Graphic Lit: An interview with Jason
The one-named Norwegian artist known simply as "Jason" has been racking up impressive cultural cachet recently.
Books like the time-traveling, tongue-in-cheek romance "I Killed Adolf Hitler" have won strong reviews and steady sales. More significantly, his latest story, the Western "Low Moon," was recently serialized in the pages of the New York Times Sunday Magazine section.
Now the final volume of his back catalog, "Pocket Full of Rain," has arrived, collecting a lot of his early material, including several stories drawn in a realistic style quite different from the deadpan anthropomorphic style he uses today.
I talked with Jason by e-mail recently about the new book and making comics for the New York Times:
Q: What’s it like to revisit the material in Pocket Full of Rain? How do you regard your early work?
Q: Can you talk a little bit about how your style changed from the more realistic work in Pocket to the way you draw today? What made you want to change your style and how did you come upon your now trademark anthropomorphic characters?
A: It took me a long time to draw in a realistic style. Usually it took me a day to finish one panel. And when the whole thing was done, I wasn’t that happy with the result. The story as a whole I think is okay, but the drawings are a bit clumsy. So I tried out a couple of different other styles, and the animal characters were the ones I was most happy with. The drawing style in the stories Chalk and Glass I’m also okay with, but I think I made the right decision.
Q: I don’t think many people are aware of this, but you became a published cartoonist when you were still a teen-ager. What made you want to pursue this career at such an early age? Why comics?
A: I started selling cartoons and one-page stories to this Norwegian humor magazine called Konk when I was fifteen or sixteen, but it was just a hobby. Making comics as a profession in Norway was pretty unthinkable at that time. So my education is as an illustrator. It’s only the last four or five years that I’ve been able to make a living just as a cartoonist. There were some lean years before that, but it’s a choice I made, so I can’t complain. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.
Q: A lot of your work plays with traditional (for want of a better word) pulp genres, i.e. mystery, science fiction, horror, western, etc. What is it about these genres that appeal to you so much? And is there any particular genre that you haven’t tackled yet that you’d like to try your hand at?
A: Yes, I like the genres. Most of my favorite movies are westerns or science fiction films or film noir. Preferably older stuff, from the 30s up until the 70s. I don’t know why. They have a special quality those old films, I guess, that sometimes is lost in films today. Black and white films have some magic that is lost in color. I have an idea for a werewolf story. I’m not sure if it will be the next album, but I hope to make it one day.
Q: One of the things that I find impressive about your work is that, though your characters are drawn in a very deadpan style, you’re nevertheless able to wring quite a bit of emotion and drama (not to mention humor). Can you talk a little bit about how you’re able to do that? Is it just a simple matter of panel arrangement? Is it something you’re conscious of?
A: It’s something I try not to think about. It just happens. It’s who I am, I guess. I hope the stories are funny, but at the same time, they should have some melancholic quality.
Q: Related to that, you often in your work stick to a very basic grid of six or nine panels per page (more in Low Moon). Why? What’s the thinking behind that decision?
A: I like the grid, the way it looks. This way the panels have the same importance, visually at least. It’s up to the reader to decide which panel is the most important one or have the most emotional impact. It shouldn’t be me as the artist telling the reader what to feel.
Q: How did the chance to be serialized in the New York Times come about? What has that experience been like?
A: They contacted me. It’s been great, reaching a wider audience like that. It’s what you dream of as a cartoonist. And I was given freedom to do what I want. There were certain restrictions on the use of language, but that’s okay by me.
Q: Judging by your reception at MoCCA, you have more than a few American fans. Are you surprised that you’ve managed to find such a devoted audience over here? What is it do you think about your work that resonates so well across the Atlantic?
A; I don’t know. A lot of my inspiration sources are American, either genre movies or directors like Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley. So I guess an American audience can recognize and relate to the material. But I don’t have a specific audience in my head when I work.
Q: Is there any difference between the comics scene in the U.S. and the one in Europe?
Not that much anymore. Not like 20 years ago when you had a bigger gap between the cheaply printed American superhero comics and the French hardcover albums. The more alternative comics are not that different, whether they’re published by Fantagraphics in the US or L’Association in France. And actually a lot of the French comics are overrated. There is a lot of new albums every week, and a lot of it is not very interesting. You have to search to find the good stuff.