Fantagraphics Books, 216 pages, $24.99.
For his latest and 13th (by my admittedly sloppy count) book, Jason has decided to try something a bit different. In addition to the snappy hardcover packaging, Low Moon collects not just the title tale, but four other stories as well, all presented in the same four panels to a page format, a quite different layout compared to previous works.
And yet this is still Jason. Anyone who’s read his work before will know the drill here, right down to the pupil-less animal-faced characters who seethe with inner pain while maintaining a stone-faced expression. In attempting to stretch himself, though, he offers some of his weakest work to date, but some of his strongest and emotionally wrenching as well.
The first story, Emily Says Hello, is a tight little noir drama between a hitman and his young, female client. The story focuses entirely on the meetings between the two characters — we never see any of the victims except for photographs, indeed we never leave the woman’s apartment (which, notably, is painted black). We never learn much about the two protagonists either, other than that she has hired him to kill some people and is offering limited sexual favors in return. Rather than frustrate, however, Emily tantalizes and inspires by withholding information. Best of all, it doesn’t overstay its welcome a second longer than it needs to.
The second tale, Low Moon, originally ran in The New York Times. Here, Jason cheekily plays with the Western, sending up the traditional cliches (the big noon gunfight, the barroom brawl) by throwing cell phones, lattes and, most importantly, chess, into the mix. The story doesn’t have the emotional heft that some of Jason’s other recent genre riffs have had (most notably The Last Musketeer) but it’s still fun to see him goof on such familiar idioms in his dry, deadpan manner.
The next story, &, is easily the weakest of the bunch, and really, the one big stumbling block in the book. It’s two tales (each facing each other on opposite pages) of two men who committ crimes for the women they love. In one case it’s a young man who steals to get money for his ill mother. In the other, it’s a lovestruck suitor who does away methodically with all his competition in order to win his beloved’s hand in marriage. The gags and action proceed at an almost furious pace, but the two stories don’t really mesh well at all, and then ending falls terribly flat. This is the one instance where Jason seems more interested in the set-up than the characters.
Proto Film Noir is, like Low Moon, an amsuing spin on a familiar tales, this one basically being The Postman Always Rings Twice, although the joke here is that the husband keeps coming back to life each morning, despite the couple’s increasingly gruesome attempts to keep him dead (everyone also wears caveman-style outfits just for added fun). Again, as with Moon, it’s has a bit of an inconsequential feel to it, but it nevertheless made me smile.
Finally we come to You Are Here, the best of the bunch. Here, Jason draws upon the old “alien abducts woman” sci-fi bit to create a surprisingly powerful and moving analogy about family break-ups. A husband and wife fight (Jason tellingly draws their word balloons as black ovals since the subject of their argument doesn’t matter much). Then, suddenly the wife is gone, spirited away in a rocket ship. The father and son are left adrift and try to muddle through. The father tries to build a rocket ship to try and win his wife back, but the years pass and the son gets older and soon it may be too late for everyone.
Jason’s quiet, understated style serves him well here, and he seems to understand his characters’ motivations and turmoil perfectly. There are a number of “tug-your-heartstrings” moments here, enough to remind you just how good a cartoonist Jason really is.
In the end, Low Moon probably isn’t the best entry point for newcomers, it’s far too uneven. Longtime readers, however, will definitely want to pick it up, if only for those stunning opening and closing tales.