Animal Loneliness: An Interview With Norwegian Comics Star Jason
On waiting 10 years to be discovered, and what it means to make comics today. Plus an excerpt from Lost Cat.
Comparisons are never fair, but I've always thought of Jason as the Norwegian comics cousin to Haruki Murakami. His expressionless animal characters roam rain-soaked streets and tobacco-choked bars straight out of classic films. They barely talk at all, and they mostly wish they weren't living in bachelor pads, frying eggs for dinner. Sometimes they time travel, or meet supernatural monsters, or go on convoluted detective hunts, but mostly they're looking for someone missing, someone they quietly love.
In his latest book, Lost Cat, a bored detective trails errant people for their jealous spouses. He hates his work with all his heart. One day, a lost cat leads him to a lovely woman — a bookstore keeper — who disappears on their second date. For the rest of his life, he goes on a surreal search for her, imaging the life they could've had.
You see what I mean about the Murakami thing. By no means does he just mash the B-minor key, though. Jason's deadpan wit comes when you least expect it. He's made Sherman Alexie a fan, and you should probably read him too.
You can read an excerpt from Lost Cat below, as well as our interview with Jason about waiting 10 years to be discovered, and what it's like to make comics in Norway.
What was the one turning point when you realized you could — and wanted to — make comics your life's work?
Jason: For a long time doing comics was just a hobby. It's difficult to do it for a living in a small country like Norway. I went to art school to become an illustrator, not a cartoonist. I guess being published by Fantagraphics was a turning point. Together with the French and Norwegian editions, it makes it possible for me to mainly do comics, with the occasional illustration assignment. But that's the last seven or eight years. There were 10 years before that of walking through the desert. But that's OK. You don 't choose to do comics for the money.
You talk often on your blog about authors and filmmakers you admire, from classics (Hemingway, Brian De Palma) to contemporaries (Donna Tartt, recent superhero movies). What do you think of as the advantage of comics as opposed to novels and films? What do you want your ideal comics to achieve?
Jason: It's an intimate visual medium. In contrast to film, you create it alone, you create this little book that you leave on a bench in a park, hoping someone will find it and read it. Or it's a letter you put in a bottle and you throw it in the ocean. It's a way of getting a personal vision down on paper. And it's a cheap medium, all you need is paper and ink, so there are no committees, no test screenings deciding how the story goes. It's interesting, when comic people start working on film, for the money or bigger audience or whatever, and then go back to comics for the complete freedom.
If I'm not mistaken, you've lived and written many of your comics in France. Can you briefly describe how the comics culture there might be unique and different than the U.S.?
Jason: I started working on comics in Norway. I've lived in France the last seven years. In Norway there is not much of a tradition for making comics, and not much of a market, with just 4 million inhabitants. You can do a newspaper strip, and if it gets popular you can make a living. If you do more alternative comics you need a second job — often that's doing illustration jobs. Of course, France has that tradition; they've been making comics for adults a long time. I don't see a big difference between France and the U.S. today. Graphic novels are popular in both markets.
In America, it seems like social websites like Tumblr are the newest star makers in the independent comics world, and being featured on websites like Study Group can really make your name. Is it similar in Norway or France? How does a comic artist starting out make it there?
Jason: I'm not really the person to ask. I started by sending out cartoons and short strips to a humor magazine in Norway while in my teens, and learned to draw that way, while getting paid. And then later, after art school, I met other cartoonists in Oslo, a scene formed, and we started publishing our own books. I went to the festival in Angouleme, France, to find a foreign publisher. So today, just putting it on the net is probably a lot easier, but it's something I've never done.
You've played with a lot of genres so far: detective, historical, time travel, classic silent movie. Do you have a favorite genre?
Jason: No, I like a lot of stuff. Westerns, mostly the classic '50s ones. Old science fiction films, with clumsy effects, women in '40s hairdos and Martians who speak English. There's a charm to those films. Similar with old black and white horror films, where the monster is a guy in a suit. Film noir — the best of those films hold up well. I like the old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films. And yes, old silent films as well. Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. I lose interest in films when they get too arty or pretentious or they try to push a message down your throat. And visually, a lot of modern films don't appeal to me.
One thing I find great about your classic premises is the near-complete absence of digital communication — in your comics, people don't email for their day jobs, use cell phones, or update their Facebook. One of the characters in Lost Cat actually says, "Do I look like I chat online?" Do you think there are advantages to setting stories in an pre-digital, classic movie world?
Jason: Well, progress happens so fast that it's easy to feel out of touch. I certainly do. I don't have a cell phone or an iPad. I read books on paper. I am on Facebook, though. And I made the step some years ago, from vinyl to CDs, which I regret now. This feeling of a disconnect with the world around you is an interesting subject to write about, and fitting for Dan Delon, the protagonist in Lost Cat, since he's a private detective in the Humphrey Bogart style, dressed in Fedora and trench coat, and clearly living in the past. And, growing up in the '70s, if I picture a telephone in my mind, it's a rotary phone, if I picture a record in my mind it's a LP. Visually, they look better than the modern versions. The pre-digital world in my comics might also be an influence from my favorite director, Aki Kaurismâki, whose movies made today look like they could take place in the '50s or '70s, they have a more timeless quality.
What I feel like I really connect with in your comics is that everything's already too late. You sneeze or boil an egg and come out of it like a billion years older, and everyone's already abandoned you. You're not too late to do fantastical things like time traveling to kill Hitler, but in terms of connecting with other people, you're always gonna be semi-fucked. Is this something you consciously want to achieve in your work?
Jason: Consciously, no. But I'm sure it's there. I don't think in themes, doing my comics. And I certainly don't analyze them after they're finished. It's possibly a pessimistic attitude, but I mean, that's life. Also, it makes for better stories.
Have you ever been nervous about your family, friends, or romantic partners reading your work? How do you deal with that?
Jason: No, I don't worry about that. Or, I try not to. I did one story, "Emily Says Hello" — it's in Low Moon — that I had some doubts about. If I do this story, what will people think of me? But I think doubts like that is a good thing, it means it could be an interesting story, and that you should go ahead and do it.
Do you have some favorite comic artists that you wish more people would read?
Jason: There's an Argentinian cartoonist, Liniers, that I like. He has a daily strip, Macanudo, that is very funny and poetic. His strips are collected in French, and he really deserves to be translated into English as well. And there's a French cartoonist I like, Fabio Viscogliosi. He does silent comics about this skinny cat figure. In France his stories are collected in a book called Da Capo, published by L'Association. I currently read a lot of the old American newspaper strips, like Nancy, Captain Easy, and Little Orphan Annie. But I also enjoyed the recent Nick Fury collection by Jim Steranko.