Saturday, August 28, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 206 (8/28) -- Low Moon by Jason

Some creators do something new every time -- or at least try to. Others work regularly in the same genre, but with surprises along the way. Yet others just tell the same generic story over and over again -- some because the audience demands it, some because it's all they can do. And a few work with a limited set of building blocks every time out but still find new things to say each time.

The Norwegian cartoonist who goes by the single name "Jason" is in the last category: his work relies heavily on a repertory cast who recur, looking identical, in work after work. And his stories have a consistent emotional tone -- quiet, wry, detached, chilly but not quite cold. Those stories often revel in genre fiction ideas and tropes -- time machines, zombies, Frankenstein monsters, werewolves, noir -- but turn all of those forms into crafts of essential Jason-ness, with endings that are at best ambiguously negative and characters who stare blank-eyed at each other and whose thoughts stay unknowable and silent.

Low Moon was a collection of Jason strips from last year (2009), collecting the title story (originally published in The New York Times Sunday Magazine's "Funny Pages" section), plus four other short pieces. "Short" is relative, here -- Jason is first published in France, so many of his works are 48-page albums, which already seem short to an American audience. But the five stories here are around 30-50 pages each, as presented here ("Low Moon" is recast as four large panels to each comics page; the "Funny Papers" presentation was denser) -- totaling a little over two hundred pages of comics in all.

As usual with Jason, these stories are blackly funny, with characters whose core motivations are often unknown. It leads off with "Emily Says Hello," in which a woman gives a man successive sexual favors in return for his murdering five other men -- but we don't know who they are, outside of this relationship, or even why she wants those five men dead. (It's not even clear if she is Emily.) Similarly, "Proto Film Noir" combines The Flintstones with The Postman Rings Twice, with a dark Jason spin -- all of the characters are cartoon cavemen, and the woman's oblivious husband is murdered by her new lover every day, only to come back the next morning, completely healthy and ready to garden. "&" tells side-by-side stories of two men who are unlucky in their desires, but those stories have nothing to do with each other -- until, perhaps, just after the last page of the story. The title story, again with Jason's sly humor, recasts High Noon as a chess battle, with the bad "gunslinger" returning from a long stint in jail to challenge the sheriff again.

But the last story in Low Moon is the most powerful, and the one that most demands to be decoded, to be read as a metaphor: "You Are Here" sees a woman abducted, right after a fight with her husband, by an alien, who takes her away to his planet. In their own ways, her husband and son deal with her loss, or make plans to retrieve her. Since this is a Jason story, you can safely assume those plans don't end in the way anyone hoped. "You Are Here" almost begs to be read as the story of any husband and wife, and child -- Jason blackens the dialogue balloons of their argument, so we only know that they are arguing, and not any details. The details don't matter; the only specifics in "You Are Here" are borrowed from pulp fiction, and thus more metaphors than anything else. In the world of "You Are Here," every couple fights and separates, and every child is left to pick up the pieces.

Without any notices of the dates of original creation, it's dangerous to make assumptions about Jason's creative path, but...these seem to be among his most recent works, and see Jason moving away from the half-jokey pulp references of works like The Living and the Dead and I Killed Adolph Hitler to use his genre materials more subtly and deeply. He's been a creator of great stories for many years, but there has always been something glancing and surface-y about his works before. Jason has always been deadpan, but he's showing, some of the time, unexpected depths in that pan.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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