I was disappointed by Low Moon, Jason’s last collection of short stories. Simply put, some of the stories felt a little undercooked and didn’t linger very long in my memory. Jason’s deadpan style sometimes requires some room to stretch out in order for him to fully explore the ways in which his killer genre concepts cross-pollinate with quotidian concerns. In Athos In America, the ideas behind the first three stories are so clever and punchy that they carry the rest of the anthology. Furthermore, the stories are constructed such that, due to their structure alone, any further padding would be impossible. In many ways, Athos In America feels like the artist looking back at his body of work to date—it’s been about a decade since Hey…Wait came out in America and he became an international star.
Any comic by Jason is going to have some familiar components. The humor will be deadpan, the body language of his characters deliberately stiff and cold, and their visual appeal heightened because of their status as anthropomorphic animals. That tension between image and action has always been at the heart of the emotional content of Jason’s comics. It has also made it easy for genre tropes to coexist with the mundane elements of his comics. Above all, what his comics have in common is Jason’s fascination with structure and performance. By “structure,” I mean that he’s interested in the ways in which genre stories are expected to develop and resolve—and in how to subvert those expectations. He does this either by introducing unexpected twists or else introducing some absurd but deadpan element that changes everything. By “performance,” I mean that he’s fascinated by the ways in which genre characters and roles can be exaggerated in a way that’s not unlike an actor chewing the scenery in a film. Jason is interested in classic cinema, and his animal characters are his own little repertory company for the stories in which he’s director and writer. Despite the frequent lack of affect on the part of his characters, it’s Jason’s characterizations that ultimately provide the most memorable moments in his comics, not his plots.
Both the opening and closing stories of the book revisit characters from Jason’s past work. “The Smiling Horse” is a good example of Jason’s fascination with structure and expectations, as we revisit the criminals from the story “&” from Low Moon. This is a pulp fiction narrative with two desperate criminals and the woman they’ve kidnapped, and the sense of doom they feel when they learn that someone named the Smiling Horse is after them. Jason subverts expectations here by never revealing the specifics of any scene: how someone dies, how someone escapes, or even who the Smiling Horse is. At the same time, the reader gets the sense that these kidnappers are in way over their heads, and the sad-sack antics they got into in “&” become deadly very quickly.
After opening with this grim attention-getter of a story, Jason shifts gears with “A Cat From Heaven”, which is described as a “Bukowski pastiche” in the promotional materials. In it, Jason portrays himself as a hard-drinking, hard-loving, hard-living artist who has a love-hate relationship with his live-in girlfriend. After yet another explosive fight, Jason kicks her out, gets drunk, goes to a comics reading (late, of course), goes to a party, picks up a girl in the least romantic way possible, and then can’t perform when the time comes (imaginary newspaper headline in his head: “Famous Cartoonist Can’t Get It Up”). Finally, Jason is beaten up, then gets back together with his girlfriend, before winding up back at the drawing board, with plenty of fodder to write about. This is one of Jason’s more broadly funny strips, one that focuses on the fantasy element of being something that he’s not while satirizing the ideal of a Bukowski-like lifestyle. It’s the details that make it work, like Jason pulling a switchblade on a fan who mutters something while walking away from him. This is an example of a story where performance is everything.
Jason’s love of classic cinema and genre-bending reaches its most inspired heights with “The Brain That Wouldn’t Virginia Woolf”, a pastiche of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Jason tells this story in reverse chronological order, and the reader gets the brunt of both the sci-fi weirdness of a head being kept alive in a lab as well as the brutally toxic but co-dependent relationship of the husband and wife. Things get more tragic as we see them struggle with the ethical ramifications of him finding her a new body, the failures he encounters, their initial courtship, and the accident that puts them in this situation. The cleverness of the set-up and the way Jason manipulates emotion make up for the ways in which the characterization is more rote and reliant on its source material, as the strip’s protagonists chew the scenery like Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.
“Tom Waits On The Moon” is Jason’s take on Robert Altman-style narratives with multiple unconnected characters. Each page features a single character without dialogue, just thought balloons. Each character expresses his or her own sense of grief, regret,or pure self-loathing (here disguised as misogyny). One of the characters is a scientist working on a teleportation device, and all four characters are slowly brought together for an explosive and tragic conclusion. Once again, Jason balances structure and characterization, as the reader must gather clues from their interior monologues as to their motivations and actions while the actual momentum of the story moves very slowly, speeding up only at the very end. Along the way, the plainness of the characters’ thoughts adds an emotionally raw and revealing element to the book that’s not in the other stories, giving nuance to the importance of performance in his work.
“So Long, Mary Ann” is another Jason gangster story, a genre that seems to hold a particular interest for him. Half of the story about a convict who breaks out of prison with the help of his girlfriend focuses on that couple and the odd woman they pick up as a hostage along the way. The other half of the story concerns the boss he’s trying to get money from, who is comically violent over the least of offenses (he eventually kills his right-hand man for blowing his nose). After he leaves his girlfriend and runs away with the hostage, the convict realizes just how deadly ridiculousness can become. This story again balances Jason’s interest in story structure with straightforward character motivations, but this time adds an absurd comedic element to the mix that nonetheless does little to ultimately lighten the drama.
Finally, the titular story brings back the star of The Last Musketeer, a great character that Jason seems to have been born to write. Jason re-introduces a single absurd element–that Athos the Musketeer is both immortal and now bored–and spins its story mostly off-panel. The story is really about Athos leaving America after having foiled a crime (allowing the structure of high adventure to have its moment in the story) and having failed to get his career in Hollywood off the ground. It’s a decidedly downbeat and even anticlimactic note for this book to end on. Of course, since this story is a prequel to The Last Musketeer, it serves the purpose of adding a bit more depth and soul into the character of Athos, making that other book all the more poignant as a result. Despite his style, Jason is quite effective in modulating emotion from story to story, going from gags to violence to tragedy, sometimes all in the same story. Jason is in total control of all aspects of his storytelling, and, even after a decade straight of ambitious publishing, it seems as if he’s just getting warmed up.