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Two by Jason

Hey, Wait… by Jason (1998). Fantagraphics, 2001. 68pgs, black and white, $12.95.

Why Are You Doing This? by Jason (2004). Fantagraphics, 2005. ~50pgs, Color, $12.95.

There’s something refreshing in the way Norwegian cartoonist Jason deals with death. Though populated by anthropomorphic animals (mostly dogs), these are not funny books. Jason’s characters deal with death and life after death (not afterlife, but life after someone else has died). Happy endings are not to be found, but there is a positive outlook to these book.

Though I’d seen Jason’s work before, it was Andrew Arnold’s review of Hey, Wait… that convinced me to order the book. I’ve got the second edition, and the blurbs on it are glowing (and that’s an understatement). I can’t say I agreed with the high level of praise, but I appreciated the book enough to pick up Why Are You Doing This? which is a much better comic.

Hey, Wait…‘s first part tells the story of Jon and Bjorn, two young pups who are best friends. Jason spends a lot of time showing the two together, playing, in school, getting interested in girls. He gets us acclimated to them and their world before striking. One day, in an accident that could only vaguely be considered Jon’s fault, Bjorn is killed. We see a page of black panels then a funeral. The second part revisits Jon decades later. In a series of mostly silent pages we see the poverty of Jon’s life: a dead end job, a broken marriage and a child he doesn’t see on her birthday, one night stands, lots of drink, and nightmares of the accident. In one of the surreal scenes that pepper the book, a woman Jon slept with the night before asks him about some pictures in his apartment. He tells her they are him in 15-20 years. The page shows a series of Jon lonely and haggard, usually with a bottle in hand.

The story shows us the effect of guilt over the years. Jon, unable to leave behind his guilt for Bjorn’s death, becomes a sort of dead man himself. It’s a skillfully told story, but I can’t say I found it as heartbreaking as some other reviewers.

Jason’s art is cartoony and simple, a style that nicely contrasts with the seriousness of his story. He sticks to a 6 panel grid on every page and instead of white gutters, butts the panels together with a thick black frame. Jason uses repetition and slight variation rather frequently. He very effectively conveys the two major “breaking points” of the story: Bjorn’s death leads to a 6 black panel page; in the second part we see Jon getting drunk with a number of bottles in front of him. In five panels the point of view skews like a rocking boat and details in the panel slowly disappear. By the fifth panel we see only Jon’s head, a bottle at his mouth, and the arm holding it. What follows are 8 white panels. Both sequences are beautiful in their simplicity and emotional effect.

Why Are You Doing This? is a European comic that mixes the dark fated story of old film noir like Out of the Past and the technicolor wrong man story of North By Northwest. Not only does Jason mix these elements skillfully, but he tells a story that holds its own as a moving and insightful work.

Alex is an artist, depressed over a recent break up with a girlfriend. When his best friend Claude asks him to water his plants while Claude is away on vacation, Alex unwittingly sees a murderer at the scene of the crime (the apartment across the way). The murderer accidentally kills Claude, when he returns from his trip, thinking it is Alex and then frames Alex.

In lesser hands this story would be filled with action, adventure, mystery, and in the end Alex would be cleared and the murderer either killed or caught by the authorities. Instead Jason writes a entertaining story about what it means to live and have lived with no happy ending.

Early in the story Alex asks Claude about how many exciting stories from his life he has to tell. Alex is concerned that, lacking exciting stories, his life is a waste. Of course that is the moment when things start to change. After the murder and Alex’s escape from the scene, now considered the murderer by the police, he enters a store and meets a young woman, Geraldine. Even though she knows he is the man wanted for murder, she agrees to help him. He asks her “Why are you doing this?” Geraldine replies, “Isn’t that what people do?” It’s as if she is falling into some fated role.

At the end of the story we get the same questions. Alex asks the murderer why he is doing this. The killer does not respond. But we can imagine that he too is filling his fated role. And on the last page Geraldine is with friends telling stories of their life: “I discovered a dead man once,” she says. She has an exciting story to tell but in her eyes are tears.

Why Are you Doing This? is done in full color, a muted color palette that suits the story. The pages have four tiers of panels, a traditional bande dessinée layout (Tintin is done this way). There are fewer repetitive panels here than in Hey, Wait…, Jason keeps the story moving, though in a way that is rather non-active. This story could be filled with action sequences, instead, actions are rare. Alex runs around some, but otherwise movement is limited and brief. Even the murder of Claude is done in a quick, frozen sequence.

Personally, I find Why Are you Doing This? a more moving and effective work than Hey, Wait… Jason turns around a rather traditional genre tale in a way that is more effecting than one could expect. While Hey, Wait… shows us the effects of Bjorn’s death on Jon, Why are You Doing This? tells us so much on a single page of Geraldine listening to her friends’ stories of adventure and quietly telling them the outcome of hers.