‘What I Did': Guilt and the Anthropomorphic Simplicity of Jason [Review]
It seems hard to overestimate the affection Norwegian cartoonist Jason (one name only) creates in comics fans of many stripes. When I worked in a comic book store full of Fantagraphobics, the one book from the House of Groth I can remember being recommended by a spandex-loving co-worker was Jason’s Hey, Wait… I bought it then, but never read past the first few pages, and so it is that I was able to approach What I Did, a new collection of some of Jason’s earliest translated work from Fantagraphics, more or less tabula rasa.
A snapshot of Jason’s career from 1997-2001, the stories in What I Did are also loosely thematically collected, circling around guilt as their central emotion. Hey, Wait…, Jason’s translated-into-English debut from way back in 2001, and The Iron Wagon, a long out-of-print adaptation of a 1908 Norwegian mystery novel, bookend the collection, and both address the theme of guilt acutely.The Iron Wagon is the most obvious, being a murder mystery, where there is a literal guilty party. Hey, Wait… deals in survivor’s guilt, and the confusion that arises from being partly responsible for a tragedy but not in a way that you actually deserve any blame, which makes it almost harder to absolve yourself. The middle story, and the longest piece in the book, Sshhhh!, holds guilt at more of an arm’s length, though it’s certainly present in places. Being the life story of a single anthropomorphized bird-man in a fedora, Sshhhh! puts the book’s title in a light more to do with memoir and a sweep of personal history than with a single, remembered, regretted event.
I have to say, these are good books, but they aren’t great — which might seem like a petty or snobbish distinction, but I think it’s an important one to draw. There are many pleasures to be had from Jason’s work, among them a wealth of clever cartoon metaphors and a impressively economic storytelling tricks. A perfect example of both of these strengths can be seen in a two-panel sequence from Hey, Wait…, in which a child rears back to sneeze in the first panel, and finishes the sneeze as an adult in the second. But he shift isn’t through time, as nothing else around the character changes, and other children remain children. Adulthood takes the character by surprise, like a sneeze, involuntary and unpleasant but necessary. At his best, Jason pieces together representations of complex thoughts and emotions through simple visual building blocks.
Simplicity is also one of Jason’s flaws, though. While he can pack a heap of metaphorical resonance into a scant few panels, he builds his regular, naturalistic scenes very deliberately, taking time to move his characters around in space bit by bit, meticulously sticking to the page as storytelling unit. Each page in the book is built on a six-panel grid, with scenes often starting at the top of a page and finishing at the end of the same page, or at the end of a following page, never the middle. The repetitive rhythm can dull the senses, though, and reduce the impact of what should be the stronger moments in his story. Interestingly, only the Iron Wagon — an adaptation rather than an original story — breaks with this, juxtaposing red and white panels near its climax to heighten the action.
There is also the visual sameness of the characters; while attractive and idiosyncratic as a whole, Jason’s character designs never stray far from a few basic types: anthropomorphized dogs and birds with blank eyes and expressionless faces. The designs are smart — the adorable animal qualities set the readers up to sympathize with the characters, and the blank faces allow them to impose whatever emotions they imagine — and in small doses they are probably quite effective. Over multiple stories, or over one long story, they start to blur together. At one point in Sshhh!, I thought a cuckolding lover was an older version of the cuckold’s son, last seen two chapters prior. While that would have made the scene a lot more interesting, I doubt it was what Jason intended, as the story is built around basic, archetypal (sometimes painfully stereotypical) life situations, and intra-family sex swapping doesn’t really fit the mold.
It also doesn’t help that all three of the stories in What I Did center on solipsistic sad-sack men, with women relegated to mostly passive supporting or cameo roles. Hey, Wait… and The Iron Wagon barely touch on women at all except as distant lust objects, while Sshhhh! engages in some odd gender politics through the main male character’s three romantic involvements: The first woman dies tragically to ennoble the main character’s story, the second woman is an anonymous sex partner who exists for one scene and then mails the main character a child to take care of on his own, and the third woman leaves the main character and is then subjected to a full 11 different emotionally or physically violent revenge/recapture fantasies on the page — all imagined with blank eyes and an emotionless face.
Jason’s formal inventiveness is clever and at times breathtakingly elegant, but the two original stories presented here don’t have the substance that his style seems to demand. It should be remembered, of course, that this is early work, and what I’ve seen of his later comics suggests an upswing in inventiveness. Something like the recent Werewolves of Montpelier, while still looking like a Jason book on the surface, inhabits a different territory entirely when it comes to character and tone. It has, after all, been a decade or more since some of this work was written and drawn, and an artist of Jason’s caliber should be expected to advance in his interests, goals, and abilities. Jason remains a widely beloved and renowned cartoonist, and those seeking an entry point could do worse than What I Did, but it should be read with the caveat that the work within is a starting point, not the finish line.