What do an out-of-sequence crime story leaning heavily on the imagery of surrealist painter Rene Magritte, a send-up of 1950s sci-fi films in which producers use rear-projection of real animals to create the semi-convincing illusion of giant versions, a parody of the existentialist play Waiting For Godot, and an action-packed, two-joke tale in which a Santo-like masked Mexican wrestler battles his way through the monsters of film history have to do with one another?
On the surface, nothing at all. However, they're the first four of the 11 comics in If You Steal, the latest collection from Norwegian cartoonist Jason. The same variety is evidenced in the other seven stories, which include a straightforward horror story about a vampire killer, another in which Frida Kahlo is a contract killer, and maybe the longest, most elaborate JFK conspiracy theory ever, one that borrows elements from almost every other, to blend them together into a single, ridiculously elaborate mega-plot.
Because these comics are all the work of Jason, they do have something in common beyond an author and a home in If You Steal. While Jason's writing style and narrative choices may vary from story to story – I mean, there's a comic in here in which song titles from Van Morrison's Moondance are reimagined as a sequence of EC-style horror comics covers – they all share his unique, inimitable visual style (Little Orphan Annie-eyed anthropomorphic animal men and all).
In other words, these stories all look and read like Jason comics, and you wouldn't mistake them for the work of any other cartoonist, but they are remarkable for their variety. This is, of course, more noticeable in a collection like this, where you can read one story after another without pause. Jason has always been a cartoonist unfettered by genre, story style or even interest. Sure, themes repeat, and there's little in this book that doesn't have some precedent in his previous works, but If You Steal offers maybe the best example of Jason's range. I'd say it's a great place to start with his work, but then, there isn't really a bad place to begin. It's all good, ranging from outstanding to excellent to not bad at all.
As we cast about for commonalities among these 11 stories, I suppose another one that comes through is that almost all of them riff on culture – high or low, artistic or pop – in one way or another. Even the stories without immediately recognizable connections to painting, theater or film, like the crime tale "New Face" or the truly disturbing dementia story "Nothing," could very well find inspiration in things I'm simply unfamiliar with (Jason actually discusses some of these harder-to-spot influence with Michael Lorah). Hell, I was already working on this review before someone pointed out that the six-page "The Thrill Is Gone" is actually about legendary jazz musician Chet Baker (in my defense, I didn't recognize the character as Baker because he was drawn as a rabbit).
Of course, when I say there's no bad place to start with Jason's work, that's not only because it all stands alone, it's all good and it's all easily accessible. It's also because one need not know much about comics or even the specific sources of his allusions to read, get and enjoy them (many, though not in this particular volume, are silent, so one need not even be able to read a particular language ... or at all).
For example, you need not know who the hell Magritte is to enjoy the surreal weirdness of the title story, or who Frida was to enjoy the strange-looking dog lady with flowers in her hair garroting and gunning down the henchmen of a Mexican drug lord like the star of a 1980s action movie. Nor would you need to know who Valazquez or Santo are to enjoy a comic in which a masked wrestler beats up Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein's Monster and others in order to save a woman. The jokes work, regardless of context.
That makes Jason's comics perhaps the purest strain of comics currently being produced, and that makes them all well worth your attention.