Spotlight on: Jason (John Arne Sæterøy)

I’d hesitate to call the works by the Norgwegian-born cartoonist Jason “graphic novels”, at least in our classic understanding of novels as a longer work. These stories are usually the length of three comic books, about 48 pages, and read more like short stories. Likewise, they have a feeling of a short story, focusing more on character and epiphanies rather than plot lines. Jason fills his compositions with pauses and silent reactions, a laconic response in a medium where too many artists tend to fill the action with explanation. In a way he seems to be trying to emulate Hemingway’s style in "Hills Like White Elephants", except Hemingway never wrote about time machines, werewolves and larcenous expatriate cartoonists.

“The Left Bank Gang” (2006) emphasizes Jason’s link to the Lost Generation author since it imagines Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Ezra Pound as starving cartoonists in Paris in the 20s. They hang out at the Deux Magots, deal with harsh critics, spend too much time drawing cartoons, and complain about American tourists, the French, and how tough it is to get work. It’s surprising how much actual biographical material Jason has packed into panels, including scenes with Zelda Fitzgerald, Hadley Hemingway, Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein and other contemporaries. The scenarios are generally realistic with each artist worrying about money and their families and obligations, until Hemingway gets the idea to rob the cash office at the boxing ring. The “Pulp Fiction” ending, providing the conclusion to the story from each character’s viewpoint is well done, although I had to re-read the story several times before I understood the outcomes.

The plot of “I Killed Adolf Hitler” (2007) is as simple as any time-travel story. In a world where assassinations are as casual as a visit to the doctor’s office, an unnamed hit-man is hired by a scientist to kill Hitler. The scientist has a time-machine, but so much power is needed that it takes fifty years to charge it up. The assassin goes back in time, fails, and Hitler steals time machine to return to the present. Meanwhile the assassin has survived the past 50 years to complete his task. Like “The Left Bank Gang” the story’s conclusion is told from various viewpoints, although it uses the time-machine as the device for the point of view (pun intended).
His latest book, “Werewolves of Montpellier” (2010) revolves around Sven, an expatriate living in Montpellier, France. By night he’s a thief dressed up in a werewolf costume, by day he longs for Audrey, the girl next door, who is a lesbian and his best friend. The story begins when a photo of Sven in costume appears in the newspaper and the real Brotherhood of Werevolves tries to discover who he is.

The spareness of the stories leave plenty of space for exploring the themes hidden within them. The clean lines and iconic drawings hide deep concepts which Jason seems to be working out as he creates the book.
For example, The themes in “I Killed Adolf Hitler” circle around violence, regret and second chances. At the beginning of the book a man who hired the assassin to kill his first wife complains that he’s starting to get tired of his second wife. The assassin himself is attacked, but kills his opponent, leaving the question: who tried to kill him? At the end of the book we reach enlightenment, but at what price?

The time machine provides many second chances: The scientist gets a chance to kill Hitler, Hitler escapes to the 20th century, giving him a new life. The assassin and his girlfriend both use the time machine for second chances, but second chances don’t always improve things. After a string of mid-day murders the girlfriend complains “Hitler disappeared in 1938. World War II never happened. Shouldn’t the world be a better place?”

This isn’t a spoiler, but once the assassin decides to live life anew he’s killed by a stray bullet. It closely echoes Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,”  but instead of dying heroically he dies casually, accidentally. Did he make a bad decision, or is this Jason’s way of saying “Life is short, make good decisions the first time.”?

In the “Left Bank” Jason struggles with the question of “why write?”  The story is a balance between money and obligations and the quest to create, to spawn your own stories.  In this case the sparse panels work as theatre, spotlighting for example Pound performing his monologue “Why do we do comics?” while at the boxing match.
There’s a fabulous sequence where Hemingway gets the full blast of Gertrude Steins critical capabilities in nine panels. The advice is so pertinent that it could be applied to almost any young writer or cartoonist, and sounds so authentic I imagine Jason enjoyed himself creating this page.

He also has fun with the macho image the writers projected, mapping it onto his cartoonists.  For example, Hemingway punches a critic, then accompanies Fitzgerald to the bathroom to help him determine if his prick is too small.  When they’re accidentally interrupted the embarrassment is only temporary as they take the quest to the art museum to compare themselves to the statues.  In the end they drink, hang out, and draw, draw, draw until the ink stains their fingers.
“Werewolves” takes a different tack.  Instead of the camaraderie of the writers we have a small orbit of outsiders. Sven is an expatriate in France, and he’s also chosen a profession, jewel thief, that makes him an outsider and loner.  On a whim he dresses as a werewolf during his robberies – if anyone sees him they’ll be afraid of him, and he’ll get a chance to escape. Unfortunately, someone photographs him leaping over the roofs of Montpellier, which brings him to the attention of a brotherhood of real werewolves.  Even as a werewolf Sven is an outsider.
He’s also alone in love. He’s in love with Audrery who lives opposite his apartment, but she’s a lesbian and sees him more as a friend and confidante.  Everyone in the story is a planet without a sun, and the more they search the more lost they become. It’s only as Sven and Audrey accept who they are that they find a resolution.
I wonder about Jason’s stylistic decision to draw all his characters as iconic anthropomorphic animals.  One one hand it makes the work more accessible, drawing on a legacy of cartoon characters that goes back to Mickey Mouse.  On the other hand it was difficult for me to see the difference between some characters. In Werewolves it the only visual differences between Sven and the lead werewolf were that the werewolf had a squiggly jaw (whiskers?) and longer ears.  In “Hitler” when the lead character gets left in the past and returns to his girlfriend’s door 50 years later she doesn’t recognize him. Except, I couldn’t tell any difference in the way he was drawn. Is this Jason making his own personal joke?

A documentary on Charles Schulz described how after WWII the cartoonist would draw hundreds of identical objects, perhaps honing his cartooning abilities, or maybe suffering from PTSD.  Perhaps these iconic characters are a similar therapy for Jason?
Jason is the pen-name of John Arne Sæterøy, which is easier to spell than the original, but much harder to find using Google.  You can read more about Jason at Wikipedia, or find his books on Amazon.  Here's an excerpt to "I Killed Hitler."