The Left Bank Gang
Published by Fantagraphics, US$12.95
Norwegian artist, Jason, is one of those artists whose work stands by itself. Using anthromorphic characters that loosely resemble ducks, rabbits, cats and dogs, Jason's themes and stories are more human than many of his contemporaries. His latest book is an odd alternative history starring four literary giants - Hemingway, Joyce, Pound and Fitzgerald, re-casting them as struggling cartoonists. The four of them, as they may have in real life, spend significant amounts of time together in Parisian cafes, lamenting their poor artists' lifestyle, and discussing techniques and story ideas. The first half of the story really establishes these characters, taking many of their famous personality traits - Fitzgerald's excessive drinking and tumultuous marriage, Hemingway's love of bullfighting - and setting the stage for the second half of the book, when the actual conflict is introduced.
That conflict, which will resonate with just about everyone whose ever worked as a cartoonist, is a scheme to somehow get some money and break the endless poverty. Hemingway hatches the plot to commit a robbery, and it's at that point when Jason's own superb storytelling skills really shine. Through a series of interrelated scenes, one from each of the main characters' perspectives, we learn that what really happened is never what each of the characters, nor the reader thought. Jason delivers one twist after another, most of which are woven together with clever visual clues like the falling newspaper clippings that Fitzgerald encounters, or the phone call that Zelda receives.
It's also interesting to see how Jason works many of his own artistic experiences into the story. For example, at one point Hemingway, at work in his studio, proclaims to Fitzgerald, "I never got the hang of the brush," defending his use of pen and ink. Later, Hemingway takes coffee at Gertrude Stein's house, only to be barraged by a litany of questionable advice, including "avoid narrative captions" and "never, ever write 'a little later'" in your panels, which, of course, Jason does in the last panel on the very same page.
Artistically, Jason's art is consistent with his previous works. His clear line is expressive, and adds enough detail without suffocating the page with overly drawn backgrounds (Joyce, at one point, proclaims to Fitzgerald "you've got to leave some white space, for Chrissake. Let the page breath!"). And while I've enjoyed his black and white art in the past, Hubert's colors add a richness and depth that really make this story come to life on the page.
Jason's choice of characters is more than simply an homage to his favorite writers. Like these authors, he integrates certain literary devices (foreshadowing, humor, plot twists, etc.) into his stories and combines them with his already honed sense of dialogue and pacing. The Left Bank Gang is definitely a good read and if you've enjoyed any of Jason's work in the past, you won't be disappointed. While I wouldn't call this my favorite book by Jason (that honor is still reserved for Hey, Wait), I would say that this is probably his best work since Shhhhh.