There was almost no way I wasn't going to enjoy Lost Cat. The latest Fantagraphics book from Norwegian cartoonist Jason, it was billed as a crime noir tale with a nod to Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Essentially, this was one of my favorite cartoonists telling a story in one of my favorite genres. So while my enjoying it seemed almost assured, it ended up being more than I expected. A commentary on longing and isolation with a twist that should seem out of place yet somehow works perfectly, Lost Cat isn't just my favorite comic of 2013 so far, but it's now my favorite work by one of the greatest cartoonist working in comics today.

Lost Cat starts off as just a straight noir story. A private detective, Dan Delon, is heading home after a day of work when he sees a sign for a lost cat. A few blocks later, he stumbles upon a cat that matches the description, calls the number on the poster, and reunites the pet with its owner, Charlotte. After inviting him in, Charlotte and Dan strike up a conversation. Slowly, a talk between strangers about mostly superficial topics turns into something deeper, and the two are clearly enjoying each others company. Charlotte, an avid reader, owns a bookstore (one of a few nods to The Big Sleep) called "Book Me" that Dan has visited in the past, though they've never crossed paths. Outside of the bookstore, Charlotte seemingly has no family or friends; she's alone. When Charlotte discovers what Dan does for a living, she seems fascinated, until he shares that the life of a private detective isn't nearly as exciting as the Chandlers, Hammetts and Christies of the world would have you believe -- being hired to spy on adulterous spouses, only to have your clients ultimately resent you for discovering the truth, is not the life Dan envisioned for himself. Saying all this out loud, to someone with whom he seems to have formed an instant and comfortable bond, may be the first time Dan allows himself to realize how unhappy and lonely he feels. Sometimes you don't realize how miserable you are until you're presented with the potential for something better.



Eventually Dan leaves, though neither seems to want to part ways. After a day or two, Dan gets up the nerve to ask Charlotte out. When she doesn't show up for their date, he discovers that Charlotte has gone missing. Determined to find her but having absolutely no luck, he eventually takes another case, from an elderly man searching for a self-portrait of the woman he claims is his lost love. As he chases leads in this new case, he's routinely distracted by imagined moments with Charlotte, as Dan takes a chance encounter with a now missing bookstore owner and builds it up in his mind to be his only chance at having something more meaningful than he does now. Ultimately, the story takes a Kiss Me Deadly style twist -- minus the Cold War symbolism -- as a noir tale is suddenly infused with an unexpected sci-fi element, in this case an alien threat. All of this fits seamlessly into the story of a man unraveling as he tries to rediscover an imagined happiness with a woman he never really knew.

If you're familiar with Jason's previous work, you know his mastery of minimalist storytelling is what drives his art. His anthropomorphic, near emotionless characters, along with his consistent four panel page layouts, are his signature. The combination makes his storytelling concise and clear, and all of his work instantly recognizable. While each page of Lost Cat has the same panel layout, it's what he manages to do with each panel, and each page, that's impressive. Never busy or cluttered, Jason can take something as aesthetically simple as a 20 page conversation -- in this case, the one between Dan and Charlotte -- and make it fascinating and inviting, showing various corners of a city and home that help set the tone for the entire story, as you watch two characters create a bond. And while Jason has done an exceptional job telling previous stories in other genres, somehow his style works best here, as the Philip Marlowe-inspired Dan Delon is his most sympathetic creation.

Lost Cat is Jason's most moving story to date. A hardboiled crime story at the beginning that turns into something much more, it's really a story about loneliness, and the relationships we sometimes create in our minds in a desperate attempt to find what we're missing, to give our lives a modicum of meaning. Toward the end, we see Dan has spent years pining for a woman he only ever met once, longing for a deep connection that may have only existed in his head. And even if what he was feeling wasn't real, or if it wasn't mutual, it seems a far better scenario than the alternative. At least it gave Dan something to live for.

Lost Cat is available this week at finer comic stores, and on Fantagraphics' website. You can check out a 15 page preview below, courtesy of Fantagraphics.

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