1) I Killed Adolf Hitler and 2) The Living and the Dead: These Comics Are Good
1) Ya know, drawing good is kind of overrated. All that ultra-detailed George Perez crap, or that Jaime Hernandez thing where the figure drawing is note perfect every single time? “Meh,” sez I. We don’t need it.
I figure this out ’cause I’m reading Jason’s “I Killed Adolf Hitler,” and I’m doing this thing that I do whenever I read new stuff from Jason which is just freaking out because he’s so good at what he does.
What he does is create these sad, sweet, funny little stories about extremely human.. um.. funny animals falling in love, growing closer, drifting apart, aging, dying, and occasionally fighting Giant Elvis. It’s not that Jason’s oeuvre doesn’t contain some subdued belly laughs – most noticeably in Meow Baby!* – but most of his stuff ends with “sad” coming out three or four lengths ahead of “funny.” Mostly it’s….wistful, kinda, in a way that makes you think back to the first time someone broke your heart.
So What Jason Does is demonstrate a huge breadth of understanding of the multiple dimensions of the human experience.
But what he doesn’t do is… well, he doesn’t really draw all that great. Or put much thought into page design. Or his character’s appearance. Or put a lot of stuff into any one single panel. And, yeah, his backgrounds are pretty sparse.
So, wait, how does he demonstrate “a huge breadth of understanding and blah, blah, blah” again?
Here’s some back-ground while I think this out.
Jason (Nee: John Arne SÃ¦terÃ¸y according to Wikipedia) is a Norwegian cartoonist who casts a gaggle of similar looking not-all-that-funny “funny” animals as actors in different stories, often (but not always) silent, often (but not always) in black and white. He’s got seven or eight books out now in English – although translation doesn’t matter so much with the silent ones – and Fantagraphics is planning a collection of his earlier stuff due next year. And in case I wasn’t totally clear before, I think he’s really, really, good.
All of this brings me to a weird reviewer’s dichotomy, A: Jason sucks
(Or as Fantagraphics puts it on their site “…combines a poker-faced minimalist anthropomorphic style with more than a passing nod to the “clear-line” ethos of HergÃ©.”)
Jason is very good. Or to fancy-language it up, the process of repeatedly creating resonant emotional textures requires some mad craft skillz. SOMEHOW, right?
His stuff looks like this!
(OK, I like the blankly nonchalant Hitler looks in that first panel, and those beads of sweat over der Fuhrer‘s eyes in the second are pretty cool. Still, this sequence is a long way from jaw-dropping.)
So that was my mindset as I’m flipping through I Killed Adolf Hitler. IKAH is kind of a “typical” Jason project, in that it’s two different stories crammed into one book: On the surface it’s about a professional hit-man, who’s getting a bit bored with his line of work, until he’s hired to head back in time to kill…. Well, y’all SAW the title, right? This endeavor… doesn’t go so well. Adolf ends up in movin’ to the 21st century, shaving off his ‘stache, and living incognito. And our (unnamed) protagonist and his long-suffering ex-girlfriend have to track him down.
It’s also a sad little story about how love changes. And dies. And gets reborn. Sorta.
And all of this story-winding-around-story stuff works. Maybe not as well as the best of Jason’s output, like the spectacular You Can’t Get There From Here, (Reviewed by Jog in the link) but it tells two full and complete stories without allowing either of them to take over the narrative at any one time.
So I’m starting to figure out the strengths of Jason’s deadpan style now. Three things.
First, he writes to his strength. IJKAH has far more quiet character moments and wry visual gags than Star Wars/Moebius science fiction-y spectacle. Even the (many, random) acts of violence are muted by Jason’s deadpan style. Second, the simple art and uncomplicated design are very easy to read and very easy to follow. Therefore, it’s easy for the reader to absorb the narrative, without stopping to go “Holy Crap! Look at that!” or “Wait… Where am I supposed to look again?” And, lastly, Jason draws the right things.
See how clear that is? No words at all, but the storytelling – the WHAT is going on and the MOOD it invokes – are both communicated perfectly.
And, y’know, there aren’t a hell of a lot of living cartoonists who pull off that last sequence. Without words or cartooning tricks like dripping sweat-drops Jason shows a quiet, tentative change in the way the two (ex-ish) lovers’ relate. There’s real, genuine skill at cartooning there. Which I guess is what “Drawing the right stuff” means, maybe?
* Here’s the back cover blurb from Meow Baby. Contains: One mummy, One God, one angel, one devil, one plastic surgeon, one Dracula, one Van Helsing, two ambulatory skeletons, one ice cream girl, two policemen, one space alien, one rocket ship, one Egyptian explorer, one werewolf, one family of cavemen, one Frankenstein monster, one pizza delivery guy, one Godzilla, one family of zombies, one Terminator, one set of potential in-laws, one mob of angry villagers, one naked girl in a shower, one Rubik’s Cube, one hitch-hiker, one ophthalmologist, one Darth Vader, one Frenchman, one time clock, one pterodactyl, one Jules, one Vincent, one teacher, and one Elvis.
I’m not sure that the book quite lived up to the promise contained on the back cover. But, lordy, whatever could?