What I Did (Fantagraphics)

Fantagraphics offers up another three-in-one hardcover collection of Jason comics that’s as brilliant as it is a bargain.

268 pgs. B&W; $24.99
(W / A: Jason)
Norwegian cartoonist Jason is a genius, full-stop, and that statement is undeniable by anyone who has even a passing knowledge of his work. If there are any readers out there who can count themselves amongst those unfamiliar with his comics, Fantagraphics has taken steps to ensure that they have no excuses for that situation continuing.
Shortly after their recent release of some of Jason’s uncollected short works in Low Moon, Fantagraphics began reprinting slender volumes of Jason’s work in durable, affordable hardcovers with the release of Almost Silent in March, followed by a second volume, What I Did, just a week ago. The best selling point for these volumes is their sheer existence. Each one is a hefty tome with a high page count, offered at a very reasonable price. What I Did collects two of Jason’s acclaimed previous works, Hey Wait and Sshhhh!, which carry on their own respective price tags of $13 for 68 pages of material and 128 pages for $15. Here both of those stories are contained within an elegantly designed hardcover for only $24.99, which is quite a bargain in and of itself. Beyond that, the pot is sweetened by the inclusion of a third story entitled The Iron Wagon, which has long been out of print in the US.
At this point, What I Did is practically selling itself, but those still in doubt can be assured that, apart from it being an excellent deal, the quality of the work within this book is impeccable. Any fan of Jason’s can tell you that the anthropomorphic animals that populate his stories are among the most human characters in all of comics. Despite the fact that they have the heads of dogs or birds, these characters feel like real people. They laugh, they cry, they live lives of quiet desperation. Readers cannot help but feel the longing in Jason’s characters and empathize, and the protagonists of each story within What I Did are no exception.
Jason’s art style too is flawless. His illustrations are deceptively simplistic, as he brings these cartoon animal characters to life with the subtlest of details. It is impossible to confuse artwork by Jason for that of anyone else working in comics today; the methods he has mastered are his and his alone. Nowhere is that mastery more evident than in the main character of Sshhhh!, whose depth of emotion is conveyed by the slight curve of an ear, the tiniest hint, almost just an implication, of a brow, a miniscule change in the shape of his eye, or three simple sweat beads.
If there is a drawback to What I Did, it is the volume’s incongruity. The first two stories in the collection are near silent explorations of the themes of death and coming of age, low on plot but steeped in moods of loneliness and despair, with just a dash of black humor thrown in to spice up the mix. Hey Wait focuses on the lives of two boyhood friends and how the adult life of one is tinged with guilt and emptiness due to the tragedy that befell the other in their youth. It is a heartbreaking story heavily reliant on the use of surreal imagery. In that same vein, Sshhh! is a totally wordless look at one man’s life, his desolation crafted with a great deal of symbolism. As each vignette of the man’s life unfolds, readers watch as he copes with lost love and death, surviving only through a stoic and stubborn sense of perseverance.
Yet the third story, The Iron Wagon, doesn’t seem to fit with either of these previous tales. First, it is the only story in the volume that is not wholly Jason’s, as it is an adaptation of a murder mystery first published in Norway in 1909. It reads more like Agatha Christie than Jason, for the detective is decidedly Poirotesque. The plot has its share of twists, certainly, but atypically for a Jason story, it is very straightforwardly told with only a few dream sequences. Perhaps most abnormal is the fact that The Iron Wagon contains more words in its first 25 pages than in the entirety of the 200 pages before it. It is indisputably a gripping story told brilliantly and well worth reading, but it feels out of place in this collection alongside its two companion pieces.
This conundrum however is a minor one, easily solved by simply reading each tale separately. While the works collected in Almost Silent flowed together so seamlessly as to encourage the book being read in one sitting, What I Did rewards those who instead parse out its pages into unconnected experiences. Each story on its own is unquestionably superb, and readers will delight in the moods Jason evokes and the artistic techniques he employs. Together the stories in What I Did are sterling examples of Jason’s fantastic skill as both an illustrator and a storyteller that are well worth the purchase in spite of their vast differences in tone, style, and content. | Steve Higgins
Click here for more information on What I Did as well as a trailer and a 23-page preview, courtesy of Fantagraphics.

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