Pardon the fuzz; best I could do.

Pocket Full of Rain and Other Stories

This should be out in stores soon. It's a new softcover from Fantagraphics, 160 b&w and color pages for $19.99, collecting early work by the cartoonist Jason. Upon its release, Fantagraphics will have brought the Norwegian-born artist's complete library thus far to the English language.

Which isn't the same as his complete works, mind you. Jason (given name: John Arne Sæterøy) has been a professionally-published cartoonist since he was a teenager in the early '80s, but this collection features nothing created prior to 1992 - one would get the feeling that the artist would rather leave the rougher stuff to yellow away in old magazines, if he didn't essentially admit to it in the book's annotations. Nothing wrong with that, for sure, but it does mandate some caution on the part of the commentator - this is a very strong package of stuff, and you might well close the book assuming that Jason was some crack-of-lightning prodigy, as opposed to a man with a decade's experience already behind him.

But he wouldn't be the first comics artist of note to make a splashy 'debut' after years of off-and-on work, and judging from comments made at a 2002 San Diego Comic-Con panel -- transcribed in The Comics Journal #253, June 2003 -- there wasn't enough of an active comics readership in Norway to support extended comics works anyway, even given the thin page counts of the 'European' album format, which is how the 44-page Pocket Full of Rain was first released in 1995. It won the artist some acclaim, and prompted the creation of his one-man anthology series Mjau Mjau, in which many of his subsequent works would be serialized; it also prompted the artist to make some rather drastic changes to his visual approach.

Yes, that's indeed Jason, loading the page with dynamic panel formations, dramatic perspectives and some sort of shaved ape riding a bike. The artist had done some work with anthropomorphic animal characters already, even that early on, but it perhaps makes sense that he'd go for a 'realistic' drafting style for such a major work. He was unsatisfied with the results -- at the San Diego talk he deemed his lines "a bit stiff and dead" -- and displeased with a process that yielded so few pages after 18 months of work.

He'd continue to produce some short stories in the style for the first few issues of Mjau Mjau, but all further extended works would employ his rapidly-cohering blend of funny animal characters and sleek, unassuming panel grids. Hell, the quasi-wraparound cover of this new book is actually a group image of the Pocket Full of Rain cast, revised into Jason's contemporary style.

However, I found the story's similarities with Jason's later works to be quite striking. Already his grasp of pacing is very fine, if, to my eye, heavily influenced by Love and Rockets: scenes break in the middle of a page to little loss in narrative clarity, time expertly darts forward (backward?) and adjoining, temporally displaced panels suggest tone through their positioning.

It's impressive, though Jason is already better when adhering to more precise movements - there's a bravura pair of pages early on, each an eight-panel grid, wherein Jason carefully steps us through fragments of a conversation between friends, conveying the emotional necessities of the talk through isolated exchanges (just as panels can convey the illusion of movement through frozen moments), and bouncing the timeline hard into the future at the very end, for punctuation.

The writing also bears many of Jason's favorite themes and tropes, to be refined later on. There's an aimless young man, the prospect of pure, healing love with a good woman, a troubled assassin, and a surreal setting marked by genre conventions interacting and colliding - all typical tools of the artist. And the plot's as easy to summarize as any: a young sketch artist runs into a lovely woman and falls head over heels, without knowing the danger posed by her crazy, clingy killer ex-boyfriend. Can love survive?

Yet Jason's visual style prompts an atypical effect. As in, say, Hey, Wait..., the story's characters exist in a strange place where zombies and aliens walk around as freely as anyone else; but as you might imagine, presenting the 'normal' characters as cartoon animals makes for a much smoother, iconographically intuitive setting. When the 'normal' characters look, er, normal, the reader is forced to consider deviations from the norm.

An artist like Jaime Hernandez (again, likely a key influence) can exploit this effect for comedic or fantastic impact, but Jason seems less sure of his approach, often burying his unreal sequences in an odd, half-symbolic pretense, in which the story's characters seemingly violate the 'rules' of realism so as to reveal their inner states before snapping back to the story's reality. So, the two lovers might suddenly opt to go for a picnic on the moon (because they are so in love), even going so far as to comment on being unable to see the Great Wall of China - because they exist in a 'realistic' visual world, we have to trust that they're just having a regular picnic somewhere, but Jason deliberately veils the story's reality with a type of fantastical overlay, which he quickly removes.

It doesn't end there. A dangerous character might suddenly find his human head replaced with that of a wolf, or the characters might pop into a superdeformed cute style, but this is not the shorthand of manga - one gets the feeling that Jason is really trying to press into the formal aspects of the medium, if sometimes for no obvious purpose beyond jangling realism's illusion. There's a whole subplot about a marked man being saved from death by an ostridge and subsequently journeying around the world, all for the questionable purpose of adding a fable-like aspect to the story's climax, one that Jason himself doesn't seem terribly interested in anymore by the time it's needed.

One eventually wishes for the simplicity, the assurance of the artist's later, integrated cartoon world, a place without such fuss. You can all but see droplets of sweat on the page by the end.

There's something to be said for unfettered ambition, though. There's a romantic quality to Jason's lunging against the nature of comics, swapping and matching elements and adopting the trickiest aspects of older artists, classic comics. Jason is an obvious film buff -- favorites include Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki -- and there's something to the bold fusion of this early work that makes it seem connected to some of the movies of that time, the love for genre and youth, and the determination to synthesize the qualities of a video-studied past and mix shit up.

And, as always, Jason is aware of the fleeting nature of all those feelings, as a soon-to-be characteristic melancholy sets in over the final pages.

That's not the final pages of this book, of course - Fantagraphics has another six sections of stuff for you, ranging from one-to-two-page gag stories to early genre/style/homage mash-ups, from a stalled newspaper strip to experiments in 'literary' funny animal comics, from color images to stark, haunting shorts (my favorite). Together with the title story, they depict a restless, eager cartoonist, brushing against the possibilities of seemingly every incarnation of the form and making it so he can do it all. Maybe so he'll be able to choose what to do later.

As, it seems, he has done.