MY FIRST INTRODUCTION to the work of the Norwegian cartoonist known only as Jason was a four-page story he drew for Comix 2000, an international collection of pantomime comics. Out of all of the works in this massive anthology (the title was also its page count and year of publication) it was Jason’s four pages that proved most memorable.
The story begins with a bird/human hobo coming upon a bed in the woods. Though a bit surprised, the hobo nevertheless stops to sleep. As he slumbers, two death-faced humanoid birds construct a proper bedroom around the slumbering hobo then exit. The hobo is awoken by an alarm clock and begins what appears to be the normal routine of getting ready for work. Before leaving his apartment he pauses in the doorway. He stands there, one hand on his briefcase, the other holding the handle of the door, turned toward the reader. This is my favorite panel of the story.
His expression is blank. yet somehow, inexplicably so, I read a feeling of recognition and resignation on his face. He is aware that his wandering days are over. He is no longer a hobo but rather a working stiff bound by schedules and responsibilities. By merely waking up he has had some cruel joke played on him.
In almost every “how-to cartoon” book I’ve ever come across, there is a page demonstrating facial expressions and how cartoon characters can telegraph their emotional state with the angle of their eyebrows. Jason’s faces register an incredibly limited number of expressions yet they magically convey a range of nuanced and subtle feelings. How the hell does he do it?
When you consider Jason’s work, his distinct-looking characters are the first thing that comes to mind. But Jason’s work is not about style or character design because beneath the steady droll expressions of his unmistakable figures (whether they be human, canine, feline, or fowl) lies intense passions. These characters are so driven that they will kill, time travel, journey to other planets, and even return from the dead to attain their heart’s desires. They are all locked into relationships that are made all the more poignant by being played out against a somber world where death is right around the corner (or perhaps walking right alongside them).
THE STORIES IN THIS VOLUME were created throughout the 1990s, before Jason’s anthropomorphic cast completely took over. For those who have been following his work it will be a bit strange to see him draw real people (in the same way it is to come across adults drawn by Charles Schulz).
Comic loving folks like myself are always suckers for “origin stories” and this collection is about as close as readers will get to see whence Jason derives his powers. Pocket Full of Rain and Other Stories reveals an incredibly bright and curious cartoonist in the early stages of a prolific career diving enthusiastically into various themes, formats, and styles. Jason covers a lot of ground in these pages: dada comic strips, homages to fellow cartoonists, absurdist noir, and cinema vérité colliding with science fiction.
Early efforts by most artists are a mixed bag at best, as they fumble about for their voice. But with the truly great ones, and there is little doubt Jason is one of the best of his generation, these stylistic discursions and experiments are poetry in and of themselves. It is easy to imagine the young Jason coming home from a lecture on Kierkegaard or having just finished a Hemingway novel or Hugo Pratt comic and dipping his pen in a jar of ink and exploring the possibilities.
Perhaps this metaphor is a bit of a stretch, but the way Jason steals from so many sources reminds me of a great singer who can cover anyone’s song but makes it completely his or her own. In Pocket Full of Rain and Other Stories readers can hear Jason run through his “play list” for the first time. Some songs he never returns to, others he continues to hone.
I HAVE LITTLE DOUBT that in the near future, at dinner parties, classrooms, hair salons, and on-line forums, citizens of every civilized nation will engage in passionate debates over which Jason story is their favorite.
Some will argue in favor of Hey, Wait… for its heartbreaking depiction of childhood loss. Others will defend You Can’t Get There From Here for generating genuine emotional depth with monster-movie clichés. Strong cases will made for SSHHHH!, I Killed Adolf Hitler, The Last Musketeer, and The Left Bank Gang.
Whoever wins these arguments will have read this book. Their choice will be informed by being able to trace it back to Jason’s earliest work. And for some, this book may actually be their favorite. And who would I be to argue? In what other book does Jason venture so far and wide with such an imaginative and casual swagger? I’d buy this collection for the “Kill the Cat” story alone!
Inspired silliness, absurdist slapstick, formal excursions, black humor, the mundane, the fantastic, existential comic strips, crime fiction — it’s all here. This collection is all over the place but it’s all Jason, and like all his work it’s funny and deep and smart and I cannot get enough of it.
White River Junction, VT
James Sturm is the author of James Sturm’s America: God, Gold and Golems, and the director of The Center for Cartoon Studies.
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