CBC radio, North by Northwest interview with David Lester, August, 2011
How did you get the idea for the story?
I got the original idea for The Listener After reading a reference to the Lippe election, I searched out more information on it, but there were only bits and pieces to be found scattered among dozens of books. Nowhere was the story given the prominence it seemed to warrant. When I realized the Lippe election was a story that had never been fully explored in English, I thought, what an incredibly exciting project it would be to bring this history to life. It was from that point on that I started to collect any information I could find on the election. This led to my first draft.
Why did you choose to tell this particular story?
The events of 1933 seemed entirely relevant to the political milieu of today. Media manipulation. Spin-doctoring. Decisions made for expediency by morally corrupt political parties, be they left or right or centre.
Hitler used the Lippe election result as a justification for his viability as leader of Germany. Hitler’s kind of spin-doctoring has been repeated again and again over the last 80 years. The most famous recent example was the false cry of “weapons of mass destruction” to justify an invasion of Iraq.
The Lippe election is a small bit of history dwarfed by the magnitude of the horrible events that followed: the Second World War, the Holocaust. But details can be the most important part of understanding a tragedy. We can learn from the small details in a way that we can’t from the big picture. In The Listener, I focused on the death of one man because sometimes it is easier to comprehend the death of one person than understand the deaths of millions.
Describe the visual structure of THE LISTENER?
Throughout the book I use visual motifs that link the past and present. The boldest example of this is the death of the political activist and the murder of the reporter, with both deaths occurring while a drawing is being made. The point of visually linking these two separate scenes is to show that our past is not so far removed from our present. To show that patterns are repeated and this is something we can learn from. History is not stagnant.
Art can function as a morale booster to those engaging in political action. Art can often articulate the collective emotions felt in a time of conflict and change (grief, rage and crisis). Art can aid the momentum of social change. It can articulate and communicate ideas in a way that traditional politics can not. Art can help provide activists with the emotional fuel needed in their work. Art can break through the isolation that can come with political struggle. Art can instigate debate. Art can educate. Art can challenge our ideas of life. Artists can bear witness. Art can let us know we not alone. Artists can jolt the public into paying attention about issues such as war, environment, global warming, poverty, homelessness. Art can offer hope. Art can sometimes speak louder than words.
What is The Listener trying to accomplish?
The Listener tries to show how the rise of Hitler came close to being otherwise. The importance of breaking through the lies of spin-doctoring. The importance of deciphering the disingenuous propaganda that political parties crank out. The importance of a vigilant independent news media. Which unfortunately has been eroded over the last 20 years, now making Wikileaks a key player in exposing the actual agendas of government as well as human rights abuses by the military and governments.
The Listener is a cautionary tale of what happens when citizens are complacent. At its core The Listener is a clarion call to action. The Listener illustrates how easily our history can be effected by how citizens act or do not act.
As individuals we may think our actions have no effect, but in The Listener I wanted to counter that idea. I wanted to show that individual acts and participation are pivotal to how our future unfolds. No matter how insignificant you think your actions are, they may turn out to hold history’s balance of power. It isn’t about electoral politics, it is about being an engaged political citizen.
In The Listener, we get Hitler and the holocaust, but it could have been otherwise. In The Listener, I’ve tried to put forward the anarchist idea that the freethinking actions of the public either individually or collectively matter to a healthy society. Political parties are often a destructive force that crushes dissent. We can’t let this happen. More important political work can be done outside of political parties. We need dissent that operates outside of parliament.
The Listener is a popular reading book for anyone interested in history, politics, and art. More specifically, anyone interested in activist art, the rise of Nazism, far-right extremism, the Weimar Republic, the Second World War, and the origins of the Holocaust. THEMES: I also hope the reader thinks about decisions, actions and responsibility.
The graphic novel form lends itself particularly well to The Listener because Louise, one of the main characters in the book, is an artist and so it becomes significant to depict her story visually. To show Louise seemed more appropriate then describing her. Throughout the book, I saw the scenes I was writing in visual terms. The text was written as a film script might be written. The scenes were built graphically around the text and sometimes the text was built around a visual idea. This working method is only possible when using both words and drawings.
One pivotal scene in the book demonstrates why the graphic novel form was essential in telling this story. The scene is a conversation about the relationship of art and politics, the past and present, and the weight of responsibility we share in understanding history. I visually represent these reflections by having Louise, our protagonist, struggling to hang a heavy mirror. We only see her, save for a few glimpses in the mirror of the old man she is talking to. This is her story. Her awkward burden. This kind of a scene is where the graphic novel form excels.
And of course, sometimes, drawings speak louder than words.
A visual by its very nature is action. We are not hearing about someone acting, we are seeing it. The Listener is about action versus inaction. So by making this book as a graphic novel, it acts as a metaphor for the theme of the book, which is: how we act or do not act. Words are just words, no matter how brilliant, profound and intelligent. In the end they are just words. But eloquent words followed by eloquent action… that is when revolutions begin.
Which techniques are used in the drawings?
The drawings were made with a combination of pencil, pen, watercolour and acrylics. The Listener is inspired by film techniques, including German expressionism, Hitchcock and film noir.
How does it relate to other things you do (politics in your music & artwork)?
The Listener is all part of an ongoing thread throughout my artistic life, whether with music or graphic design or painting of combing politics and art. That is the continuity that informs all my work.
Such as in my “Inspired Agitators” poster series. The posters are an ongoing obsession to celebrate human dignity. The Listener is meant to encourage dignity and the idea that one should not be beaten down by circumstances. The Listener is a cautionary tale about doing what you think is right and not what you are told. I find the lives of people to be a powerful example. Much of art is about bearing witness to the world.
What do you want people to take away from your story?
A skepticism about electoral politics and political parties, and the importance of making your own independent decisions. An awareness of the cynicism of spin- doctoring.
To appreciate the inspiration that art can offer in the world. If you are an artist, to see that art has a role to play even beyond the important one of self-expression. When you make art, you may not always know where it will lead. Art can be political without being explicitly so and sometimes it is simply how the art is interpreted. Art is a form that can’t be controlled, it remains fluid and subversive. Art is crucial for the health of any free society. The Listener is ultimately a cautionary tale of all our futures.
Who are you graphic influences?
George Grosz, Kathe Kolliwitz, Saul Steinberg, Ben Shahn and of course my partner in Mecca Normal Jean Smith, who inspires me greatly with her painting and general outlook on art.
What graphic novelists do you like?
Joe Sacco, Jason Lutes, Eric Drooker, Shaun Tan and Marjane Satrapi.
Explain “I don’t get it” remark at the end of THE LISTENER?
I wanted to show how difficult it is to create art that communicates. It is a real challenge. Artists may think we are being clear only to find our work has been completely misinterpreted. It comes with the territory of making political art. But it also adds the dynamic and tension that is vital to being creative.
What are some of the storylines and themes of The Listener?
A cautionary tale of complacency. Mixing art and politics. Spin-doctoring. Media manipulation. The rise of Hitler. The last democratic election in Germany before the rise of the Third Reich. Electoral politics. Power.