In her review of Low Moon, The L's Becky Ferriera described the graphic novel this way: "Each line and frame could mean nothing or could mean everything in this quiet, gripping book." Ferriera recently interviewed the book's creator, Jason (pictured at left, in a portrait by Jason Lutes), to ask-among other things-why his frames often lack dialogue, why he incorporates historical figures, and whether he feels particularly Norwegian or not.
The L: Low Moon is a collection of five short stories featuring very diverse characters, settings and tones. However, all five share similar narrative and thematic elements, and when read all in one sitting, each story seems to shed light on the others. Was each story developed separately, or had you always intended for these five to be in the same collection?
J: Low Moon, the story, wasn't long enough for a book of its own, so I had to include some other stories to fill it out. They were just ideas for shorter stories I had lying around. There wasn't meant to be any thematic unity. Death, I guess, is a repeating theme. People die a lot. At least two of the stories are influenced by film noir. There are also some narrative elements that are repeated. The fact that they're all genre stories, science fiction, western, crime, also gives them a sort of unity. So I might have had that idea in my head when I was working on the stories, that they should fit together in a collection.
The L: Low Moon's first story "Emily Says Hello" is the grimmest in the collection, whereas the final one, "You Are Here" is the most touching. Was it a conscious decision to bookend Low Moon with different tones? How important was the order of the stories to you, and how did you decide it?
J: It was a conscious decision to open with "Emily Says Hello" and end with "You Are Here", for the reasons you mention. I hoped "Emily" would be like a punch in the stomach of the reader. I don't know if I achieved quite what I was hoping for with "You Are Here", but emotionally it's the richest story, so it fit at the end. It has hopefully a lot of room for the readers own interpretation. "Low Moon", since it had been in The New York Times, I wanted early in the book. "Proto Film Noir" is the weakest story so I put that towards the end, and "&" fit in the middle.
The L: Your stories are tightly constructed and intricate; they have several graphic, verbal and narrative punchlines along the way, which then build to larger punchlines at the climax. What is your usual method of developing a story? Do you begin with sketches or with plot outlines? When is dialog introduced? Do you go through multiple drafts?
J: There's no one method in making the stories. It depends. It's often improvised. Sometimes I know how it's going to end, but not always. I never write a full script. I usually work on about eight to ten pages at the same time. Sometimes I do small sketches first; sometimes I draw directly on the original. Sometimes I have a dialog written down, sometimes the images come first and I have to come up with the text as I'm drawing.
The L: One of your trademarks is the use of lanky anthropomorphized animals as characters. When and why did you first begin to experiment with this form? What made you decide to use animals almost exclusively?
J: I started out with realistic drawings, but it took a long time to draw and I was never totally happy with the result. I tried out some other styles and the animal characters were the ones that fit me the best, they fit the kind of stories I wanted to tell. For the characters to be animals make them more human in a way.
The L: Your collection Pocket Full of Rain features some characters drawn as humans. Do you have any plans to include "human" characters or characters in other forms in your future books, as opposed to the anthropomorphized animals?
J: If one day I come up with a story where I feel the animal characters don't work, I might go back to the human characters, but I can't think of what kind of story that would be.
The L: Much of your work is completely without dialog, with characters always wearing deadpan expressions, no matter what the situation. Despite these verbal and visual limitations, your stories are surprisingly emotionally resonant. What other parts of a character or panel do you focus on to affect the reader in a more visceral way?
J: It's a matter of holding back, I guess, to leave room for the reader. If the characters don't show any emotions the readers must invest their own emotions into the characters. And if the characters have no thought ballons the readers must guess what they're thinking. If I have some sort of rule for my stories its this: Don't tell everything.
The L: Your artwork seems to inherit as much from film�€”in particular silent films and film noir�€”as it does from other graphic artists. Which visual artists have most influenced your work?
J: Well, the drawings are obviously influenced by Tintin, the whole ligne claire style of Hergé. From movies I've gotten inspiration from a lot of the silent films, like Buster Keaton. Any kind of old movies, really. Western, film noir, old black and white monster movies. Of recent directors I like people like Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and especially Aki Kaurismäki.
The L: Your stories often place famous fictional and historical figures in a new context. In The Last Musketeer, Dumas' Athos fights a Martian attack; in The Left Bank Gang, F.Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway hang out in Paris and naturally decide to orchestrate a bank heist. I Killed Adolf Hitler is pretty self-explanatory. Does the impulse to recreate a world for these characters (excepting Hitler) derive from a genuine affection for them, and a desire to create an homage or to even "own" them in some way? Or is it more that they make for an interesting aesthetic?
J: For Left Bank Gang, I had read a lot of biographies about Hemingway, his memoirs and collection of letters. The idea of turning that knowledge into a comic came later. I didn't have to do any research since it already had been done. The Last Musketeer started by watching old science fiction film serials from the 30s and the 40s, like Flash Gordon. Low Moon came from old westerns, of course, especially High Noon and Rio Bravo. So yes, I guess the stories often grow out of an affection for some genre. It's not for making fun of something or to do a parody.
The L: The diverse range of iconic characters and genres you use in your work also suggests a varied reading list. What authors have influenced your work most over the years? What books have you returned to over and over, and what have you been reading most recently?
J: It's mostly American writers. Hemingway and those who followed him, the dirty realism genre: Bukowski, John Fante, Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolf. The old pulp writers that went on to write novels: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, David Goodis, Charles Willeford. Lately I've been reading John Steinbeck and Dos Passos.
The L: Has your work had a different critical reception in Norway as opposed to other European countries? What about as opposed to North America? Do people in each region respond to different elements of your work?
J: No, I don't see that much of a difference. Outside of Norway people often see a Scandinavian, melancholy quality in my comics, which I suppose is not totally without accuracy. Must be the long, dark winters.
The L: Do you think your work has a specifically Norwegian voice? Do you feel like you are part of the Norwegian canon, or even a larger Scandinavian canon?
J: I don't know. I'm not sure if I have a particularly Norwegian voice. My first album and short stories took place in Norway, but the later color albums all take place somewhere else. Paris, Brusses, or Mars for that matter.
The L: How did you choose your pen name? I want to believe it is the Argonauts, but feel free to dash that hope if you must.
J: It's not a very exciting story, I'm afraid. In the begining I used to sign my comics with my initials, JAS, and then I simply put ON at the end.