Zombies and cat and dogs, oh my! Propaganda visits the wonderful world of Jason
This is Propaganda, I’m Richard Bruton and this is what I’ve been reading lately:
The Left Bank Gang
(cover to Jason’s Left Bank Gang, published by Fantagraphics)
Jason’s art is a beautiful European stylistic mix of clean lines and solid blocks of colour or blacks. No shading, no particular detailing, just simple backgrounds and surprisingly expressive characters, all done in his minimalist, anthropomorphic style. It’s a style he’s stuck to for all of his books and it works quite beautifully.
Jason’s tales, though they may be short, though they may be relatively quick reads, are never less than satisfying, never short of originality and inventiveness and are always a surreal treat. Indeed, a longer Jason story may simply not work as well as these perfect novellas he’s producing.
Left Bank Gang is the story of four famous writers: Ernest Hemmingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and James Joyce living in 1920s Paris. But Jason’s not out to tell a simple biographical fantasy here. Each writer is a cartoonist and all of the characters, writers and the supporting cast that includes Zelda Fitzgerald, Hadley Hemingway and Jean-Paul Sartre are anthropomorphic humans; cats, dogs and crows. Once you adjust to the central conceits of the book, that all the characters are portrayed as animals and that they’re all struggling cartoonists rather than prose novelists, the whole thing really works.
(some interior panels from Jason’s Left Bank Gang, set in the famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Co.)
The writers all hang out in cafes arguing about life, love, comics and women. The idea that they’re living in a world where comics are the dominant print medium is lovingly lampooned, as the writers talk about various techniques, pen versus brush, white space, narrative captions and critique other cartoonists mercilessly:
On Dostoevsky: “he’s a decent cartoonist but all his characters look alike. They all have the same face, and all those Russian names… I can never manage to keep track of who’s who”
On Hamsun: “why does he fill up every square inch of every panel? You’ve got to leave some white space, for chrissake! Let the page breathe!”
But their lives are far from perfect, their jobs are destroying them, their wives and lovers aren’t happy and want so much more and generally everything is going wrong. Jason tells his tale in a series of vignettes, each little scene played out in isolation, passing little moments in the characters’ lives that build up into a picture of general malcontent and disillusionment.
Until Hemmingway has the bright idea of robbing the cash office at a prize fight. From here, things take a decidedly different turn. It stops being about the writers as cartoonists and becomes a breakneck tale about the flight from the crime, the terrible consequences they all have to face and a multilayered web of deceit and double dealing. Once the robbery takes place Jason changes narrative styles; each character’s part is played out in isolation, with each subsequent character’s revealing more and more of the robbery and the subsequent treachery involved.
It’s only a 46 page book but Jason manages an awful lot of story within this slim volume. It’s short and sharp, playing with your expectations of the lives and characters of the famous cast. Like all of Jason’s comics before, The Left Bank Gang is original, innovative, stylish and highly recommended.
The Living and the Dead
(cover to Jason’s The Living and the Dead, published by Fantagraphics)
The Living and the Dead is the latest entry into his increasingly surreal world. This time Jason uses his characteristic anthropomorphic characters to stage his own version of a zombie tale. But because this is Jason, and he’s never one to do things in a straightforward, obvious fashion, The Living and the Dead is not just a zombie tale, but a black comedy and a bittersweet romance at the same time.
It’s another slight book, just 44 pages this time, and practically wordless – only seven lines of dialogue throughout. But with an art style as minimalist and expressive as Jason’s words are unnecessary anyway. His art carries the book, as you take time and effort to drag every glorious moment out of every single panel of this delightfully deadpan Zombie story.
One night a strange meteor crashes down on the city limits and the dead start crawling out of the ground to attack the living. As more and more of the city succumbs to the Zombie plague, our hero finds himself unexpectedly face to face with the girl of his dreams, as they go on the run together. Will they find love before the Zombies find them?
(interior panels from Jason’s The Living and the Dead)
There’s a delightfully wicked streak of pitch black humour going through the book. Jason’s fondness for slapstick comes out during our heroes extended flight from the Zombie horde, and the page with the Zombies patiently waiting in line to follow our man through a parked taxi is quite brilliant. As is the scene where they race into a room, carefully barricade the doors and windows only to have a Zombie appear behind them. And the moment where our heroes take to the tunnels beneath the city, enter a room full of Zombies and be plunged into darkness with perfect comedic timing as the match runs out.
And throughout it all, Jason’s comic timing is never less than perfect and when you reach the final page you find yourself inexplicably smiling for a long time as little scenes from the book play over and over in your head.
Both the Left Bank Gang and The Living and the Dead go a long way to proving that there are many, many original ways to tell original stories. Jason should be lauded as one of the most original and interesting comic talents. I’m certainly waiting impatiently to pick up a copy of his latest book: I Killed Adolf Hitler. It’s out at the end of July. I’ll be forming a line.