Friday, August 08, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #220: Athos in America by Jason

Not many people today have a Homeric epithet, but "the Norwegian cartoonist Jason" comes close. He must always be described that way, or in some variation, to make it clear who he is -- not just some random guy named Jason, but this particular artist, who uses the single name, apparently, to confuse and distract us.

Jason's work is mostly at graphic-novel length -- though all of his books were European albums first, so most of them are only 48 pages long -- but he has done shorter works periodically. (There's one previous collection, Low Moon, which I'm amused to see I reviewed at almost exactly the same point in my 2010 stretch of Book-A-Day.) In 2011, six of those shorter stories were collected as Athos in America.

Jason's stories are chilly and distanced even at full length, and they're perhaps even darker in brief: these six stories feature as much murder, mayhem, criminality, mad science, infidelity, and general bad behavior as any of his longer works, all presented in his trademark unblinking anthropomorphic deadpan affect.

If you've never read Jason before, you need to know that all of his characters have animal heads -- usually the same few looks, as if he maintains a repertory company in his pen and pulls out the same actors for different stories. Their eyes are large and fixed, with no pupils. They generally don't wear shoes. They inhabit our real world -- or perhaps the world of B-grade movies, all gangsters and deformed monsters and unlikely coincidences and violent death.

As usual for Jason, the mix here includes pulpy science fiction: "The Brain That Wouldn't Virginia Woolf" retells The Brain That Wouldn't Die with more bickering, and tells it in reverse; and "Tom Waits on the Moon" follows four seemingly separate characters and their regrets about love until mad science brings them together for one shattering moment. There's also pulpy crime: "The Smiling Horse" is a sequel of sorts to "&" from Low Moon, featuring unfortunate kidnappers, and "So Long, Mary Ann," the story of a love triangle and a jailbreak. The remaining two stories are less definable: the title story is somewhere in between historical fiction and fantasy, with the immortal Musketeer visiting New York in the 1920s on his way back from a failed run at Hollywood and on his way to Jason's earlier graphic novel The Last Musketeer. And "A Cat From Heaven" is somewhere in the realm of fake autobiography, as a cartoonist named Jason drinks heavily, fights with his girlfriend, has a bookstore reading, and gets mugged, on the way to creating this very story.

All of this is told in a rigid four-panel grid, mostly in medium shots: Jason's chilliness extends in all directions, from style to format to story. And he makes those simple lines and balloons of pared-down dialogue work every second: the stories in Athos in America all punch very hard for their length, and the total affect is even bleaker than a single full-length Jason book.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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