Sean Maher's Quality Control

Friday, August 04, 2006

REVIEW: The Left Bank Gang by Jason

I've been a fan of the Norweigian cartoonist, Jason, for several years now. The good folks at Danger Room Comics in Olympia, Washington, turned me onto his stuff (after their wildly successful pitches for Stray Bullets and Lucifer, both of which turned out to be among my very favorite comics ever) with his first two American publications, Hey, Wait... and SSHHHH!, and I was really taken with his imaginative use of such simple lines, such seemingly deadpan character designs.

Hey, Wait... was about devastation, childhood mistakes and the struggle to forgive oneself in their wake, a powerful book that really hurt to read. SSHHHH!, on the other hand, was more entertaining and funny, a series of surreal pantomime shorts that spoke the language of comics with a truly innovative sense of the form. He's released a number of strong books since then, all through Fantagraphics, but I think The Left Bank Gang is his best work since those two early classics, highlighting and maturing the emotional power his characters in Hey, Wait... bore and still maintaining the sense of whimsy and imagination that made SSHHHH! so distinctive and fun to read. If this book is any indication, Jason has truly hit his stride and can now work ambidextrously, flexing all his strengths as a storyteller within the same book. It's exciting to see, and it's a blast to read.

The gist is this: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and James Joyce are all struggling cartoonists in 1920's Paris.


The first half sets the stage - the focal characters really being Hemingway, impulsive, brilliant and a bit cold, and Fitzgerald, who struggles with feelings of inferiority among his talented friends and an increasingly troubled marriage. All these men are fighting tooth and nail for their art, but still feel somehow that they're running to stand still. Then Hemingway comes up with a plan to change everything, and the book launches into a caper story that leaves a trail of destruction in its wake and permanently changes its survivors. Chris Allen finds Hemingway's motivation unclear, and there's some truth to this, but my impression - both of Hemingway as a person and as he's characterized by Jason - is that he's an impulsive, reckless man, careless for the safety of others and struggling to think of himself as a tough guy, a trailblazer, and when response to his comics-writing genius isn't as reassuring as he hopes for, he has to fill this need in other ways. The fact that he chooses crime, and crime that involves all his closest cartoonist friends, says a lot about him without needing explanation. In fact, that's often been one of Jason's strongest points as a writer of characters; they're rarely given much in the way of expository dialogue, and their motivations and feelings are subtle and open to interpretation, which makes his work rich material for re-reading.

Jason describes his own take putting these characters together in an interview with Wizard:

I had read a lot of books about Hemingway, several biographies, his memoirs from Paris and also the collection of his letters. I wanted to use all this information in telling a story, but I didn't want to make it a straight biography. By making Hemingway a cartoonist I got a certain distance to the real events and characters. At the same time, by making him a cartoonist he also sometimes speaks for me.

I prefer the early Hemingway when he had trouble getting stories published and was a struggling writer. I could relate to him in this period. I also like best his earliest novels and short stories. Sometime in his 40s he changed. His letters are all bragging about punching some guy out and how much fish and animals he's captured. He's a lot less sympathetic. So it was the young Hemingway I wanted to concentrate on.

Paris in the 20s is just a fascinating period. It seemed everybody knew everybody. Left Bank Gang is sort of a fantasy of this period. I'm not trying to give a realistic picture.

Using real characters in a book is a bit problematic. I don't think I'm being fair to Fitzgerald in the story, but Hemingway wasn't fair to him in A Moveable Feast, and the story is pretty much seen from Hemingway's point of view. Making Zelda a femme fatale is also a bit unfair, I guess, but it fit in the story. Again, it's Hemingway's view of Zelda Fitzgerald.

Highly recommended work, this. In fact, for those who follow such things, this was a "first comic purchase" for a friend of mine just yesterday; I started reading it on the bus to meet him for lunch, and when I showed him the summary on the back of the book and the first couple pages, he couldn't get to the comic store fast enough to pick up a copy for himself.

Fantagraphics has six preview pages in Jason's section, but I had trouble with the formatting of that page, so here are direct links to the images:



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