8/22/2009

Low Moon


Emily Says Hello panel from Low Moon by Jason
Norwegian cartoonist Jason has hit upon a formula that has earned him cult status, made him a critical darling with the mainstream press, but will probably never grant him widespread popular recognition. His style is characterized by sparsely detailed landscapes populated by gaunt anthropomorphic animals. Their blank facial expressions and and communication through long silences are very much informed by the "less is more" modernist aesthetic. It's what's supposed to be read between the lines, so to speak, that matters. With Jason, his uniform-sized panels are the modular units from which can be arranged in numerous ways in order to construct his narratives.

Low Moon marks a change in format. All of Jason's past translated works were self-contained graphic novels. This book is a collection of different tales organized into four panel pages. The title story was originally serialized in the New York Times Sunday Magazine Funny Pages section. Billed as a "chess western", it shows how Jason's stripped-down approach is used to inform old cliches with wry deadpan humor. Chess matches are treated with the same life-and-death seriousness as real gunfights. Similar clever touches can be found in the other stories of this collection. For example in Proto Film Noir, an adulterous "prehistoric" couple attempt to eliminate the woman's husband. But he keeps returning from the dead every morning completely unaware of what has transpired the previous day.

Low Moon panel from Low Moon by Jason
But every story inexorably ends badly for the participants, usually with some kind of a narrative twist. In Emily Says Hello, an assassin carries out a succession of hits in exchange for escalating sexual favors from his female client. But this ends tragically for the client. In the most convoluted story &, a man burglars a house to raise the money for his dying mother's operation while another man murders all of his rival suitors for a woman's hand in marriage. Both their tales end disastrously, and they end up drowning their sorrows in the same bar.

Jason is an immensely skilled artist capable of manipulating his self-restricted vocabulary to stretch space and time. Low Moon moves in a slow burn as the two antagonists move closer to their eventual showdown. In what is probably the best story in the book You Are Here, time moves more quickly as a father and son attempt to deal with the alien abduction of the father's wife. The father builds a rocket while the son grows up and has a life of his own. Eventually they pile into the rocket, and things end badly, but perhaps a bit more emotionally than with the other stories.

You Are Here panel from Low Moon by Jason

All the stories are informed by a similar absurdist aesthetic. But not all are equally successful in execution or have equal depth or meaning. While the father-mother-son dynamic gives You Are Here a higher degree of emotional resonance, others like & feel more like an empty formalist exercise, while Emily Says Hello comes across as a bit too sophomoric. This book is a useful introduction to Jason's oeuvre. But given their varying qualities while having a similar tone, it's probably better that the stories be read separately rather than in one sitting.