I Killed Adolf Hitler

by Brian Bethel

23 September 2007


The most iconic image in the comics of Norwegian graphic novelist John Arne Sæterøy, better known as Jason, is the blank-faced anthropomorph standing on a curb, staring contentedly into space. In many ways, Jason’s works seek to give meaning to this neutral image, through a multitude of bittersweet books depicting solemn dogs, birds, and rabbits glumly going about their dreary lives. In his latest book, I Killed Adolf Hitler, Jason finds a new understanding for his brooding animal characters, one which, though it struggles for distinctiveness, ultimately fits awkwardly.

Over the past 12 years, Jason has established a completely unique visual style but has yet to apply that same originality to his storytelling. Nothing if not prolific, Jason has noticeably grown as an artist in each of his nine books released in the US in the last six years. Early works such as Hey, Wait . . . and Sshhhh! matched his solemn-faced animals with an equally placid silence, giving his comics a frequently-noted universal simplicity and grace. Why Are You Doing This and The Iron Wago introduced dialogue and more developed plot-based storytelling (as well as color) but this detracted from the comics rather than serving to enhance them—Jason’s solemn animals seemed excessive and obsolete in his new-found murder/mystery stories, and the impact of the early works felt cheapened by the introduction of dialogue and conventional storylines. Jason began to forge the way towards his own unique storytelling with The Left Bank Gang, a fictionalized retelling of the Lost Generation that crossed fantasy, history, humor, and mystery. With Left Bank Gang, Jason finally seemed to be laying down a dialogue-based narrative that equaled his early works in purpose and originality.

cover art

I Killed Adolf Hitler

(Fantagraphics Books)

I Killed Adolf Hitler continues Jason’s growth and as such is yet another mixed bag. The drawings look and feel smaller, with a consistent eight panels a page that increases the pace of his stories but weakens the visual impact of the individual panels. The subtler, more intricate arrangements of the pages add a new complexity to the overall harmony of his comics but lose the universal simplicity of Jason’s early work. The color achieves similarly mixed effects. Like Chris Ware and Hergé before him, Jason uses subtle, pale colors coordinated throughout an entire scene to give each page a distinct unity. While the overall look is aesthetically pleasing, the colors separate the unity of art and narrative tone that flourished in Jason’s earlier comics, a visual monotony which complimented the placidity of his silent early works. The intricacy of his newer work in fact ruptures the fluid mixture of art and story, and causes the reader to pay more attention to the story and its flaws. 

Jason’s work in his new book as a writer is certainly strong at first. I Killed Adolf Hitler tells the story of an assassin who is hired to travel back in time to kill Adolf Hitler and prevent the Holocaust. The beginning of IKAH portrays violence as being a simple, rational act of life, one inherited, in Jason’s mind, from the logical, mass-scale brutality of the Holocaust. The nameless protagonist shoots his targets in the street, without notice or consequence, and his work as an assassin takes on the form of a cubicle-style desk job. Violence is played out with a comical simplicity, as a commonplace, every-day act that is both practical and necessary. When the assassin’s time travel goes awry, Hitler literally comes back to haunt the modern world. Yet Hitler is impotent and useless here. Instead of terrorizing the modern population, he disappears into the crowd. 

In I Killed Adolf Hitler, Jason attempts to suggest that major world events don’t affect our lives so much as our day-to-day interactions and seemingly mundane decisions. The book is in essence reinforcing the importance of domestic life in face of great action, showing that death, though we may fear it, is essentially commonplace and of no greater import than any other part of our daily existence. At one point, the nameless female accomplice asks: “Hitler disappeared in 1938. World War II never happened. Shouldn’t the world be a better place?” Jason’s answer seems to be a resounding ‘no.’

It’s not giving anything away to say that about halfway through the book, Jason’s attempts at a definitive treatise on violence and death are abandoned in favor of a quirkier, more sentimental story line. Once past the half-way mark, the book trots along annoyingly without a real compelling reason to move forward, and the imbalance in tone, meaning, and pacing all become more obvious. As always, the silence of Jason’s works and vacancy of his characters seem to speak to some vast, hidden meaning, and yet this now-abandoned meaning seems only to reveal itself in cheap jokes or an equally simplistic, unsatisfying ending. Jason, who is used to writing bittersweet, simple comics, is unable to support the weight of the plot he sets up, and in its second half, I Killed Adolf Hitler collapses in on itself, resorting to casual, inadequate conversation to make up for its lack of direction. His characters awkwardly counterbalance the seriousness of tone and plot with a mismatched casualty in dialogue, which leaves the book feeling lopsided. “Well, that was sure a thrill a minute,” the protagonist declares at one point, and when asked about his plans for his birthday, he responds that they are to “get wasted, big time.” The emptiness of the book backfires: the second half of IKAH relies on our affection for its characters, and yet its first half relies on our detachment from them.

While Jason’s animal characters and restrained settings lend themselves well to bittersweet nostalgia and fantastical re-imaginings, they leave I Killed Adolf Hitler as a whole a remarkably inconsistent work, one which veers off in several directions without being able to move in any of them. The work as a whole feels sweet but unfocused. While it’s encouraging to watch Jason struggle to grow as a graphic novelist rather than stagnate in his own method, I Killed Adolf Hitler is more of a stepping stone to a greater work rather than that work itself.

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