Chico Comics Page Interview: Babylon Berlin Writer/Artist– Arne Jysch
By Steve Sellers
Babylon Berlin is the story of German police investigator Gereon Rath, who is reassigned to Berlin in the hopes of starting over. However, that proves difficult as he faces a swarming conspiracy involving Russian gold, police corruption, and the rise of fascism in Weimar-era Germany. Based on the historical crime novel written by Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin has recently been adapted into a comic book by Arne Jysch and published by Titan Comics, as well as a recent television series now available on Netflix.
We sat down recently to talk to Arne Jysch about Babylon Berlin, the process of adapting the novel into comic book form, and what lies ahead.
First of all, what attracted you to comics as an art form?
Arne Jysch: I studied animation at a film school and am actually a storyboard artist. When it comes to storytelling I always think in camera angles, picture compositions and cuts. I also enjoy things that look beautiful: beautiful drawings, architecture, fashion, graphics … something like that. It probably is a logical consequence as a storyboard artist to draw a comic if you want to tell a story. I can project the movie in the mind of the reader and have total artistic freedom.
Are there any particular comics that have inspired you as an artist? Are there any comics that you enjoy currently?
AJ: Of course there are many comics that have influenced my work. I am still impressed by the classics of Franco-Belgian comics like Hergé with Tintin, Franquin with Gaston and also the work of artists like Hugo Pratt, Enki Bilal and Moebius. When it comes to modern stuff, it’s DMZ by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli what I really found inspiring with it’s powerful multiperspective storytelling where the setting of New York is like the main protagonist. What I also enjoyed recently is the very dark, sex and crime magazine series “Doggy Bags” by various artists under the “Label619”
How did you encounter the Gereon Rath novels, and what made you decide to tell the story of Babylon Berlin?
AJ: It was 2008 when I heard a radio review of the book “The wet fish” (the original title) and I thought: “Wow, now someone has done it!”. A fictitious, very entertaining and well-researched story in the Berlin of the Weimar Republic that’s told in a fresh modern way. Volker’s scenes instantly evoke exciting images in my head. That appealed to me immediately and I wanted to do that. Even though I was still working on my first comic, I already sent Volker pictures of scenes from his book. Shortly afterwards we met in Cologne.
How do you see Gereon Rath as a character, and in your view, what makes him interesting as a detective hero?
AJ: He is driven by his ambition. His goal is to finally work for the legendary homicide division of the Berlin police but mainly he wants to free himself from the shadow of his influential father who can not resist interfering in his life. Rath is pretty handsome, charming, witty and can also fight when it matters. The tragic thing about his life is that whenever he comes one step closer to his goal of personal freedom with the help of lies, cover-ups and other morally questionable actions, his father or a father figure is one step ahead of him. He is a passionate investigator who exploits people to advance his career even though they mean a lot to him. That does not make him nice but the reader can understand it, I think. The story becomes interesting when he can only bring down his worst enemy if he concedes his own misdemeanors. But this would ruin the most important thing in his life, the career at the Berlin police. You want to see how he manages to pull his head out of the noose.
How much research was involved in creating the world of Babylon Berlin? Were there any visual references that you took inspiration from?
AJ: Oh, there were a lot of visual references. I did not run through Berlin in search of pre-war street views, since there is almost nothing left – except in museums – but I mainly concentrated on photos in books. Fortunately there are a lot of Photobooks. Of course, I also watched contemporary feature films from the twenties. But I was more in search of documentary footage, street scenes, and real people, to let me inspire by fashion, hairstyles and body language of the time. It was also important for me to be inspired by twenties graphic artists so that the reader is also drawn in the story with the help of the historic illustration style.
Babylon Berlin is a series set in 1920’s Germany, but it reflects modern-day concerns like police corruption and the rise of political extremism. Was any of this in your mind when you adapted the book, or was it a question of timing?
AJ: When I started working on the book, for me it was actually more about a time travel experience into a past, glamorous fantasy world. Volker had provided the political and social background within his storyline. But rather to convey the feeling of that past. Due to the strengthening of extreme ideas in the current democracies one felt more and more reminded of the Weimar Republic while I was working on the comic book. This connection wasn’t intended at first. But I have responded to it and sometimes even changed the dialogue a bit to clarify the relation to the present on a subliminal level.
How difficult was the process of adapting the book to graphic novel format? What were your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
AJ: The main challenge was to compress all the information and the storyline from a 500 page novel to a 200 page graphic version without losing the heart of the Idea. The thing that Kutscher said to me when I started the adaptation was: Take your favorite scenes and built your version around it. And that’s what I basically did. I disassembled the whole book down to it’s dramatic skeleton and than, like a jigsaw, “fleshed out” the story again with viewer parts. Unfortunately, when you are dealing with an investigation crime plot you have to give a lot of information to the reader. So my first choice of changing something from the novel was to introduce a first-person narration by the main character because I felt it’s a more natural way of giving the reader the needed information. Whenever possible I used the advantages of a visual version, that’s why there are newspaper pages, letters, collages of documents and flashbacks in black silhouettes.
The story of Babylon Berlin is presented in black-and-white format. What appeals to you about telling the story that way?
AJ: When I started to look for the appropriate drawing style I found it’s much easier to immerse the present viewer in the past by using the atmosphere of contemporary 1920s black and white artwork, movies and photographs. The black and white style of my book with it’s grainy watercolor shading draws a lot of inspiration by 1920s illustrators like Jeanne Mammen or Russell Patterson whom I really learned to admire. Black and white felt right for this story.
What are your thoughts on the Netflix adaptation of Babylon Berlin?
AJ: I watched all 16 Episodes. I’m glad that it’s different to my version. I would love to see more, perhaps with other scenes from the novel as well as iconic places in 1920s Berlin!
Finally, what are your future plans? Are there any plans to adapt more of the Gereon Rath series?
AJ: There are no concrete plans yet, although of course the second book is very interesting to me because of the setting in the Berlin film industry of 1930.