|Jason, Meow, Baby! (Fantagraphics, 2006) $16.95|
by Jared Gardner
I am starting to think I must be the only one who doesn’t get the whole Jason thing. I’ve been keeping it bottled up for years, never putting up the least bit of resistance when the comicsenti start waxing poetic about his “poetics,” or gesturing widely about his eloquent mime. But I can’t shake the feeling that Jason is, in fact, more than a little overrated (and overpublished). Now don’t get me wrong. I’m as big a europhile as any denizen of the Ivory Tower you could hope to meet, and I often tortured with midnight anxieties that I am missing a whole world of exciting comics in Europe because of the failure of the New York City school system to give me any foreign language skills beyond 3rd grade. As a Norwegian comic creator who makes his home in France? Jason should have had me at “Meow.” And to look at the critics, I must surely be missing something really profound. “He is the Kafka and Keats of the comic world," Sherman Alexie, himself a remarkably overrated minor talent, tells us.
With all the hype and peer-pressure, I had hoped to find something in Meow Baby to convince me that I had been wrong. This book moves away from the novella form of his earlier books to focus on short (1-4 pages) humorous sketches featuring a familiar cast of muppet-like mummies, vampires, and skeletons. Compared with any single page of Brunetti’s latest issue of Schizo, the whole was both remarkably un-funny and un-profound. In the end it made me nostalgic for my lost volumes of Matt Groening’s critically undervalued Life in Hell, where the existential wackiness is always more meaningful and the comic minimalism is always more, well, substantial. But other than making me long for lost volumes of other people’s work, Jason’s new volume did nothing to convince me I should be rereading his books.
A Jason devotee told me my problem here was that I am too hung up on text and therefore have no appreciation for “silent” comics. There is some truth to this. I do believe that silent comics are an art form as distinct from “true” comics as the pre-1927 silent film is from sound cinema. And I will confess for the record to believing that part of what makes comics such a powerful mode of communication is the deployment of text and image simultaneously, in a system that is never entirely in sync, never fully reconciled. Silent comics always feel like they are getting off a bit easy. The very least, then, one might expect is some wonderfully dynamic panels or meticulous draftsmanship. But Jason is at best a fairly pedestrian, even juvenile artist. He handles movement across panels in the most predictable and ham-handed way, and I believe the suggestions that he is indebted to Hergé’s clean-line style to be a grave insult against the Belgian master.
In the end I am glad Jason exists. If he gets some coffee-house undergrads to take comics seriously, then it is all for the good. And I can only assume his books are bringing some much-needed revenue to Fantagraphics (how else to explain their willingness to publish a new volume of his work every few months?). But to those who love comics and have lived with the form throughout their reading lives, surely we don’t really want to claim Jason as our Keats or our Kafka, do we?