Jason Rises Again

The Living and the Dead

Jason is one of my absolute favorite living cartoonists. Surely you’ve heard of the guy - one name only, winsomely inexpressive funny animal characters, hails from Norway, Fantagraphics stalwart? Real name John Arne Sæterøy? Well, I hadn’t heard of that last part either. I had to look it up, and I really like the guy.

Fantagraphics likes him even more than me. I mean, just look at all this stuff. It’s very nearly his entire catalog in English, excluding some very early works featuring (gasp!) human characters. And Jason isn’t just riding on his past output - he’s an extremely prolific creator, having seen at least one new book released each year since his 2001 English-language debut Hey, Wait…, with several years seeing two releases to account for his untranslated backlog. This is his ninth Fantagraphics-released volume. The tenth, I Killed Adolph Hitler, the saga of a time-traveling hitman, is tentatively due this autumn. My French-capable readers can enjoy a preview here.

But it wasn’t time-traveling hitmen that won Jason his initial fame. It’s no exaggeration to say that Hey, Wait… knocked readers and critics everywhere right onto their collective ass, and it remains a powerful exploration of childhood bonds and lingering guilt, carried out with an astounding grasp of the most delicate, subtle formal properties of the medium, a seemingly intuitive understanding of panel-to-panel time, page-to-page time, and the pliable nature of characters-as-symbols. You will rarely read better paced comics than Jason’s. However, Hey, Wait… also benefited from a deeply emotional, lyrically haunting story, brushed with depressive themes and carefully-observed characters - it therefore perfectly fit the mold of what is often expected of a ‘literary’ graphic novel.

And almost as soon as the praise rocketed to its peak, Jason moved away from that type of book. He hasn’t gotten quite the same attention since. Oh, he’s very well respected, don’t get me wrong - it’s just that the critical ‘heat’ isn’t quite with him any longer. Maybe it’s simply the shock of the new wearing off. Or maybe it’s not so easy for as wide an audience to embrace Jason’s subsequent (or at least subsequently-released-to-English-readers) works, oscillating between often wordless gags (Sshhhh!, Meow, Baby!), fairly straightforward mystery/suspense pieces (The Iron Wagon, Why Are You Doing This?), and experimental excursions into stylistic/genre crossbreeding, a category which the present book neatly fits into.

It’s also that last category that’s given me some of my preferred Jason works. Tell Me Something was a beautifully structured, crystalline mix of silent movie-style slapstick with a more tragic, violent undercurrent than often found in such films. You Can’t Get There From Here was even more impressive -- I named it the best book of the year back in 2004 when we were all young and carefree -- a whirlwind mix of monster movie characters, melodramatic pathos, and vivid narrative contortions. However, Jason’s most recent work, The Left Bank Gang, was decidedly less than the sum of its parts, an intriguing premise (famed real-life early 20th century writers in Paris are reimagined as graphic novelists) giving way jarringly to crime comics horseplay, the artist’s tireless pursuit of experimentation suddenly seeming more like simple tonal impatience.

The Living and the Dead, unfortunately, is also one of Jason’s weaker efforts, though it is more tonally coherent than The Left Bank Gang, and in possession of several graceful moments of narrative whimsy. The plot is very simple - a young dishwasher fancies a local prostitute, and can’t wait to save up enough money to purchase her favors, but his plans are disturbed by the unexpected landing of a meteor that awakens the local dead in flesh-hungry zombie fashion. Boy and girl team up to flee from the monsters, but can they ever truly escape?

Once again, Jason is heavily inspired by silent film -- as in Tell Me Something, all of the book’s sparse dialogue is delivered via words set against black backgrounds, in the manner of intertitles -- this time both classic slapstick, street-level melodrama and German Expressionist horror, though the zombie bits are pure gut-slurping modernity. The book’s only 48 pages long (priced at $9.95), so there’s no room for the sight of Jason’s typical animal characters ripping the flesh off one another’s faces to lose its comedic appeal - probably the best panel in the whole book is one of a zombie dog impassively chowing down on the last of a baby bird’s skin, the now-skeletal lil' tyke plucked right out of his stroller, his or her bird mother nearly doing a plop-take in surprise.

Indeed, while Jason’s characters rarely show much facial expression, their bodily ‘acting’ is excellent; it’s very easy to see how the artist is attracted to the properties of silent film, and its requirements of carefully composed settings and modulated gestures. As always, the pacing is immaculate, almost the entire book drawn in six-panel grids that expertly weave from sequence to sequence with a maximum of narrative clarity, action melting into slapstick and the passage of time expanding and contracting. There's little of the startling temporal leaps and backflips that the artist can execute so smoothly (I suspect time-travel might give him a better opportunity), but there's a quietly pleasing sweep to the zombie infestation of Jason's little town, and the transformation of his cast of animal people.

Time is an important theme to Jason, as is the bond of romance (or sometimes friendship). The latter is tested against the former, often with additional complications applied, like unexpected death or violence, or a character literally or figuratively becoming a monster. All of those themes are present here, though to no greater impact than some of the artist's other works. That the work retains as much entertainment value as it does is a credit to Jason's polished craftsmanship, and his willing to try just about anything with his seemingly limited page layouts and funny animal characters. If it doesn't sizzle -- and it doesn't here -- it can't help but pop every so often. Rest assured that he'll be back before you know it, with another, different try.

And the book does have the best Author's Bio I've read in a long time, so there's certainly that.

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