Comics

Jason Lives

The tragic... “Jason,” the cartoonist’s bio begins, “was born 38 years ago in
Norway. For the moment he lives in Oslo. He still doesn’t know how
to drive a car.”

That’s the description on the inside flap of one of Jason’s comic books. It’s as plain and curious as the work itself, or, for that
matter, the cartoonist. Jason — the pen name is an implosion of
John Arne Sæterøy — is a little older than many of the cartoonists
storming the alternative scene, a fact that could explain his
calculated economy, and the streak of grey in his halcyon
storytelling.

I met him at a rare Toronto appearance, sitting at a corner table at the Word on the Street literary festival and batting
the sun out of his eyes as he casually watched the masses mill
about. It could have been shyness, or jetlag, or simple
indifference, but he eyed the crowds from behind his tortoiseshell
glasses with a detachment that is his work’s calling card, the
inscrutable calm of his cartoon animals, whose pallid faces betray
not a wince when circumstances hoof them in the specials.

“They’re more expressive,” he says of his gaunt, elastic crows
and heavy-browed mammals, “more universal.” Visitors would pause at
his display, pick up a book with an, “I’ve never heard of Jason,”
and find themselves yanked into the mostly wordless narrative,
caught in Jason’s silent stream of measured ink. “When you remove
the dialogue, you take away an important part,” the cartoonist says
in his flat, throaty voice. “You get a magical quality, where it’s
up to the reader to complete, to put emotions into the columns.”

As signposts, he gives his readers a wealth of hoary cartooning
tricks, classics like a halo of spirals to show a character’s
confusion, or a spray of sweat for panic. Anger is a jumble in a
speech balloon. Now and then, he interjects dialogue in white type
over panels of solid black, like the speech cards in a silent movie.

And the comic.
They’re elements of a graphic style that could make readers
weak-kneed from the way it straddles distant eras. Its chiaroscuro
is classic Hollywood, a bald black and white slathered in shadow.
“There’s something more iconic about black and white that’s quite
often lost in colour,” he says. “Take the ending of
Casablanca — the airport with the smoke — it wouldn’t have
been the same in colour.” His rendering and storytelling, though,
are thoroughly modern; bare and unsentimental. It’s a brew he first
blended in the pages of Mjau Mjau, a comic magazine he began
publishing in Norway seven years ago. (He posts weekly strips at its
website, http://www.mjaumjau.net.) The waste-free artwork, the stark
shadows, even the skinny animals with empty eyes can be traced to
it. It’s here that he serialized the silent story that broke him to
North Americans when it was published in 2001 as the graphic novel,
Hey Wait.

The magazine is also where he found his peculiar romantic voice,
bittersweet and darkly amusing, like a balladeer serenading a wall.
“I’m a fan of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin,” he says, sad
clowns both. “Here,” and he opens one of his books to a panel of a
cop colliding with a mailman as both race around adjacent corners,
envelopes fluttering in the melee. “I stole that one from Chaplin.”

One telling example is his 2003 graphic novel Tell Me
Something
. It’s pure tragicomedy; a slender
volume, just 48 pages, but its plot weaves between time frames and
storylines, setting a simple love story in a steam room of emotions.
In standard fashion, it does so in panels that are precisely
composed, with timing as sharp as a Brooks Brothers suit. “I just
start drawing directly,” he says. “I don’t do sketches beforehand.
I’m a big fan of Tintin and its very clear storytelling. I do
spend time changing small details, but the telling comes very
naturally.”

A young maiden, her rich husband and the poet she loves (plus
guns, drugs and Morocco) all make appearances in the book. They’re
ingredients ripe for piano-trilling melodrama, but Jason doesn’t
stoop to his readers’ preconceptions, or short-change them with
trite twists. The comic avoids grandiosity for stoicism, though it
isn’t above a pratfall when a yuk is wanting. It took him six months
to produce and can be read in a matter of minutes. But that would
mean ignoring its countless meditative rest stops. “Hopefully,” he
says, “there’s something there to think about.”

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