If You Steal
Cover Design: Keeli McCarthy
If You Steal is the third compilation of short stories from Norwegian cartoonist John Arne Sæterøy, aka Jason, to be published for the English language market. In many ways, this is his most accessible book. Almost all of the eleven stories use some kind of hook based on popular genre conventions. His treatment to these elements is playful, at least for a Jason comic. On display is his usual inimitable style: The anthropomorphic characters with the deadpan expressions and hunched poses. The middle distance perspective. The unvarying four panel grid. Decompressed silent panels. The sparse detail of his clear line. All the stories make for a quick read. But the variety of subject matter and execution on display hints at the inventiveness that belies his outwardly uncomplicated drawings.
Take the lead story “If You Steal”, A crime drama about a lowlife forced to commit to one more heist in order to pay off some huge gambling debts - the usual setup. The melancholic tone and sense of inevitable tragedy will be familiar to readers of his past collections. But the entire narrative is broken down into one page vignettes recounted out of sequence. Each page is an example of economic storytelling. But put together, they give the reader just enough information, not to mention a few ambiguous Magritte imagery, to piece together the broad stroke of events.
The playfulness continues with “Karma Chameleon”, a homage to those 1950s sci-fi B-movies featuring giant monsters which are actually just normal animals being obviously enlarged through the era’s cheap film effects. The story features the usual cast of characters: the hero, the local sheriff, an eccentric scientist, and his beautiful daughter. And there’s the predictable showdown between monster and military. But the eccentric scientist can’t even keep on topic, preferring to talk about masturbation to anyone he can corner.
Jason then turns his attention in "Lorena Velazquez" to another 1950s movie tradition - Mexican films starring lucha libre wrestlers like Santo battling all manner of supernatural horrors, because why not? The story is fairly straightforward, with the masked hero entering a castle to rescue a damsel in distress. He takes out a couple of hooded henchmen. But things quickly become chaotic as he confronts a vampire, a Frankenstein monster, a horde of mummies, a wolfman, all manner of aliens, even Adolph Hitler himself. It’s absolutely nuts.
Come to think about it, many of the stories riff off famous mid-20th century figures: Frida Kahlo is an assassin who works for the mob, a mashup of Brigitte Bardot and Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot, the Van Morrison album Moondance reimagined as a series of 1950s horror comic book covers, a story about jazz musician Chet Baker, or the most ludicrous theory linking the assassination of John F. Kennedy to 9/11. It’s a fairly wide sampling of pop culture, all of which may have shaped Jason’s sensibilities.
Jason’s visuals are usually so consistent that I couldn't discern if these stories were originally published together, or if they were assembled from disparate sources. Unfortunately, Fantagraphics doesn't supply any information within the book's pages. Whatever the case, this is as good an introduction as any to the artist’s peculiar blend of surface kitsch and sardonic humor. Though in the closing story “Nothing”, Jason seems to do away with any outside reference in order to tell a humane and disturbing tale of frailty.