Talking Comics with Tim | Jason

Hopefully, if you've been reading Robot 6 for any substantial amount of time, you're familiar with the work of Jason. In this email interview, we discuss his latest work released from Fantagraphics, Werewolves of Montpellier (a book aptly summed up by the publisher as "a lycanthropic thriller, a romantic comedy, and an existential drama — basically, your typical Jason book"), as well as some ideas shared in his blog, cats without dogs. My thanks to Jason for the interview (and for reminding me why I love Hal Hartley films) and to Robot 6's Sean T. Collins as well as Fantagraphics Jacq Cohen for helping to make this interview feasible.

Tim O'Shea: Cinema clearly informs your work, does your appreciation of film date back to your childhood-or when and how did it begin?

Jason: I read comics as a kid, and books like the Hardy Boys, but I think what made the biggest impression on me were movies. In the 70s there was just one Norwegian channel and every Monday night they showed a feature film. I would watch every one of those. And I still remember a lot of them, sometimes better than some movie I saw last year.

O'Shea: In the comments section of your blog, you wrote: " I like movies, non-musicals, where the characters do a dance or sing a song. Like Rio Bravo, Buffalo 66, Bande à part or Simple Men. It's something that doesn't work in comics." If you don't think it works in comics, I'm curious why did you have Audrey sing Moon River (a scene that I thought worked, by the way)?

Jason: It's just four panels of her singing, and I guess it sort of works. But take the dance sequence in Simple Men (Hal Hartley's 1992 film) as an example. I don't think that could be recreated in a comic. You don't get into the music and start tapping your feet like you would in a movie.

O'Shea: In discussing Simple Men, I'm curious, are you a fan of Hal Hartley's other films? What is it about his storytelling that appeals to you (I ask this while conceding that I am a big fan of Henry Fool myself)?

Jason: The first film of his I saw was Trust, and I think that's still my favourite. I also like The Unbelievable Truth and Surviving Desire. These early films have a charm that maybe is missing a bit in the later ones. I like how he creates small universes in his films, where the characters keep bumping into each-other. I like the visual look of his films. I thought he was going to be like a Woody Allen for my generation, but I guess that's not what Hal Hartley wanted. He seems to have moved more in the direction of artfilms, like The Girl from Monday and the later shorts, that are less appealing to me.

O'Shea: In his recent review in praise of Werewolves, The Comics Journal's Rob Clough  asserts that Werewolves is your "latest meshing of genre trappings with pure romance" in the same style of your past works The Living and the Dead (zombies), I Killed Adolf Hitler (time-travel sci-fi), and Tell Me Something (Frankenstein). I was particularly struck by the last line in Clough's review "It’s remarkable to see a creator go to the same well so many times and yet continue to produce nuanced and powerful variations on the same themes." First off, would you agree that Werewolves meshes genre trappings with pure romance? Were you hesitant to go this "well" (to borrow again from Clough) again for fear of retreading ground while exploring romance?

Jason: I've done boy meets girl and one of them dies in the end several times, so yes, I was a bit afraid of starting to repeat myself. But I think Werewolves is sufficiently different. It's a platonic relationship between the two characters for one thing, and none of them dies in the end. But I've shown earlier I'm not afraid of killing characters, so hopefully in the scene where Audrey falls off the roof, there is real tension in if she will survive or not.

O'Shea: One of my favorite pages is when Sven and Audrey are extremely drunk and Sven fumbles for his keys. To convey the level of drunkenness you change the panel orientation (one panel is completely upside down with Sven reaching for his keys) making the reader feel as dizzy and unsteady as the characters. Did you always plan to have the word balloons oriented to match whatever shift the panel might take or did you try it the other way (all word balloons right side up) first?

Jason: Yes, the text in the wordballons were going to fit the angle of each panel.

I drew a second page that was going to show their hangover. The scene would be Sven at his breakfast table, eating, and Audrey coming in, asking for an aspirin, then leaving, and the whole scene drawn in a shaky line. But I wasn't happy with the result and took it out. I rather reinstated the umbrellapage that I had originally rejected as too cute. But thinking about it I thought that scene could have been an outtake from Breakfast at Tiffany's.

O'Shea: How do you decide on the point of view (POV) on certain scenes, I liked how you shifted the POV when Sven knocked on Audrey's door and you shift so we see her view of Sven through the peephole as he waits and then walks away.

Jason: Well, that wasn't really POV. Audrey isn't on the other side of the door looking at him. It was just to get a break in the page structure, but also to give him a bit of a pathetic quality.

O'Shea: Do you think some of the deadpan comedy to your work depends on the rhythm of the dialogue and if so, how much is the comedy impacted when the dialogue gets translated?

Jason: Yes, the rythm of the dialogue is important to achieve that effect. I think Kim Thompson is aware of this when he does the translation, so I don't have any complaints.

O'Shea: I love your blog, which you started in July. What led you to read the autobiography of Linda Lovelace? Does your nonfiction reading sometimes influence your storytelling?

Jason: I don't remember where I found it, maybe in a library. I didn't buy it. And I read it for the completely wrong reasons, thinking it would be titilating to read about a porn actress. The part with Sammy Davis Jr is the only thing I remember. I like to read biographies. I have a whole shelf of books about Hemingway. It's almost never research. Wanting to put that information in a story comes later.

O'Shea: Of the many Hemingway books you have, do you have a favorite? What sparked your interest in Hemingway in particular?

Jason: I like the two first novels and short story collections. I guess The Sun Also Rises is my favourite novel, The Killers, Cat in the Rain and Indian Camp my favourite stories. I also like A Moveable Feast. I think it's basically the language that appeals to me. It's just very evocative. The things that are left unsaid. There's a certain poetry to it. Actually, one reason I'm a bit hung up on Hemingway might be that he's the first author I discovered on my own. I wasn't told to read him in school. That always makes it a bit special. Of the biographies about Hemingway I especially like Michael Reynolds series of five books, covering all of Hemingway's life. I also like Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald, The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship by Scott Donaldson.

O'Shea: Would you like to see some of your uncollected early work, like 1997's Mjau Mjau (a sample here) collected?

Jason: A lot of the older material has been collected in Pocket Full of Rain. Not everything. There was weaker material I didn't want to include, but I don't mind putting up on the blog.

O'Shea: Back in 2007, in a Tom Spurgeon interview, you said: "The page design is very important to me. I see each page as a unit and also have the spread in mind. I try to give each page an energy, rhythm and balance. The most important thing for Herge was readability, and I try to learn from him. That's also my favourite part of the cartooning, the early penciling. Solving the storytelling problems and placing the characters. Movement on the page, how you lead the reader's eye, that each page is a satisfying whole, maybe even that something exciting happens in the last panel!" What were some of the storytelling problems that you had to solve in the planning of Werewolves?

Jason: It's not really storytelling problems, but just thoughts about the look and the balance of the page that I'm sure no-one will notice. Like on page 1, panel 2 and 3 is the same angle and image, but with Sven appearing as the dressed up werewolf in the second one. In panel 4 and 5 Sven has the same size, but one is exterior, the other interior. In panel 6 and 7 he also has the same size, seeing his lower body in the first one, then upper body in the second one, searching through drawers. In the final panel the woman walks in, having the same size as Sven in panel 4 and 5. It gives the page a simple elegance, or at least that's what I hope!

O'Shea: Reading the small print of the opening pages of Werewolves, I found out that Toronto's The Beguiling sells your original artwork. Some artists are extremely attached to their work and cannot part with it, others like yourself can. Are there ever certain pages that you hold on to and do not wish to sell?

Jason: I don't mind selling some of the older stuff. I've kept half the pages from Left Bank Gang and I Killed Adolf Hitler, and I'm keeping all of the pages from Musketeer and up, at least for now.

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