By Jason Karlson
For well over a decade now Fantagraphics have published the deadpan comics of Norwegian cartoonist John Arne Sæterøy, familiar to many by his pen name, Jason. “I’ve been both surprised and grateful” explains Jason over e-mail at finding an audience outside of Europe “Originally, I expected foreign royalties to be sort of a pleasant bonus. Maybe enough to go on a vacation or something. I’m still waiting for the moment when I have to go back to having a real job”. September will see the release of If You Steal his first book since 2013’s sombre, Chandler inspired Lost Cat. Eleven new tales make up his new book featuring giant reptiles, assassins, ruminations on the JFK assassination and Irish singer songwriter, Van Morrison, his work here presented as a horror comic. This time around Jason is once again returning to the short story format with this book. “If in the middle of twenty page story you discover it doesn’t work that’s one thing” says the artist on the shorter French album books he is most well known for, “If it’s in the middle of a 200 page story, that’s something else. Luckily that hasn’t happened so far”.
Historical figures, horror favorites and sci-fi classics are all fodder for Jason’s melancholic stories. This time around one of his short stories stars Mexican Painter Frida Kahlo, here recast as an assassin for hire. “Some I draw just because they are fun to draw as animal characters” he divulges on his inclusion of historical figures in his work, “Take Frida Kahlo, Her iconic quality”. Others, he admits, have more significance for him. His literary heist comic The Left Bank Gang has a group of the 20th century’s greatest writers, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Pound and Hemingway reimagined as struggling cartoonists. Attempting to pull of a high stakes bank heist the book is equal parts biography, revisionist history and hysterical crime caper as well as being one of the few books Jason has expressed an interest in revisiting. “For Hemingway it was an interest in his life. I read a lot of biographies about him” says Jason on the writer “The idea for a comic about him came later. I want to draw another album with Hemingway. It would take place during World War II, it’s a totally different story so I wouldn’t call it a sequel”.
Known for his solitary, often silent anthropomorphic protagonists his stories are often characterised by high concept ideas that combine the high brow with pop culture staples. First encountering his work through the silent, text free Sshhhh! I was immediately impressed with how deceptively simplistic Jason’s ligne claire style is on the surface, depicting the deep melancholy and dark humour within. Even in his other books his characters are often silent for a lot of the time, their dialogue clipped and to the point. Throughout his comics small gestures and silences speak volumes, portraying his characters more than masses of text ever could. Stories are expertly told through facial expressions, action and more often than not, inaction.
If You Steal, as with his other books finds the absurd humour arising from the comics high concepts. Time travelling to kill Hitler, zombie apocalypses and musketeers in modern day are all hilarious in their pitch black delivery but often serve more as frameworks for him to hang deeper stories over. Jason’s work predominantly explores themes of isolation, loneliness and the difficulties of human interaction through his trademark dry wit and offbeat mastery of dark comedy. Some stories leave you smirking and laughing, others heartbroken and devastated. The majority of them, both.
If You Steal is available to order from Fantagraphics books.
We know only two things for certain of Jason Karlson; that he was born on the wagon of a traveling show to Latverian parents, and that tales of his origins are wholly fictional. His writing style is pithy and insightful, with hints of oak and red berry, finished with earthy tones and somber notes. If he were to describe himself in a single word it would likely be self-deprecating. He occasionally tweets over at @marfedfolf and rambles on at marfedblog.wordpress.com.
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