Norwegian cartoonist Jason (real name John Arne Sæterøy) has carved out a strong cult following on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean thanks to his genre-mashing, ennui-laden, ligne claire-inspired comics. His next book, arriving in mid-May from Fantagraphics Books, will be a curveball for longtime readers – “On the Camino” is Jason’s first autobiographical book.
On the occasion of his 50th birthday, Jason decided to walk Spain’s Camino de Santiago (also known as St. James’ Way), a 500-mile pilgrimage trail used by Christians in the Middle Ages. “On the Camino” chronicles the journey, sharing encounters with people met along the way, personal ruminations, the variety of hostel experiences, and the the changing backdrop of Spain. It’s a side of Jason’s work that readers have never seen before.
Jason took some time out to answer questions for CBR News about his motivations for and experience during the walk, the shift to autobiography, and not really wanting a Porsche.
CBR: Jason, you joke in the book that after turning 50, it was either buy a Porsche or walk the Camino. Why did the Camino win that dilemma?
Jason: Well, that was a pretty easy win, since I’ve never owned a car, have no interest in cars, and don’t even have a certificate to drive.
Autobiography is a new approach to you. Many years back, you told me “You Can’t Get There From Here” was a very personal story, more personal than if it had been a straight autobio. What made a direct approach right for you this time around?
Creating some sort of fictional story around walking the Camino just seemed to make it less interesting, less authentic. Which was sort of my problem with “The Way,” the film with Martin Sheen about the Camino de Santiago that I mention in the book. I’m still a pretty private person and talking about myself doesn’t come easily, but I felt it was necessary in this book. Also, I like the Guy Delisle books, the way he uses autobiography to connect with the reader, so that served as an example.
Although you did open up your pages a few times to show landscapes and churches, mostly you stuck with the clarity of your grids. Did you consider giving more room to the visual impact of the Camino?
No. To me, that’s not really what cartooning is about. Film or photos would be better to show that side of the Camino. I preferred to keep the backgrounds fairly simple, but still, hopefully, give an impression of the effect they have. And of course, the story is also about all the thoughts that pop into your head while you’re walking.
All that walking allows for considerable self-reflection, but you give readers a lot of room to interpret your experiences back to their own lives – for example, you devoted only two panels (pg 53) to the question of what kinds of Christian you’d be.
Well, it’s originally a Christian pilgrim route, and you’re reminded about it all the way, with churches and crosses all along the way. And I’m not a Christian, but I did visit some churches, which I still find it impressive to look at. Personally, I found the smaller stone chapels in Galicia, towards the end of the walk, more appealing than the big cathedrals, like the one in Burgos or in Santiago. But even though I don’t believe in God, there is, to me, something spiritual about walking in nature. You’re reminded how small you are, and that’s a positive thing, I think.
After “On the Camino,” do you see autobiographical subjects remaining a steady part of your cartooning?
No, I don’t have any interest in doing more autobiography. An exception might be these hiking comics, if I do more walks and experience something I think could work as a comic. It’ll also depend on how the response is for the book.
There are several routes to take on the Camino. Which did you take? And how far did you walk?
I walked the Camino Francés, the French route, starting in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, going all the way to Santiago de Compostela and then continuing to the ocean, to Finisterre. The whole thing was around 800 kms, or 500 miles, and took a month to walk.
Did you walk mostly by yourself? How often did you meet up with people from earlier on the trail?
I mostly walked alone, but meeting people on the Camino is not a problem. It’s quite easy to get to know someone on the road and start conversations. And you keep running into the same people. Some people kept in touch with each other through iPhones and messaging. I chose to not bring a phone, so I had to find internet cafes to keep in touch. And about halfway into the way I started walking longer distances, up to 40 kms a day, so I lost contact with some people that way. But then you meet other people.
How extensive were the notes you made on the trail? How many sketches? (Did you sketch people anthropomorphically?)
I made quite a bit of notes. I filled up one and a half notebooks. I also brought a sketchbook, doing some sketches on the way, mostly from the village where I had chosen an albergue, or hostel. I didn’t bring a camera, which maybe was not that wise. I figured I would find photos on Google, but that wasn’t always the case. And photos of streets in cities or villages, I wasn’t sure if they were going in or out, so I risked drawing myself walking in the wrong direction. I didn’t sketch people, I think, but if I had done that, it wouldn’t have been as animal characters.
Are you an regular hiker? How did the Camino compare to Norway and where you live in France now?
No, I’m not a regular hiker. I had done almost no hiking before this. I did some training before starting the walk, jogging three times a week plus doing a longer walk in the weekend, between 15 and 25 kms, and with a backpack towards the end. But doing the Camino has made me more interested in hiking. I did one in Ireland last year. There are other walks I have planned for this year.
You meet a cartoonist named Emilie who was working on a book about her dad on Camino. Do you know if her book came out?
No, I don’t think it’s out yet.
What is the terrain of the trail?
Pretty flat, most of the way. Some hills. And then there are mountains, like the Pyrenees, that you cross on the first day. There are gravel roads, paths, some asphalt. Make sure you bring a good pair of shoes!
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a new book. It will probably be a collection of four stories. One about the walk I did in Ireland, the Wicklow Way. The other stories are fiction.
“On the Camino” arrives in stores on May 15.