Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
With a few notable exceptions, most European cartoonists have a tough time getting noticed by U.S. audiences. That’s definitely not the case, however, with this month’s Comics College entry, the Norwegian artist John Arne Sæterøy, better known to most American readers by his pen name, Jason.
Why he’s important
Well, for starters, he’s just so consistently great. Since his U.S. debut in 2001, Jason has produced 15 books, with nary a drop in quality. More to the point, he’s been able to use and play with a lot of familiar genre cliches — movie monsters, the big heist, the man accused of a crime he didn’t commit — and make them seem fresh and inviting.
That’s largely because his characters are usually grounded in a strong emotional reality. What often drives them are not simplistic ideals about right and wrong but love, longing, guilt and anxiety, the same stuff that drives most of us. What’s especially fascinating about his work, though, is how he’s able to convey all these roiling emotions with such a placid, minimalist style. His characters rarely register anything other than a placid indifference to their surroundings, yet simply though context and some exquisite pacing he’s able to ensure the reader is fully aware of what’s going on behind those animal faces and pupil-less eyes. Anyone interested in learning about timing and tempo in comics to should be studying Jason’s comics.
Where to start
Hey, Wait was the first book that introduced America to Jason and it’s an extremely good book, but at this point I think I Killed Adolph Hitler serves as a better introduction as it’s more indicative of the artist’s interests and overall style. A lot of his familiar tropes can be found here: the blend of sardonic wit and affecting emotional drama, an awkward and occasionally one-sided romance and a playfulness with familiar genre tropes, in this case the time travel paradox. It also happens to be one of his best and most iconic works so far.
From there you should read
As I mentioned, Hey Wait ... was Jason’s first book to be published on North American shores. The stark, heartbreaking tale, which shows how a ugly childhood tragedy affected the knocked many readers for a loop and even if if it doesn’t suggest the directions his work would later take it still packs a strong emotional wallop. Keep a box of tissues handy.
One of my personal favorite Jason books is The Last Musketeer, which puts noble swordsman Athos in the modern world, dissolute, but willing to face off single-handedly against a horde of Martian invaders. It’s a clever, frothy riff on classic adventure tales that nevertheless manages to tug your heart strings on the last page.
I’m also partial to The Left Bank Gang, a Reservoir Dogs-style thriller that re-imagines the modernist authors Hemingway, Joyce, Pound and Fizgerald as cartoonists who have to turn to robbing banks in order to pay their bills. A sly comment on the financial vagaries of working in comics? More than likely. A sharp riff on a familiar genre? Definitely.
In case you haven’t caught on yet, Jason is rather partial to crime stories and noirish thrillers, a fact evidenced by Why Are You Doing This, a Hitchcockian tale about an ordinary man who is framed for a murder he didn’t commit. And, of course, he finds one woman who believes in his innocence and is willing to help him. It’s a credit to Jason’s considerable talents that he’s able to create such a memorable story out of such familiar material.
Jason is one of the most talented “silent” storytellers currently working in comics, a fact evidenced by the book Shhhh, which collects a number of wordless stories that vary from the humorous to the tragic, most of them involving a decidedly nonplussed bird-man.
You can also witness his pantomime skills in such books as Meow Baby, which collects a number of early gag strips, most of them involving well-known movie monsters like Dracula; Tell Me Something, a tale of love on the run; You Can’t Get There from Here, a tale of obsessive love that just happens to involve Dr. Frankenstein and his monster; and The Living and the Dead, a zombie/romance story. A couple of these books are out of print, but the good news is Fantagraphics has compiled all four of them into the hardcover collection Almost Silent.
For his fourth book, Jason opted to adapt a 1909 detective story by Stein Riverton entitled The Iron Wagon. It’s a rather rather gripping, if somewhat familiar whodunit, perhaps most notable for its uncharacteristic verbosity. Sadly, this book is long out of print, but Fantagraphics recently packaged it with Hey, Wait and Shhhhh in the recent collection, What I Did.
Jason loves to take a familiar genre or theme and give it a odd, character based twist. He does so, for instance, in Werewolves of Montpellier, about a schlub of a jewel thief who disguises himself as a werewolf to hide from his crimes, only to inadvertently come across the real thing. The true meat of the story, however, isn’t the supernatural angle, but the main character’s relationship with his next-door neighbor, a lesbian he’s deeply in love with.
For his latest book, Isle of 100,000 Graves, Jason teamed up with the writer Fabien Vehlmann for his first collaboration. The story follows a little girl who, through the help of some pirates, travels to a mysterious island run by, well, executioners, in the hopes of finding out what happened to her father. Despite the extra hand behind the drawing table, Graves displays all the wit and charm of Jason’s previous works and fits in perfectly with the rest of his ouvre.
Those who want to see what Jason’s stories look like when he draws honest-to-goodness people should check out Pocket Full of Rain, which collects a number of early short stories and strips, most of which find him experimenting with a variety of styles and influences. If you want even more background information on the artist, track down a copy of Comics Journal #294, which features a lengthy interview with him.
Of the five stories in Low Moon, two are excellent, two are “meh,” and one is decidedly lackluster. A lot of cartoonists would kill for a final tally like that but considering Jason’s overall track record, that makes Low Moon easily the weakest book in his bibliography. That doesn’t necessarily mean the book is to be avoided — those two stories are rather excellent after all — but it might be advisable to save that particular book for last.
Next month: George Herriman