Friday, June 12, 2009

Lost FYC: Two books by JASON

This was a particular treat for me as Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics was kind enough to set me up with Jason's email address so that I could do a short interview with him for this piece. Jason's work, if you're unaware, is phenomenal. His spare linework and utilization of anthopomorphic animals as the main characters for his stories adds an intimacy and emotional integrity that can often be missing the "book of the month." You should definitely check his stuff out, it is amazing.

For Your Consideration: 2 Books by Jason from Fantagraphics
By Chris Beckett

FRONT PAGE: Norwegian cartoonist Jason, whose works have been published in America by Fantagraphics, is one of the most exciting cartoonists working today. Not afraid to mix genres and utilize fantastic elements to convey his tales, he evinces a humanity – utilizing animals as main characters – that is sorely lacking in many of the comics being published today. Two of his more recent offerings, and two of his best, are The Last Musketeer and I Killed Adolf Hitler. Click on in to find out about some of the best comics you haven’t read and see what Jason has to say about comics and the creative process

The 411:
The Last Musketeer
Written & Drawn by Jason
48 pages, full-color

I Killed Adolf Hitler
Written & Drawn by Jason
48 pages, full-color
Fantagraphics Books

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):


In present-day Montpellier, France, Athos, one of the fabled Musketeers, laments the fact that time has passed him by as he falls asleep on a city bench. With night deepening, Athos is startled awake by explosions in the city. Curious, he investigates to find many of the buildings charred husks. The next morning he reads of the invasion from Mars that brought this destruction and runs to see his fellow Musketeer, Aramis, to entreat his help.

But Aramis, the only other survivor of their close-knit group, has long since given up his life of adventure. Wishing only to live quietly with his wife, he sees no need to get involved. Athos is crestfallen and asks whether his friend has forgotten their motto as he leaves in pursuit of the Martians. Coming across two of the invaders, Athos disarms and kills one with his sword, making the other his prisoner, and forces the alien to fly him to Mars where Athos can take the battle to the enemy.

Arriving on the red planet, Athos is soon captured and imprisoned. But, like any good Musketeer, he manages to escape, enlisting some unexpected allies in the process. Fleeing the castle, Athos eventually makes his way back to confront the king and his advisor – someone from the Musketeer’s past. The final battle between these two, four-hundred years after their initial confrontation, brings closure to a chapter in the Musketeers’ tale and elicits a heartfelt response from Aramis, whose thoughts hadn’t strayed as far from the Musketeers’ dictate as Athos had assumed.

Jason’s use of animals within his works makes one think of the mice and cats in Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, MAUS. Like Spiegelman, Jason’s utilization of anthropomorphism does not detract from the stories he wishes to tell. These are not funny animal tales but serious stories meant to be enjoyed on not only a literary level, but an emotional level as well. Despite the relative simplicity of the drawings, Jason imbues these characters with a deep humanity, and it is the lack of expressionistic detail juxtaposed with the weight of circumstance that lends this humanity to The Last Musketeer. His economy of line also affords readers the chance to inhabit these characters more readily than if they had been overly delineated, giving Jason’s audience the chance to experience his tales in a more personal manner.

It is also interesting to note that Jason does not work from a script or, many times, even from an outline, but chooses to make it up as he goes along. Despite this improvisational approach, Jason weaves a thematic thread of responsibility and honor throughout The Last Musketeer’s forty-eight pages, punctuated by a final page that brings everything full circle in a way that could have felt forced in the hands of a lesser cartoonist but unfolds naturally under the deft storytelling of Jason, providing a satisfying emotional denouement. I heartily recommend The Last Musketeer for any fan of fantastic adventure yarns as well as anyone who enjoys a refreshing character study with a very real emotional tug at one’s heartstrings. Check this book out.


In a Germany where murder-for-hire is legal, one man stands above the rest. His office is overwhelmed with requests to have spouses, friends, co-workers, and neighbors executed. Citizens pay top dollar to have those that would offend them (whether adulterous wives, loud neighbors, or co-workers that received an undeserved promotion) snuffed out. From this, he is able to build a good life for himself. But killing is a serious business, and it can make it difficult on one’s relationship, as readers discover in the onset of this book.

But once the killer-for-hire is single again, he finds little meaning in life until he becomes the target of a would-be assassin. Disposing of his assailant, the next day brings an odd proposition. A scientist wants him to kill Adolf Hitler. The scientist has a time machine that has been charging for fifty years. It will be able to go back and return once on this charge, and then it will need to charge for another half century. The killer takes on this task, with its promise of financial stability, and follows the scientist to his lab. There, the killer enters the sphere that will transport him back to the mid-twentieth century.

Once there, he enters the Fuhrer’s quarters quite easily. But before he can pull the trigger, a Nazi guard surprises the assassin, overpowering the man from the future and leaving him unconscious. Curious, Hitler walks through to where this stranger entered and discovers the time machine. Stepping in, he is transported fifty years into the future where a startled scientist greets him. But before the Fuhrer can do anything, he is shot by the assassin, who waited fifty years to atone for his mistake. But that’s not even the halfway point of this book, and to tell any more would give away some of the best twists and turns I’ve encountered as a reader in any graphic novel of recent memory.

It is terribly difficult to write a convincing time travel tale and make it not only exciting but also give one’s readers a reason to suspend their disbelief. One of the worst instances I can remember experiencing came with Terminator 2, where an original model Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) was sent back eleven years after events in the first film in order to save John Connor from the newer T-1000. The second question on my mind after sitting down in the theater – after asking myself why I’d paid good money for this – was why didn’t they just send the T-1000 back to the Terminator’s initial attempt on Sarah Connor? One of the better treatments came in season three of Babylon 5 in the two-part story “War Without End,” when viewers discovered what had actually happened to the previous Babylon station, Babylon 4. With these two episodes, J. Michael Straczynski was able to seamlessly tie in the season one episode “Babylon Squared,” in which Babylon 4 also returned for a brief time.

Thankfully, Jason creates a time travel story more like Straczynski’s than Cameron’s. As with any story of this nature, he provides a caveat with the time machine (it must charge for fifty years before it can be used) that puts a limitation on this technology. Without that, there is no dramatic tension. Ultimately, the whole story hinges upon this fifty-year necessity, which not only provides for a very tender love story, but is also essential to the narrative twists and turns that Jason utilizes to keep readers thinking. It’s a masterful story that can be read on more than one level, which is always appealing. I Killed Adolf Hitler is unique and tender and will challenge any preconceptions one might have about the book.

An Interview with Jason:

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

Jason: Its cheapness, I guess. I started doing comics when I was around 13 years old, and at that age I didn't have a camera, I didn't have a typewriter, but I had paper and a pencil.

Beckett: What was it that inspired you to create your stories with animal characters, and how did you develop your art style?

Jason: I don't think an art style is something you develop. It just happens, based more on your weaknesses as an artist than on your strengths. Originally I drew in a realistic style, but I was never happy with the result. The characters looked stiff. And it took me a long time to draw. So I tried out some other styles, and the animal characters fit, it felt right.

Beckett: Being the writer and the artist, what is the creative process like for you?

Jason: I don't write a full script or sketch out the whole story. It's all improvised. If I have an idea for the beginning of a story I can start drawing and make up the rest as I go along. If the story is mostly visual I work directly on the original. If there is a lot of text I might write it down first and do very simple stick figure thumbnails. I usually work on about 10 pages at the same time, penciling a bit here, inking a bit there.

Beckett: What was the genesis for The Last Musketeer, and what did setting the tale in the future accomplish for you as a storyteller?

Jason: The Last Musketeer started by watching old film serials from the 30s and the 40s, like Undersea Kingdom and Rocketmen on the moon. I wanted to do a story like that, to write dialogue with lines like "Stop the earthman!", "He's getting away, you fools!" in it. I don't remember how the musketeer ended up in there. The similarities in the stories, maybe. I read The Three Musketeers later, to get an idea on how he should talk.
It's not really set in the future. It takes place today, in Montpellier, where I live, and then moving on to Mars, but with a very retro science fiction feeling, I guess. So, of course, flying to Mars seems like it takes an hour, the Martians speak English and the air is breathable.

Beckett: Time travel tales are difficult to do without them coming across as foolish or having the time travel aspect feel like an easy “fix-it” solution within the tale. That said, but I Killed Adolf Hitler utilized time travel particularly well. How much preparation went into the book before you started it?

Jason: Absolutely none. I didn't do any research at all about wormholes and stuff like that. It doesn't try to be realistic; it's more about the idea of time travel, taken from old science fiction stories. You sort of try to embrace the absurdity of it. The part about the machine taking 50 years to charge was mostly for an important story point towards the end.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Jason: I'm working on a collection of short stories. There will be Low Moon, which is currently running in New York Times Magazine and four other stories.

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