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Graphic novels, all grown up

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It's also about rhythm. Like the very best illustrated fiction, Shaw's work moves between pathos and humor, between the fantastic and the familiar. "I would like the book to feel like it's a place I've traveled to – like a great movie I've watched," he says. "I was surrounded by these people for a long time."

Jason Lutes – 'Berlin: City of Smoke'

A few years ago, Jason Lutes was killing time, idly flipping through a stack of glossy magazines, when the page fell open to an advertisement for a book called "Bertolt Brecht's Berlin." Mr. Lutes was no great expert on European history or Bertolt Brecht, the famous German playwright and poet.

He was a writer of graphic fiction, and an artist, one immersed in a reverie of what he calls "my own personal feelings and thoughts." In 1996, Lutes had published the well-received "Jar of Fools," a veiled autobiography; he'd also spent some time as the art director at the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger.

But something about this advertisement – archaic and offbeat – appealed to Lutes, who was then casting about for a new project. "The basic impulse," he says, "was to try to come to grips with the outside world, and one way to do that was to pick a foreign culture and immerse myself in this completely other place. To use comics as a time machine."

The result is "Berlin," a sprawling, three-book trilogy based in pre-World War II Germany. Lutes, who teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., has worked through the trilogy slowly: "Berlin: City of Stones," was released in 2000, and "Berlin: City of Smoke" will be released by Drawn and Quarterly in August. Lutes estimates that the third installment could be finished in 2012.

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