In the last few volumes of his work, Norwegian comics auteur Jason has used his singular style and recurring cast of anthropomorphized animals to not just explore, but erase the line between cinema and comics. In 2006, he turned the traditional caper flick into a pseudo-historical melodrama in ‘The Left Bank Gang’, a twisting story of crime, love and betrayal. It features a cast of characters from Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and a host of other revered literary ex-pats as The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight dropped into a Reservoir Dogs style exercise in crime gone bad, all set in 1920’s Paris. Also in 2006, he switched gears and turned the zombie genre on its head, reimagining Night of the Living Dead as a deadpan, silent comedy and taking his cues in equal parts from George Romero and Buster Keaton in The Living and The Dead. 2007 saw him blend the seemingly disparate flavors of swashbuckling, Errol Flynn adventure and Flash Gordon style sci-fi jaunts in The Last Musketeer.
But Jason elevates his skewering of filmic genres to a whole new level in his latest collection, Low Moon, which sees his unique takes on film noir, westerns and screwball comedy. All of the tales are informed by his signature clean lines, bright colors, sparse dialogue and taste for a particularly brutal brand of slapstick humor and occasional moments of dark, incisive brilliance that are often reached without uttering a word.
The stories in Low Moon tend to fall somewhere between the fabulous and the farcical. There are murder mysteries that are never meant to be solved in the opener ‘Emily Says Hello’, while the storyline of ‘Proto Film Noir’ hearkens back to the classic morality tales of EC comics, albeit with an absurdist bent and visual style that suggests the love child of Herge and Hal Hartley. In ‘&’, Jason explores a duo of parallel storylines, borrowing the manic energy of a Three Stooges routine and deftly setting it alongside a comedy of manners whose violence is amped up to eleven, fusing the two tales into a screwball comedy whole greater than the sum of it’s parts. Featuring tawdry sex, alien abductions, existential crises, betrayal, and a hundred and one different varieties of murder, this is a book that pretty much has it all.
The slapstick comedy and long strings of murder and malevolence are a particular guilty pleasure, executed brilliantly. The anthropomorphized, patently cartoonish characters make perfect canvasses for ridiculous violence – each one channels the archetype of Wile E. Coyote, displaying a terrifically effective range of human emotions, but remaining fantastic enough that you can still laugh when they get hit with an anvil. Or a clobbered with an antique vase. Or impaled, or set on fire, or eaten. One of the greatest successes of Low Moon is that it makes terrible violence and grisly murder absolutely hilarious – in this, it aspires to the work of greats like Chuck Jones and Edward Gorey, and comes amazingly close to the mark.
In the title story, originally published as a weekly strip in The New York Times Magazine, a beleaguered town sheriff and his nemesis engage in a phenomenally civil battle of wills with honor and the fate of a city hanging in the balance. But by disarming the citizenry and replacing the climatic gunfight with a high stakes battle on the chess board, Jason changes the entire character of the story. But after a simple game of chess that is rendered with all the intensity of a high noon showdown, the checkmate causes one onlooker to topple, mortally wounded, from a nearby rooftop, landing with a crash. It’s a scene so iconic you can practically hear the Wilhelm scream, but with no gun in sight, even the characters around the victim look confused, resulting in a scene that is at once totally at home in the story and completely absurd in its execution.
Jason’s play with genre is made most effective by his willingness to take exactly what he needs from a particular cinematic style, which is demonstrated on both ends of the spectrum in the stories contained in this latest hardcover. While Low Moon plays like a traditional western, with only touches like cellular phones suggesting anything out of place, Proto Film Noir takes only the barest thematic elements from it’s eponymous genre, replacing hard boiled thugs with homicidal cavemen for a story that shouldn’t work but does.
Admittedly, the stories are not all as good as gold. The minimalist romantic thriller Emily Says Hello, aims for a sense of Lynchian mystery, but ends before it has a chance to develop into anything more than a simplistic and frequently boring vignette. But the good far outweighs the bad in Low Moon, which, a few missteps aside, feels like the work of a talented creator who, in paying homage to the great variety of artists who inspire him, has crafted a wonderful piece of work that is uniquely his own.