‘Berlin’, And What Filmmakers Can Learn From Graphic Novels

How Jason Lutes masters visual storytelling.

On my desk sits a framed page of storyboards from Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away.

Spin the frame around and on the other side is a print from Scott McCloud’s graphic novel The Sculptor.

They’re in the same frame to remind me that film and comics share a common ancestor.

This discovery expanded my appreciation of both art forms and thinking of myself as a Sequential Artist helps me understand the clay that I’m moulding as filmmaker.

The film and the graphic novel are related like a pop song to a poem and, just like reading or writing poetry can make your songwriting better, I think filmmakers benefit from indulging in graphic novels.

I love seeing how a good graphic novelist approaches a scene because it is almost guaranteed to be different to a film director, while still using the same clay: a sequence of images with (or sometimes without) words.

But more than that, I think graphic novelists have a more interesting understanding of the relationship between words and pictures.

Words and pictures

The dynamic between these two halves of visual storytelling fascinate me.

Back in journalism school I was trained in an arcane craft called “writing to picture” and I learned that the ways words and images can be combined can create poetry — even in journalism.

And because they work with space instead of time, comic artists see this relationship from a slightly different angle.

It’s hard to articulate how words and pictures work together so let me use an example: Jason Lute’s epic graphic novel Berlin.

Jason Lute’s epic graphic novel “Berlin”.

I use the word ‘epic’ pointedly: the novel is 500 pages long, spanning four years of history with a cast of 40 characters. It is a lush and vivid portrait of Berlin in the final years of the Weimar Republic, a time of extreme inequality, political polarisation breaking out into street violence, dizzying technological progress and nihilistic decadence…sound familiar?

Jason spent an epic 26 years (!!) completing Berlin and someone had better have paid a lot of money for the screen rights already. This book is crying out to be an HBO miniseries.

Three pages of sophisticated visual storytelling

There’s a three-page scene that I think is sophisticated visual storytelling, especially in regards to the dance of words and pictures. I scanned, printed and stuck the pages in my sketchbook before scribbling notes all over them, and I’ll share my insights here.

In this scene, a journalist is struggling to find purpose in his work as fascism takes root around him.

First of all, nothing actually happens in this scene: there is no action, just reflection and thought.

This is an interesting distinction between film and comics. Films, we are so often told, are about action: they are stories about things people do, not things people think.

In a movie, it is not possible to have someone sit and think for very long. The filmmaker must convert invisible inner thoughts into external actions.

The graphic novel, meanwhile, literally has the word ‘novel’ in it — it’s able to devote pages to inner monologue, just like a novel, and still make it visual!

Let’s turn to the next page.

If we were to put this page on screen, we’d use typewriter sound effects rather than the “tak-tak” Lutes writes in his panels.

But to do that, we lose the wonderful descriptive words that float up from the typewriters in the first five panels of page 77. This is a treatment that would never occur to a film director because they’re not thinking of visualising the sound effects!

I really love the match cut between the cigar and the bullet.

An idea like this is translatable to the screen, but a modern director would most-likely favour a realistic treatment over something symbolic, maybe feeling an effect that requires the audience to consciously acknowledge a juxtaposition would pull them out of the photo-realism of the scene.

Film’s unique strength — and its limitation — is that it is a naturalistic medium: it largely wants to create images that resemble reality.

A comic artist can never create a photo-realistic image and so they are free to go in the opposite direction: to lean into abstract and even magic-realism — see the first panel on page 78, below.

But back to words and pictures.

In this scene, I’m struck by two things: how descriptive the narration is and how the images are often showing something unrelated.

Scroll back up to the seventh panel on page 76. Kurt is typing “The leaves of the horse-chestnut tree have all changed colour but most still cling to their limbs.” Lutes chooses not to show us the leaves of the horse-chestnut tree, instead beginning a multi-panel zoom-out from Kurt’s apartment to the street.

You have words and pictures delivering information on two separate channels. There is no redundancy. Like a musical counterpoint, the words and pictures are gently pulling against each other and in doing so creating an extra energy.

I’d love to see a film made like this, but I acknowledge there’s a big hurdle. In a comic you can read the page twice, or at least slowly. The challenge for a filmmaker is making sure the viewer is not overwhelmed with information, without slowing the film down to molasses.

I’m not saying graphic novels are better than film and, in fairness, many other scenes in Berlin are clearly influenced by cinematic staging and editing.

But I’m fascinated by the way these two mediums — these two accents speaking the same language — can intersect!

This essay first appeared in The Third Something, a weekly newsletter about creativity and visual storytelling by Adam Westbrook.

Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a weekly newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity. https://adamwestbrook.substack.com/

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