By Matt Dube
Jason’s “Low Moon,” recently published serially in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, embodies that approaches to narrative and form that make the Norwegian writer-artist such a pleasure to read. “Low Moon” is a mock-Western, and in it, Jason deploys his strange anthropomorphic characters to jape at and celebrate the tropes of the western: the saloon, the showdown, the sheriff whose place in the town is fit to be challenged, and the competition between the good girl and the one with round heels. The strip also engages Jason’s peculiar ability to work with form and formal constraints: published a page a week, the strip never deviates from a three-by four twelve panel grid, and often manages within those straitjacket confines to deliver traditional seeming comic strip punch lines and serial cliff hangers, both at the end of a single tier and at the end of the page.
A reader might expect a comic strip called “Low Moon” to tweak western clichés, and such a reader would not be disappointed. The first chapter of the strip shows the arrival of the train to a small Western town, and the disembarking of a single passenger who sets an observer running to the sheriff’s office to announce, “He’s back,” elevating our sense of danger and then undercutting it, in comic fashion when we see the traveler standing at the rail of the saloon with one finger raised to catch the barkeep’s attention and ordering a decaf cappuccino. There is something ludicrous in ordering what I’ve learned to call “a coffee drink” instead of rye whiskey, an absurdity underlined and attributed to the traveler himself by asking the drink be decaf. The reversals continue, at once benefiting from our sense of heightened anxiety (why has the traveler returned? What will the sheriff do about it?), and then deflating them when we realize, for example, that the rematch sought between the traveler, Bill McGill, and the sheriff is not be conducted with pistols, rifles, or fists, but with rocks, knights, and pawns over a chessboard. The story proceeds in this fashion, repeatedly setting us up and knocking us down, exploiting our expectations and then redirecting them, through the final chapter, when the two men play their rematch. In the final chapter, a man even dies clutching his chest, as if to say, “you got me.” But he is only a bystander, and seems to have suffered a heart attack from the tension Jason has developed, and he tumbles off a roof where he was inexplicably standing and falls to the ground. The final panel of the strip sees another version of the classic Western ending, with the Sheriff on bended knee asking his sweetheart the school teacher to marry him, reinstating the classic Western theme of women’s civilizing influence, a thematic turn hoary enough to be presented skeptically in Stephen Crane’s 1898 short story “Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.”
The abbreviated nature of the narrative, sixteen pages published at the rate of a page a week, means that Jason is able to incorporate the elements of the Western without exhausting the genres store of stock situations. So the story opens with the arrival of a train to the dusty town, and finds its way through all the well-trod highlights of the form: we see the conversation in the saloon where two peripheral characters fret about the coming confrontation; the good girl and the bad make their appearances, as does some oblique investigation of the down-on-his luck sheriff’s flaw (in this case, narcolepsy!). For Jason, the story elements of genre are the steps in a dance routine that must remain recognizable and which will allow him to shine for the way he gets from one step to another; here, Jason crosscuts the elements of the Western with a slapstick, vaudeville sensibility, so that a panel of the sheriff being awakened by having a bucket of water thrown in his face recurs (first seen on page 2, it reappears on page 5 on and page 7). Likewise, the set-up is somewhat ridiculous: the danger of the gunfight is drained out when the confrontation is replaced by the chess match. Jason recognizes that the tension is built into the macro shape of the genre, and the actual narrative element can be changed without undercutting the drama. Throughout, Jason’s control of the elements of his story remains absolute: nearly all the panels are medium-long shots, where we can see the whole body of the characters, better to exploit their comedy potential. The choice, then, to alter the panel composition, as Jason does in on page 13 with an abstract view and a series of panels with increasingly tight focus, signals the approach of the narrative’s climax. By limiting visual changes to those that signal narrative progress, Jason betrays a confidence in his storytelling skills.
Jason’s confidence is justified, because “Low Moon” meets all its marks, delivering consistent entertainment. I think “Low Moon” is a minor work by Jason, one that doesn’t raise the narrative stakes the way some of his other works do (I’m thinking here specifically of the narrative fugue created by the multiplied time travelers in I Killed Adolph Hitler, though the same kinds of elements could be found in other longer works). But in spite of that qualification, I like it better than almost anything else the Times has published as part of their “Funny Pages” feature. The creators that have been published by the Times up till now share a suspicion of the elements of comics’ production with writers of the mainstream comic companies’ summer mega-epics, that comics need to import something outside the form to elevate and redeem them. In the case of Civil War or Final Crisis, there’s a fear that the steps available to superhero comics are interesting only when they can be used to reflect on something else, whether it is current events or some abstract laws of myth-making. Chris Ware and those who followed him in the “Funny Pages” practice analysis through evisceration, taking apart the elements of comic storytelling to show they are above such cheap thrills. Jason, at least, seems to believe that these old props can still be used to put on a hell of a show.