Usually the term “recluse” is one that’s applied to enigmatic literary figures like J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. Recluse though is a term you rarely hear applied to people in the comics industry. So much of a writer or artists’ career depends on becoming a minor celebrity, and going through the rigamorale of comic-cons, webcasts, twitter, blogging and so on. Jason though has become something of a celebrity in the comics world, and has done so without giving away so much as his surname, and the jackets to his graphic novels never contain an author’s photograph. Maybe Jason is the kind of artist that believes what matters most is the art, and not all the hoopla that surrounds the person in question.
Whatever the case, the world knows Jason by his work. He’s an artist whose work you can identify at a glance. His characters are all anthropomorphic animals in suits, but unlike Blacksad or Elephantmen, he draws them with as little embellishment as possible. All of his books are an exercise in minimalism.
What I Did is a graphic novel released last year collecting together three of his previous graphic novels into a single handsome hardcover volume. It’s also a good bargain, considering the individual graphic novels cost $13-15 a piece, while What I Did is only $24.99. The pages themselves are scaled down, but I didn’t mind this, as it made the book more convenient to carry around.
Of all of the graphic novels Jason has put out through Fantagraphics, I’ve read all but three, and I can say that based on my knowledge of his work, his best stuff is collected in What I Did. The three stories originally came out between 1997 and 2001, so he must have been on a good streak then. The three stories here are insightful, exciting, and surprisingly moving. Each one deals with an existential worldview where characters are known by their actions and their words, not what they feel inside. Their interior lives can only be guessed at. Not only are there no thought bubbles, but the characters themselves barely change expressions except for when they go into paroxysms of anger or despair, and even those moments are few and far between.
This collection includes The Iron Wagon. This is the book that first got me into Jason’s work. You’re not going to find a comic quite like it. The book is a comic adaptation of a Scandinavian mystery novel from 1908 that has never been translated into English. Jason takes what was most likely a potboiler and turns it into a chance to create something new.
A lot of his other books are funnier than What I Did, and if that’s what you’re looking for, check out The Last Musketeer or The Left Bank Gang by Jason.
Also, I’ve noticed libraries seem to be fond of his work–everything I’ve read by him I’ve found at libraries. Give your local library a shot before you purchase the book. It’s so different from other comics, that it’s possible you won’t like Jason’s work, or at least won’t like it right away. If you do like Jason’s comics, you might also like Cinema Panopticum by Thomas Ott. Both are published by Fantagraphics. To visit the Fantagraphics site (they publish a lot of cool, rare, unusual comics) click here.