but you sort of revel in that existence. Sorry, that doesn’t interest me. [Laughs.]
It got to me after a while. And it drove me out. I can thank Fantagraphics for curing me of comics. [Laughs.]
STUMP: But in a sense maybe you have to give it up before you can return to it.
LUTES: Absolutely. Definitely. Return to it with a totally different perspective.
STUMP: Did you do other artistic avenues when you gave up comics the second time?
LUTES: I started painting a little. I started painting some.
STUMP: What kind of stuff?
LUTES: Oil painting. Just to try and get back into the swing of things. I did some portraits … But I also had a lot of ideas for performance stuff … I had found this portable slide projector that I could wear on a shoulder strap, and I wanted to go around at night and show slides on the walls of old brick buildings, slides of other landscapes — rural or other sorts of landscapes. It was all a little vague to me, but I had this whole monologue that would accompany it.
STUMP: How would you get the nerve to do something like that?
LUTES: Well, that was always the challenge of performing stuff. For me, that was probably the biggest stumbling block, having the guts to go out into the world and do that. But in art school, I did some stuff like that that was pretty successful.
STUMP: Where did you work after you left Fantagraphics?
LUTES: I washed dishes for a while. I had to go back into the hospital a second time, I had to get cut open a second time because I had intestinal adhesions, scar tissue had formed in my abdomen and cinched up my intestines.
STUMP: How did you know this? Just pain?
LUTES: One night after dinner I had really, really bad gas I couldn’t pass. It was really, really painful, cramping gas that wouldn’t leave my body as hard as I would try, assuming different positions, sitting on the can, whatever. And then for two or three days after that everything I ate I threw up. So by the end of the three days, I was delirious, having no idea what was wrong with me.
STUMP: Isn’t that every Fantagraphics employee? [Long laughter.]
LUTES: I went to the doctor and he said, “It’s Fantagraphics.” [Laughter.]
So I had to get operated on a second time, and in the process of recovering from that second operation, a year after the first, James asked me to come work at the Stranger. He said, “We need somebody to do paste-up.” This was at the point where the whole operation was out of two small rooms in the top floor of a house in Wallingford.
LUTES: That was where they first started out. So I would walk over there every Sunday and do paste-up on that week’s paper. Gradually I was given more and more responsibility until at the end of two and a half years I was the art director.
During that period, there’s a point at which I definitely have to credit James with reigniting my interest in comics that second time. He’s always had this great, wonderful ability to not let negative things affect him too much. Even though he saw Fantagraphics for what it was, and he saw alternative comics for the kind of dead end that it could be, he didn’t let it bother him. He let his love for comics win out over that and keep him going… he’s a funny guy because I’d almost describe him as having both feet on the ground and his head in the clouds. [Laughter.]
Because he’s able to have a sense of perspective on whatever it is that he’s doing and be really …
LUTES: Critical, absolutely, of his own work and other people’s work.
STUMP: You became friends, you guys recognized a shared affinity, a shared approach or something?
LUTES: Well, no, we have quite different approaches. I think it was just a shared affinity and a shared … I think we both felt like we were coming from outside of the world of alternative comics. I feel we had both been strongly influenced by comics throughout our lives, but James, relatively speaking, wasn’t a comics geek at all. He smoked a lot of pot, followed the Dead for a long time …
STUMP: James Sturm?
LUTES: Yeah, he’s a total Deadhead. Or was.
STUMP: That’s hard to imagine. I don’t know him, but my impression of him is not of a Deadhead.
LUTES: He’s an incredibly unique individual. He doesn’t fall into a particular category, there’s no nailing him down at all. And his attitude, that kind of enthusiasm for comics totally brought me back and got me excited about it again. I remember Bob Sikoryak came out to visit James, they’re friends from when James interned at RAW. Meeting Bob Sikoryak was great, because it was a connection to that whole New York art comics world which had always been out of my reach, even when I lived on the East Coast.
STUMP: And doesn’t depend on the alternative comics community for its inspiration.
LUTES: Yeah, definitely. It exists somehow apart from the alternative comics scene.
So then I started toying with ideas. I came up with the first few pages of Jar of Fools and presented it to James, and he said, “Let’s run it a page at a time in The Stranger.” So it was a perfect little venue, and it was a perfect way to get back on my feet. Because it was a page a week, it was in a venue other than the comics market, a free weekly paper distributed all over Seattle. I had a completely different audience, which was exactly what I wanted. I had no interest in showing my comic book to people who already read comic books. I wanted to get at more of the art of expression and broader communication through comics than to the pre-existing market for comics. Which is to this day is not a very appealing one, to me.
STUMP: Of course, people would always complain that they could never figure out what was going on in Jar of Fools because they …
LUTES: … only got it a page at a time. But a lot of people enjoyed the non-sequitur aspect of it. And at the first signing I did, when the book came out, there were two guys who showed up with binders with every single episode clipped out.
LUTES: The best, though, was that two middle-aged women came [laughs] who didn’t normally read comics. But they really liked Jar of Fools.
STUMP: That must have melted your heart.
LUTES: It was great. It was exactly what I wanted: the people who came to my first signing were not comics people. And not only was that great in the sense that I was able to draw comics that were read by people who didn’t usually read comics, but to have them come into Fallout [Stump laughs] and to say to them, “Hey, look at all these other comics.” It was great. Because I could introduce them that way. I mean, one of the biggest complaints and concerns that I always had was how nobody was making any real effort to broaden the audience in terms of content, or really looking at other marketing or distribution options. At least as far as I could tell, because I saw no evidence of it.
STUMP: And then how long after you were in Seattle did you start to meet with Tom Hart and Ed Brubaker, that group.
LUTES: I remember I met Jon Lewis when I was still working at Fantagraphics. He was probably my initial connection to Tom and Ed. Well, I guess I met Jon and Ed independently. Ed called me up out of the blue because he had seen my old Penny Dreadful minicomics that I had produced in art school, he’d picked them up at I think Comic Relief in Berkeley.
I’d never met the guy. He called me in Seattle from San Francisco.
STUMP: He was not living in Seattle?
LUTES: He was not living in Seattle, he was living in San Francisco, or Berkeley, I think. And he asked me if I was interested in doing a book with Caliber.
LUTES: Yeah. Because he was working on Gary Reed over at Caliber to get him to publish some book, to start up an alternative line, basically. And so that’s how Catchpenny Comics started, the first and only issue of Catchpenny Comics came out because Ed …
STUMP: I saw a mock-up that had a Fantagraphics label on it. That was supposed to be published by Fantagraphics at one point.
LUTES: I think I proposed it to them. And then it didn’t really …
STUMP: They weren’t that interested.
LUTES: There wasn’t enough there for them to judge, I think. I think Gary said that if he saw more, he might be interested. But by the time I got more together, this other opportunity had come up and I foolishly chose it. [Stump laughs.]
STUMP: With Caliber?
LUTES: Yeah. I mean, no money, no publicity … I mean, literally. Fantagraphics can be bad sometimes, but Caliber … the guy was just pumping out whatever came across his desk. He was just publishing crap. It was nice of him to publish my book, but considering what else he was publishing it was no great compliment to me. [Laughs.] My book was just as invisible as any other book he had out there.
STUMP: But let’s make it clear. This was Iconographix at that point, it doesn’t have the same baggage … when you hear Caliber today … I think of them as two separate entities, to be honest.
LUTES: Well, that’s good, I guess, but there’s really no reason to. Same publisher, same utter lack of editorial standards.
STUMP: And these are the more stylized, “post-modern” comics you made. Right? Like that “Suck” story in Monkey Wrench.
LUTES: There was one story like that. And then there was my more realist, my heavily cross-hatched, noirish rendering style, EC-type stories written by my friend Jake Austen.
STUMP: Did you get any kind of response from this? Or feedback?
LUTES: Yeah, I remember some people. I must have gotten a couple of letters. I think the first positive thing Gary Groth ever said about my work [Stump laughs] was that he thought “The Scratch Merchants,” a story about a gang of bad tattoo artists, was really good.
STUMP: The end is kind of what makes the story.
LUTES: It’s an EC twist. One of the many things Jake is great at is taking EC ideas and storytelling and applying them to the more modern world, in a really perfect way. He has a wonderful understanding of classic comics and what makes them fun.
STUMP: Does he still do comics?
LUTES: He wrote The Secret Three, which I did for Nickelodeon, and he does comics for Rocktober, the ’zine that he puts out. I still want to work with him more in the future.
STUMP: So when did Ed move out to Seattle …?
LUTES: Ed moved to Seattle — and slept for the first two weeks in the same bed with me, I might add — in the spring of ’92. I did Penny Dreadful Comics for Iconographix at Ed’s behest, and we also put out a little anthology, the anthology where “Suck” ran, called Monkey Wrench.
STUMP: Did you get much encouragement around then? “Suck” seems like a pretty distinctive story. Was there any sort of, “You’re onto something; keep going” comments?
LUTES: I was satisfied with it.
STUMP: I have a memory of buying that, and sitting down with a really good friend of mine and figuring out the story and analyzing it.
LUTES: Oh, really?
STUMP: Because it’s something you have to work at a little bit. It’s not an obvious …
LUTES: Well, that’s the idea. I didn’t want it to be obvious, I didn’t want it to be … I wanted it to be mysterious and attractive enough to make you engage with it and figure it out. And it was somewhat of a spontaneous story, somewhat improvised. I enjoyed the accidental symbolism of the father getting his hand cut off, and the child sucking on his father’s severed hand. And the way it all came together, I liked.
I remember the most positive thing I heard at that time. I was working at Fantagraphics then, and I remember Gary told me he had talked to Art Spiegelman, and Spiegelman had read Monkey Wrench and that my story was the best story in it. So of course, for me, Art Speigelman’s praise was a high point.
STUMP: That’s interesting because I would almost think that that would make you think this is the direction to go in. If Art Spiegelman is complimenting your work, I think you’d try to do more in that style or vein.
LUTES: Yeah. The whole problem with that drawing style in the first place was that it was totally appropriated. It was almost a direct combination in my mind of Kaz and Pete Bagge. That was a problem with it. And that’s one of the reasons it just couldn’t last. If I was going to be honest with myself. After I did that story, I didn’t draw in that style anymore. The “Red Book” was the most realized story in that style, but it was almost like I had no interest in …
LUTES: Because I had done it, it was done, there was nothing else to do with that style. The kind of stories I wanted to move into, which were much more textured and detailed, not just visually, but in terms of content. Subtlety is something you just can’t do in that style. You just can’t.
STUMP: Something real instead of something clever.
LUTES: The strength of “Suck” is its cleverness, but there was something else going on there. I don’t know what. [Laughs.] And I couldn’t go any further in that direction, it would’ve been really hard to go further. So I needed to take the next intuitive step, which also happened to be the next logical step. And in that interim, I took my more realistic style, which was much more hatch-y and dense and sort of mentally distilled it. By the time I sat down to draw again I had a much different approach to it.