In 1996, Jason Lutes, a cartoonist with just one slim graphic novel to his name, was leafing through a magazine in the house he shared in Seattle when his eye fell on an advertisement for a book of photographs about Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin. The ad briefly described the German capital in the 1920s, with its wild cabarets, seedy bars and jostling population of artists, architects, writers and philosophers, and in as long as it took him to read it, his life was changed. Lutes had never visited Berlin. He knew almost nothing about the city beyond what the copywriter at this university press had to say about it. But, no matter. Here it was in black and white: his next project.
The plan – it came to him in an instant – was to write an epic comic about the end of the Weimar republic and the beginnings of Nazism. It would be 600 pages long and he would publish it in three instalments. “It was quite a commitment to make at the age of 28,” he says, wryly. “At that point, admittedly, I only thought it would take me 14 years to do [in fact, the book took more than two decades to finish; the complete edition is published this month]. But even so, I don’t recognise the person who did that strange thing.”
Was it hard to keep going? “Yes. About halfway, there were financial struggles, other pressures. I did think of giving up and doing something else. But I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I hadn’t followed through on it.”
It was 2000 before Lutes finally travelled to Berlin, a trip that, until the moment he landed, was fraught with anxiety (he was terrified that once he saw the city, the work he had already done would be “scattered to the wind”). For the first four years, he had drawn his visual inspiration entirely from photographs, something that was difficult before the advent of Google image search. “Most books of photographs show only the most dramatic pictures – the Brandenburg Gate, say, or the Reichstag – whereas my goal was to take a street-level view. I wanted to know what a four-poster bed in a working-class Berlin apartment might have looked like; I wanted to know about the alleys, not the major streets.”
But there were other, self-imposed limitations. The better to prevent hindsight from creeping in, he did not allow himself to look at any images taken after 1933, when the Nazis came to power. For the same reason, he also avoided Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and, later on, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 film, Downfall, which depicts the last days of Nazi rule, when Hitler was restricted to his Berlin bunker.
At first, Lutes hoped to deploy a “highbrow thematic notion” in his unlikely masterwork. His two most important characters were to be a journalist, Kurt Severing, who bears a distant but pleasing resemblance to Hergé’s Tintin, whom Lutes adored as a boy, and an art student, Marthe Müller, who has newly arrived from Cologne; through these two and their preoccupation with words and pictures respectively, he would explore not only Berlin but the medium of comics itself. He laughs. “Luckily, that fell by the wayside. They became real characters, not just stand-ins for ideas.”
They also became part of a larger crowd (the book has a cast of around 40), among them a cross-dressing lesbian, a Jewish family and several working-class leftists, as well as a small number of the historically recognisable, Joseph Goebbels and Josephine Baker included. But if such a roll-call was intended to evoke the excitements of Berlin in the jazz age, and thus of the burgeoning modernity that would be snuffed out so brutally in 1933, Lutes was careful not to overplay his hand. For a long time, no swastikas can be found in Berlin; not until the final quarter does one appear. “As a symbol, it had tremendous weight then,” says Lutes. “But nowhere near what it came to have in the following years. I didn’t want to be fatalistic, for the reader to feel: that’s the only way history could have gone.”
What he knows now, however, is that most readers, if not all, see the symbol anyway; when they look back through the book and realise there is only a white space where a swastika should be, they’re all amazement. “Some media spell everything out,” he says. “But in comics there is space into which the reader has to project. When you put two panels next to each other, it’s the reader who has to make the connection both between them, as well as between the words and the pictures inside the panel.”
He wonders now if he might have been even more restrained. “There is some early foreshadowing that I regret. David Schwartz, the Jewish boy who has a dream with an eagle in it… I didn’t actually need to do that.”
When Lutes began work on his book, he was a “starving artist” and Bill Clinton was the American president; by the time he came to draw its final pages, he was a father of two, a professor at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Hartford, Vermont, and Donald Trump was installed in the White House. Antisemitism was on the rise across Europe, populist rightwing parties having made political gains almost everywhere. “It’s a horrible kind of good fortune,” he says of this shift, one he knows will change the way new readers receive Berlin. “Five years ago, in the face of climate change, the whole project had come to seem more and more irrelevant. People used to ask me who was going to care about a comic book about Germany. Now, though, it’s more and more relevant and I think that probably says something about the cycle of history. My initial choice was impulsive. It came from an unconscious desire to learn about that period and about the circumstances that led to war and the Holocaust; what I wanted to figure out was what essential aspects of human nature contribute to that kind of catastrophic event.
“The racist aspects of American culture were apparent to me and it was clear that people with wealth and resources were holding all the power. I was living in Seattle, where the World Trade Organisation protests had happened, and there was already strong friction between the internet millionaires and the less fortunate. I was relating my experience in the moment to [what was going on in] my imagined Berlin, so I didn’t only think of the subject in a bubble to be looked at from a distance. All the same, I could never have predicted what would eventually come out of all of that.”
The spectre of the 45th president and his divisive policies can, he thinks, be felt, albeit in a loose way, in the book’s final chapter and a half, which he wrote after Trump was elected in 2016. “I wanted the book to be both tragic and hopeful at the end,” he says. “That came directly out of this moment and the fact that I have children. I live in rural Vermont so I am isolated from things to a degree. But they do feel dark. As someone who was at high school in the 80s at the height of the cold war, when we had nightmares about the end of human civilisation, I’ve always lived with what you might call a sense of the impending apocalypse. But while I’m conscious of how bad things could go, I actively look for positives.” On the line from the US, his voice rises a few notes. “Yes, I cling to them. Cling is a good word.”
Once his characters have finally left the page, their destinies now apparent, Lutes dispenses with panels, drawing instead a series of dramatic cityscapes. In the first, Berlin, bombed and broken, is on fire; smoke rises from its ruins as if from a funeral pyre. In the second, the city is divided; we see razor wire and the Wall. In the third, the Wall, now covered in graffiti, has a break in it; beyond it, cranes rise above the rooftops.
Finally, there is a full-colour photograph – the rest of the book is in black and white – of Berlin as it is now, Potsdamer Platz gleaming in the sunshine. Only in the last image are any people to be seen. They are tiny as ants, but with their baby buggies and their rucksacks, their aspect nevertheless seems breezy. If any of them do see ghosts as they go about their day, you would certainly never know it.
Berlin isn’t the only new comic to take on Germany and its wartime politics. This autumn also sees the publication of a graphic novel version of Anne Frank’s Diary adapted by Ari Folman and illustrated by David Polonsky, the Israeli pair best known for the 2008 Oscar-nominated film, Waltz With Bashir; of the remarkable Heimat, a memoir by Nora Krug, a German-American illustrator who teaches at the Parsons School of Design in New York; and of The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, a biography of the German-born Jewish philosopher by Ken Krimstein, a Chicago academic whose cartoons have appeared in the New Yorker. Is this a coincidence or does it have a wider significance? Though he has not yet read the other books, Lutes believes it does. “It’s so interesting,” he tells me. “On some profound level, we are all connected to this deeper thing. We are all processing, consciously or subconsciously, our world and having tapped into something that’s in the air, our books have bloomed simultaneously.”
It also reflects, he feels, the growing sophistication of comics. For the graphic novel, this is a golden age. Readers and publishers are vastly more receptive, writers and artists vastly more ambitious. Nothing is off-limits. “This is what I always hoped for as a teenager,” he says.
The graphic adaptation of Anne Frank’s Diary was commissioned several years ago by the Anne Frank Fonds in Basel, Switzerland, in the hope that it would bring a new generation of possibly book-wary readers to her story; Folman, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, has spoken of his and Polonsky’s conviction that they should not treat the book as a sacred text and luckily the Fonds agreed with them (“Take the entry where she writes about Hans van Daan and his sausage making,” he says. “It might be [only] four sentences in the diary, but we make it a really fun part, a big thing, colourful and beautiful to look at.”).
But the other books owe their existence entirely to the determination of their authors, who have made the seemingly impossible possible, something even they are wont to acknowledge when pressed. “What, you mean aside from the fact that I was hit on the head with a hard object?” jokes Krimstein when I ask what on earth made him believe he might be able to turn Arendt’s long life and highly complex philosophical thinking into a comic.
Unlike Lutes and, to a lesser degree, Krug, he wrote his book quickly, starting in the summer of 2016, by which time Trump was the Republican’s presidential candidate (“and yes, I found great solace spending time with her, this woman who was so sensible, so reality-facing, so truth-telling”). For ages, though, he drew nothing at all, concentrating instead on how best to tell her story, which begins in the cobbled streets of Königsberg, when carriages were still drawn by horse, and ends on the Upper East Side of New York after the Ramones have started to gig (Arendt was born in 1906 in what was then still the German empire; she died in America in 1975 where, among other things, she was the first woman to be appointed a full professor at Princeton).
In the end, he decided to divide his narrative into three, like a play. Each act would involve an escape: the first from the Gestapo in Berlin, after she was arrested in 1933 for researching antisemitism (Arendt and her mother fled by night over the mountains into Czechoslovakia, eventually making their way to Paris); the second from the French internment camp in Gurs to which she was sent in 1940 as an “enemy alien” in anticipation of the German invasion of France (in a period of confusion following France’s capitulation four weeks after her arrival, Arendt simply walked out of the camp; eventually, she made her way to Lisbon and then to the US); and the third from her former teacher, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, with whom she had been in love ever since she was a student and whom she had long been unable wholly to give up, even after he was compromised by appearing to support National Socialism.
Krimstein’s next problem was getting Arendt to look right. “That took a while,” he says, when we meet in London (cartoonists seem to travel a lot these days; he is en route to the US from Germany via Ukraine). “She has a distinctive look, but I needed to draw it in such a way that it could be replicated again and again and easily aged.
“Only a handful of photographs of her are extant, maybe 30; I got to know them very well. Early in 2017, though, the Bibliotheque National in Paris found her library card from 1940: a new image, taken side-on. After that, I got it. The chin, the eyebrows; they became something.”
He allowed himself to use only one colour in the book and that was green, which Arendt was known to wear and which also speaks of the earth, of life, of what she called natality (when acting together can create the unexpected). “That gave me a through line – that and the fact that she was a chain-smoker.”
Krimstein’s book makes for a primer for Arendt’s ways of thinking and also for that of many of her friends and acquaintances (in homage to David Foster Wallace, The Three Escapes comes with copious footnotes on everyone from Walter Benjamin to Billy Wilder). But it is deeply concerned, too, with extremism and how attentive one should be to changes in the political atmosphere. “When she and her friends first heard about the camps in Germany, they were incredulous,” he says. “‘It doesn’t make any political sense,’ they said. But when the proof came, then she understood. Here was the abyss.
“Those who say she minimised the crimes of the Nazis [in her book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, in which she coined her now famous phrase “the banality of evil”], that she blamed the victims, were quite wrong.” The point is that the abyss opened up so relatively quickly and easily, a function of precisely the kind of unthinking nationalist zealotry that is now abroad, say, in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.
Krimstein believes we are at a liminal moment. It is almost 75 years since the end of the war. Fewer and fewer people who lived through it are around to tell their story; soon, there will be no one left at all. “So then it becomes narrative and that is already opening up new ways of storytelling.” Comics are so inordinately nimble, capable both of great concision and formal inventiveness: “Art Spiegelman [author of Maus, the book that might be said to have made all other comic books about Hitler possible] said that comics are the art of turning time back into space and that is it, exactly. Certainly, that thought helped me a lot.”
In Heimat, Krug turns time into space using not only cartoons and drawings but also documents, photographs and ephemera of all kinds. Her book, which takes its title from the German word meaning a sense of belonging that is strongly connected to place, is a memoir in which she seeks to discover what, exactly, her grandparents did in the war, a quest born both of her sense of “responsibility as a German who lives abroad” (it is 18 years since she left the country where she was born) and of her own ignorance.
“My generation had a rigorous war and Holocaust education,” she says. “It was good, and very important, but we learned [broad] facts, not what went on in our home towns. Most Germans of my generation know fairly little about what happened in their own families. Of course I was afraid. I worried the book would come across in the wrong way, as me trying to make excuses for the Germans, or trying to point out that they were victims, too. But I needed to tell it. I realised the war was so deeply buried in me.”
Whatever you already know about Nazi Germany, it’s hard not to be horrified by Heimat, a narrative that reveals almost casually how easy it is to poison minds, how quickly the atmosphere of a country can change. On her father’s side, she traces the history of his brother, killed in the war at 18. One day, she finds in an exercise book a story he wrote at school in 1939, aged 12, in which he likens Jews to poisonous mushrooms (“Just like the poisonous mushroom can kill a whole family, the Jew can kill a whole people.”) For this, his teacher, having corrected three spelling mistakes, gave Franz-Karl a “B” for content.
On her mother’s side, Krug discovers that Willi, her grandfather, was not the hero her family had made him out to be (a comforting myth had it that he hid his Jewish employer). Krug is appalled to discover that he joined the Nazi party (only 15% of Germans did, membership having been closed by the leadership at a certain point); that he owned a copy of a photograph of a local Jewish lawyer being paraded before a crowd en route to a concentration camp.
But every stage of her research brings with it a sense of all the horribly quotidian ways in which Nazism was experienced. Looking through some old phone books, she notices the first time Jewish citizens are listed separately and then, in the directory for 1940, that their names have disappeared altogether.
Krug’s book, which took her six years to write, was published first in Germany, from where hate mail has already arrived. “Why should we continue to feel guilty?” her correspondents ask. She expected this but it doesn’t make it any easier. “I wish the book weren’t so relevant,” she says. “It’s very frightening, what’s happening.”
Having traced the history of antisemitism in Külsheim, the town where her father was born, back to the 13th century, she feels it is perfectly possible for history to repeat itself. “Antisemitism is an old sentiment in Europe. It’s disturbing to see the words favoured by the Nazis being used again: describing your political enemies as pigs, for instance.” Like Krimstein, she has a strong sense of this as a key moment. “People are dying. This is the time when we need to think about how we want future generations to learn about the Holocaust.”
When Heimat begins, Krug has just arrived in New York from Berlin to study. She is standing on the rooftop of a friend’s apartment – the only person she then knew in the city – when an elderly woman who is sitting in a deckchair asks where she’s from. “I’m from Germany,” she says. They talk and the woman reveals that she survived a concentration camp because one of the female guards rescued her from the gas chamber 16 times – perhaps because she had a crush on her (she was merciless towards everyone else). On hearing this, Krug feels a “familiar heat” in the pit of her stomach. What can she possibly say? A silence opens up between them.
This story now has a postscript. A few weeks ago, on a whim, Krug typed these details – “camp, saved 16 times” – into Google and, to her amazement, up came the name of this woman whose words she’d never been able to forget. She traced her phone number and, summoning all her courage, called her. “When I spoke to her, I burst into tears,” she tells me. “It felt so wonderful to speak to her. That moment on the roof… I was always going to make it the beginning of my book. It is a reminder that we don’t live in a historic vacuum, that we carry these pasts in us even when we haven’t lived through them ourselves.”
And now, if I will forgive her, she must dash. Today, she and this survivor are to have lunch.
• Berlin by Jason Lutes (out now) is published by Drawn and Quarterly (£35). To order a copy for £30.10 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.
• Anne Frank’s Diary by Ari Folman and David Polonsky (out now) is published by Penguin (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.89 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.
• The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt by Ken Krimstein is published on 18 October by Bloomsbury (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.89 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
• Heimat by Nora Krug is published on 4 October by Penguin (£22). To order a copy for £18.92 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99