B-movie monsters, private detectives, vampire hunters and damsels in distress—Jason loves them all, and he loves to make fun of them all. From High Noon to The Big Sleep, he has re-written old genre stories with the twist of dark, deadpan humor that has become his signature. While it’s obvious that he genuinely loves spaghetti westerns and film noir and all the other genre films from days of yore, it’s also clear that he sees their campiness. And he’s quick to use that campiness as gag material.
The mononymous Norwegian graphic novelist, who debuted in 2001 with his touching story Hey, Wait…, has won numerous awards for his excellence in the medium (Sproing Award in 1995 and 200, Inkpot Award and Harvey Award in 2002, Eisner Awards in 2007 and 2008…). He has made his success with beautiful—if simple—artwork, slow and provocative plots, and expert parodies of history and classic stories. Jason was my first entree into the world of comics and graphic novels, and he remains my favorite.
Visually, Jason favors simplicity: clean lines and two-dimensionality. Though most of his work is in color, he sticks to a small and muted autumnal palette. Much of his early work and his short strips are in black and white. His most often-cited stylistic forebear is Hergé, the creator of Tintin, and some early Disney cartoons are brought to mind as well, with their clean lines and full-bleed use of black. He never uses shading or texture, with the exception of Lost Cat, his 2013 graphic novel. In general, Jason avoids detail where it can be avoided, so that you focus on the story unfolding. “His simple line work belies a deeper complexity in the story and an artist who fully understands the visual narrative possibilities of comics.” (The Comicbook Bin)
The two-dimensionality of Jason’s cartoonish characters is ironically twofold. The literally flat artwork mirrors the deadpan-ness of the dialogue—the one word responses and, in some stories, the silent-film-style dialogue frames. It’s clear that Jason is a firm believer in the power of nonverbal communication and the ability to tell a story in images. In “The Living and the Dead,” for instance, there are a mere five lines of dialogue at the beginning of the story, and the rest unfolds as a silent chase scene, filled with tenderness and a bit of slapstick. In many cases, he is able to tell a whole story within a handful of silent frames, as with his newspaper strip style short pieces in “Meow, Baby!”
Although the sparseness of dialogue is a storytelling tactic for Jason, it’s also clearly a tribute to silent film. His “deadest of deadpan humor” (Glen Weldon, NPR) nods to the exaggerated seriousness with which such classic genre films take themselves. Clint Eastwood never stumbled, Lauren Bacall never stopped to laugh at herself—but in Jason’s versions, this seriousness is taken to the point of ridiculousness, such that the characters become clowns of seriousness. “I’m a private detective,” says Dan Delon, the hard-boiled protagonist of Lost Cat. “A detective? Like Humphrey Bogart?” asks the love interest, Charlotte Mardou. “Yes, exactly like Humphrey Bogart.”
The tropey characters in Jason’s stories are borrowed from genre films, too. In “Low Moon”—his parody of the western film “High Noon”—Jason writes in all the regular characters of the genre: the good-hearted sheriff, the tough-as-nails saloon sex worker, the wisecracking old-timer, and the bad guy dressed all in black. He can’t help but poke extra fun at it, though, by adding a couple twists: instead of whiskey, the saloon only serves espresso drinks, and instead of a shootout, the sheriff and the bad guy play a game of chess.
In his new volume of collected stories If You Steal, (released September 6 from Fantagraphics) Jason takes more real historical figures as his characters. “The Thrill is Gone” tells a slightly embellished version of Chet Baker’s tragic story of drug addiction and the loss of his teeth in a street scuffle (an incident that nearly ruined his career), and “Polly Wants a Cracker” tells an almost silent magical realist story of Frida Kahlo as a hired assassin. (Where does he get this stuff? Who knows.) Unsurprisingly, the painter’s famous poker face fits right in with Jason’s deadpan style. Between this story, a parody of Waiting for Godot, and a dreamy, non-linear story of a heist that incorporates lots of Magritte imagery, this collection seems to be Jason’s tribute to/parody of surrealism.
Jason’s love of B-movie monsters and over-the-top heroics appears in this new collection in the stories “Karma Chameleon” and “Lorena Velazquez.” “Karma Chameleon” is his rendition of the old school “Big Bug” films of the 50’s, in which footage of bugs is blown up to make it look like they’re razing a city (see Them! and Tarantula). Here, there’s a 50-meter long chameleon terrorizing a small southwestern town, a professor who explains everything that’s happening as a substitute for actual narrative, a pretty young woman assistant, and a grizzled small town sheriff who’s just trying to do his job, ma’am. “Lorena Velazquez” is a pop culture reference that might elude some of his readers, as the titular character is a Mexican actress and the hero a Mexican wrestler named El Santo. El Santo, in his film roles, was frequently shown fighting werewolves, swamp creatures and vampires—any kind of classic monster. In Jason’s version, the gag is run into the ground as Santo fights off a seemingly endless cast of enemies as diverse as the grim reaper, martians, Frankenstein’s monster, and Hitler.
The visual gags in Jason’s stories feel pulled straight from the Marx brothers or Buster Keaton. He juxtaposes intelligent and emotional stories with slapstick humor, as in “The Living and The Dead” when the protagonists escape a hoard of zombies with the old “bottleneck car” trick, or in “Low Moon,” when hats fly off of characters’ heads to show they’re surprised. Despite his frequently esoteric and sometimes high brow cultural references, Jason loves mixing in the crude, the slapstick, and a dose of classic comics onomatopoetic “Biff!” and “Pow!” as well.
Though much of Jason’s material is taken from history and old movies, one could hardly accuse him of being unoriginal. Rather, he is an omnivorous consumer of media and a dedicated fan who pays tribute to his favorites by remixing and recreating them, in a way both touching and darkly funny, like a deadpan Quentin Tarantino of comics. To find out what Jason’s latest obsession is, you can follow him on his blog Cats Without Dogs.