Fantagraphics’ 2001 English translation of Hey, Wait… marked Jason’s American debut. It was a remarkably tight graphic novel—clean and funny and self-assured, as if the Norwegian artist had practically sprung into the world, fully-formed, sporting a cast of lean and stoic animal characters comprised of lines formed in the tradition of that much-celebrated European cartoonist, Herge.
In the past eight years, Jason has demonstrated a tremendous pace and consistency. Titles like Why Are You Doing This, The Left Bank Gang, and I Killed Adolf Hitler have helped him become one of the most popular European artists in the American indie comics scene.
The 2008 publication of Pocket Full of Rain shed some light on the artist that would become Jason, documenting his struggles to define himself visually through the collection of works from his early years as an artist.
Fittingly, in real life Jason is the quiet sort. Seated behind a table at the end of Fantagraphics’ booth at MoCCA, he says very little, dutifully crafting ink drawings of his anthropomorphic animals in the front cover of his latest collection, Low Moon, for the long lines of fans eager to finally catch a glimpse of the mysterious Norwegian cartoonist with a single name.
When I pull him aside for a chat out in front of the Armory building, he’s a bit hesitant, not fully confident in his ability to speak English. For the record, the artist has a much firmer grasp on the language than many of the native speakers I know. His answers come slowly but thoughtfully, in spite of an admission that he really doesn’t like to talk about making comics.
How’s the show been for you, so far?
It’s been quite good. The signing at the Strand and here went well. Lots of people.
Do you end up talking a lot to the fans who come to get their books signed, or is it primarily drawing and signing?
Well mostly it’s drawing. Some people tell me they’re big fans, which is nice. But I’m not that good talking to people.
Was the Strand event just a signing, or did you give a talk about your work?
No, it was just a signing. I don’t really put on a show.
That multimedia aspect doesn’t interest you? Doing slides and presenting the work?
No, I don’t really like to talk about my comics. They should speak for themselves.
The Pocket Full of Rain book was released on Fantagraphics recently–it finally gave us a glimpse of your early development as an aritst. Did you feel as if you’d had to struggle to develop a signature style?
Yeah. It took a while. The first stuff I did was in a realistic style. It took a long time, and I was not really happy with the result. The first couple of issues of my comic, Mjau, Mjau, I was just trying out different styles and the animal characters just fit right away with
the stories that I wanted to tell. They are fables in a way. That’s the style I’ll keep doing, for the time being.
You don’t foresee a point when you’ll try something different out?
Well, if there’s one story where I feel the animal characters don’t fit, I might go back to a more realistic style, but I don’t really see that happening. I think you can do all kinds of stories in that style. Like Maus. It was done with all animal characters. I don’t really see
any need to change the style., unless I grow bored of it
Maus is a particularly interesting case, with the juxtaposition of animal characters with such a brutal non-fiction story. What do you think it is about these characters that fit so well with your own storytelling?
I think they’re more universal and more humane in a way. I think everybody can identify with an animal character. I think that’s why characters like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse are so popular. Everybody can relate to them.
I get the impression reading your books that you’re an avid movie watcher—particularly genre films like westerns and film noir.
Yeah. I needed a new hobby. For a long time comics were my hobby. Now it’s my occupation. I had to do something else in the evenings. So I like to watch movies. All kinds of movies, mostly old ones, from the 30s, 40s, 50s, some movies up to the 70s. Somehow modern movies don’t really appeal to me that much. I think they were pretty much ruined by MTV.
Are you able to gauge those movies’ influence on your work?
I often get ideas from movies. Why Are you Doing This is clearly influenced by watching Hitchcock movies. The Last Musketeer is a mix between Flash Gordon movies and The Three Musketeers, the novel. The Living and the Dead is influenced by zombie movies. I think it’s fun to bring different genres together and try to bring in something new, to see it from a new angle, that it’s a bit more than just a pastiche. Low Moon is a classic western in some ways.
Except they drink cappuccinos.
Yeah, yeah and talking in cellphones. The game of chess at the end, instead of the duel.
Does movie-making interest you?
No, no it doesn’t. I can’t really boss people around, like a director has to. He has to be a lot more extrovert, cartoonsts are often more introverted. At least I am.
What about writing a screenplay?
You don’t like the collaborative aspect of it?
Yeah, you get a bit spoiled doing comic, having total control. I think it’s the medium that fits me the most.
Have you been approached by anyone about adapting one of your comics?
People have expressed interest in doing movies versions. One of the books, I Killed Adolf Hitler has been optioned. I’m not holding my breath though. If it happens, it happens. It just seems like a small miracle every time a good movie is made, especially in Hollywood.
Especially from comic books.
Yeah. Once in a while it happens, but yeah.
In the off-chance that I Killed Adolf Hitler ever makes it that far, do you feel an obligation to be involved with the making of the movie?
I guess I would be interested in reading the script and giving comments. If I said, “just give me the money and do what you want,” I wouldn’t have the right to criticize the movie later.
The Alan Moore approach.
Yeah. I’m not sure he has the right to criticize the movies, since he didn’t have any interest in them in the first place.
Do you read a lot of comics?
Well, less lately.
You’ve been too busy.
Yeah, well, when you sit around drawing comics all day… for the moment it’s mostly older comic strips, like Little Orphan Annie, Walt & Skeezix, Polly and Her Pals
and Terry & the Pirates.
Do you worry that reading newer books might influence your work?
Not anymore. I think my style is set for now. For ideas I try to go all other places but comics, like movies, books, and life, but not comics. Obviously the way I draw is very influenced by comics, especially the Tintin comics, the ligne claire style.
You draw inspiration from life—can you point to one of your books that’s more autobiographical than others?
I think Hey, Wait… is probably the one that’s closest to my life, especially the childhood part, but also the grownup part. It was very much influenced by the period that I worked in a furniture factory. But even doing genre stories, like science fiction or crime stories, you can’t help but put something of yourself in the story. I think it would be impossible not to do it. Or at least it wouldn’t be a good comic.
[Concluded in Part Two]