Barely saying anything
By Juan Manuel Domínguez
For some years, Jason, the name arisen from the comic book medium, with his way of linking genres and human emotions, has been described as “the Kafka and Keats of the world of cartoons”.
Quentin Tarantino. These might be two words, and an author, difficult to associate with Jason. Not so much because of the different languages they use for their creations (film in the case of chatterbox QT, comic books in the case of silent Norwegian John Arne Sæterøy, his real name). The superficial difference has to do with the opposite, let’s call it the “physical” behaviour of their creations. Tarantino and his universe are verbose, unstoppable, brimming with the art of talking cool, a strange anabolic mix of grindhouse, blaxploitation as male chromosome (with a three-day beard, copying Clint Eastwood) and classic cinema dented with a spade by seventies films. An impure creation and, in the end, an exceptional whim, a mutant Rosetta stone deciphering the genres of modern cinema (among other of Mr QT’s virtues and calamities).
Jason is practically Tarantino’s reverse. His creations barely speak at all. They are like splinters of a strange crossover between Buster Keaton and a wet form of fascination for a kind of innocent cinema (in which genres are conjugated before being revisited and conquered by the sixties and seventies revolution but in a definitely Scandinavian and dry fashion: something like a Kerouac for Morrissey fanatics; The Maltese Falcon for Belle & Sebastian enthusiasts). The adjective “wet” comes to mind thanks to the attic passions that don’t know, and don’t want to know, who Steve Jobs was, and who want to be more film archive than Apple Store (but they’re not posers, ok? They possess a brutal honesty that shouldn’t outrage you).
And that is exactly the key to the matter: both are oxygen generators within the same environment. They live in the same line. One that implies a usurpation of what was their sentimental education (to quote but two names, easily recognizable in both: Leone for QT, Hergé for Jason) wildly applied over genres and their own idea of storytelling. Or else how to explain that both universes, beyond their formal differences, reached the same exact and improbable conclusion: a story in which, spoiler alert, Adolf Hitler is murdered? They must have something in common that we hadn’t suspected up to now.
The answer is simple: Jason is the Tarantino of Keaton, Chaplin, the English era Hitchcock, fifties non-important films (which, as we now know, were more important than they seemed), Universal horror movies, French series, William Castle cinema. He compresses them but also respects their phlegm, movement and insurrection (the intended one and the other granted to them by the passing of time). Like Tarantino, Jason plays with silent films, with dialectics from past times (but surgically used): silent films’ intertitles and timings, and losers that could be on his adored Aki Kaürismaki’s movies, silence as a palpable presence.
Since his beginnings, in the nineties, in fanzine Mjau Mjau (“Miau Miau”) or Konk, Jason was, like Quentin but on another lane, purifying himself: each line becoming clearer; his animal characters (usually cats and dogs) more and more isolated; his premises, fit for genre films that were never filmed, more and more concise. A lot has happened since his seminal work (and which he describes today as not very representative of his work), Hey, Wait…, a touching tale that made author Sherman Alexei say that when he read it he felt “as excited and devastated as the first time I read Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman’s poems”.
Jason’s works have been also accurately defined as “populated by renegades that come from a Max Fleischer animated cartoon but haven’t realised they’re in a Jim Jarmusch film”. Jason extracts a drop of pure blood from a genre and creates a culture with it, one in which this genre is restructured by mixing in it absurdity and melancholy, universal stories and personal feelings. It’s a small but noteworthy experiment. To prove this, we have those westerns in which chess is a substitute for OK corral duels (Low Moon), time travelling with the Führer as the target of the expedition (I Killed Adolf Hitler), an extremely sentimental noir (Lost Cat), and monsters with a nerve similar to those old rubber disguises (Werewolves of Montpellier).
But he doesn’t do this with genres only. As a silenced weapon with a licence to kill certainties, Jason plays at turning Frida Kahlo into a secret agent (If You Steal) or placing F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and James Joyce in cartoons set at the end of the Belle Époque (The Left Bank Gang).
The big difference with QT is the way in which J manages to compress a very particular sense of melancholy, but for this reason precisely (and hence the miracle) he is a true humanist. It doesn’t matter if the world is coming to an end: Jason knows that we are, paradoxically, our best genre and our own worst enemy.
Your stories are characterised, above all, for their narrative simplicity: there are barely any dialogues and all the resources are cut down to the max. Is that something you always decide beforehand or it ends up like that as you go along?
Honestly, it ends up like that as I move on. I started using few words because I wanted it to be easy for me to be read away from my country, Norway. In time I realised that I wasn’t interested in saying too much. I feel it’s one of the evils of our times. The way I work, I leave more space for the reader. There’s no over explanation. The reader is not underestimated. If twenty people read something differently, then that is a lot healthier for my work. Between that feeling and the fact that I hate writing too much, it wasn’t too difficult to reach a style that needed few words. Besides, usually ideas come to me in image form rather than as cartoons. That’s why my working process does not imply too much previous preparation but a lot of creation is done directly on the page. It could be argued that something is lost when there are no words. But I think we gain engagement with the story: the person reading it is not going through it, but being questioned in a different way.
Another frequent thing in your work is the appearance of genres that feel closer to films, you seem to draw more with a cinema room in mind than a comic book page (although you take full advantage of the latter’s resources). Where does this film side to your work originate and how do you explain it?
Sometimes I feel I am creating movies I don’t understand because they’ve never been filmed. Some cinematographic things are inscribed in our collective consciousness and I find that amazing, they’re part of my idea of the absurd. An example could be Martians speaking English and wearing cheap suits, that kind of charming thing, or the power of the noir and western genres. And, of course, classics like Keaton or Laurel & Hardy. What happens is that visually I find the pre-digital world a lot stronger; it’s easier to make it work in cartoon form. The digital is difficult to translate into paper sometimes and it doesn’t have the appeal of a telephone. The world from the past was easier to portray in comic book form. You could get a more out of time feeling with any story. Now it’s not so easy.
What do you think it’s so different between comic books and films?
Intimacy. Films are a common experience. When it comes to creating and reading comic books, you do it alone, whether you want it or not; you invent them alone, you process them alone. Intimacy is what allows for a different kind of link, maybe even a different kind of “spectator”, a more immediate one. Besides, there are no restrictions: only pen and paper. You only need that to create. It’s easy to see how cartoons, in that sense, have a freedom that few media possess.
How do these genre ideas appear in your mind? What kind of process makes you put some of them into paper and discard others?
They are ideas that keep on appearing in a wild and uncontrolled sort of way. All of a sudden, I see an image: a zombie invasion, a creature from the bottom of the ocean, a werewolf in France, a western with a game of chess. That idea allows other ideas to start growing. They are usually improvisations. I think these stories that are closer to different genres are the ones that best represent me today. Much more than Hey, Wait… for example. I think that exploring genres allows me to go and explore other things as an author.
What kind of things do you find attractive in genre stories?
That there are rules to follow, rules that set limits. Those same rules allow you to be free at once: since they are so universal, with my style being ligne claire, anybody can grasp at once the kind of “alterations” I’m playing with. They don’t even need to be comic book readers. When I saw Buster Keaton for the first time I was very young and I got a lasting impression. I understood everything even though everything was new. Genres allow for that double necessity: altering them and at the same time achieving great things within their boundaries, without crossing them. Honestly, I prefer stories that are emotionally kinder than Hey, Wait… I know that there’s a trace of melancholy in all my works, but when I mix that with somewhat absurd characters, linked to recognizable fictional universes, I get the result I seek.
Your trace has become clearer and clearer. Why is that?
My first influence was Hergé. I think that simplicity in a medium helps it reach its purer state, and that purity lets you see its possibilities more clearly. I’ve stopped believing in huge opera-like stories, in Paul Thomas Anderson films. I’m not saying there’s no talent there. I’m not that blind. But I’m not interested in the way in which they overwhelm you. My stories breathe better in simplicity.
When people talk or write about your work, what are the things they say that annoy you the most?
The absurd. They talk about it without taking into account that there is a realistic and emotional framework, a connection with a genre. That contrast is rarely mentioned. Other times my storytelling style is linked to Haruki Murakami’s, the writer, and I don’t feel particularly close to him. I’m not interested in loose senselessness, in being provocative in vain. I like it when it reacts to the world, to the story, when it erodes something. I don’t like grandiloquence, not even when it’s disguised as minimalism. Minimalism isn’t saying little, but trusting the power of what doesn’t need to be told.