Athos in America
by Jason (Fantagraphics, 2012)

Norwegian artist Jason's (John Arne Saeteroy) latest collection of short stories, Athos in America is Jason at his quiet, witty best, employing spare but powerful storytelling and featuring artwork that does not waste a single ounce of line or space. It's marvelous.

Admittedly, it might take a bit of work for someone unfamiliar with Jason's work to understand his apparently inconsequential narrative method. It may even take a bit of work for a fan to appreciate what is clearly a departure from his usual style. His way of shifting perspective on familiar myths while using the lightest of touches with his art can be a bit confusing, even in his earlier work.

It's his very particular brand of magical realism, however, that can be so engaging and thought-provoking. Jason's deceptively simple artistic style is in top form, featuring his usual bizarre but compelling anthropomorphic characters. There is more dialogue than in his previous stories, but much is still left to mannerisms and gestures. The text only adds weight to the stories, though some diehard fans might find the greater reliance on words to be a bit distracting.

The emotional resonance of this collection is much more intense than usual. This time around Jason appears to be dealing with far stranger situations and more complex themes. Gone is the vagueness and ambiguity, the sense of working the story from the margins. The writer in Jason is a stronger presence and apparently much less willing to leave interpretation up to his readers, a change of pace some might not find appealing.

Without experimentation, though, there is no growth. The characters are not the "usual suspects" who just sort of stumble into adventures without any real direction in life. This time they are more driven, some by dark motives, some by loss and loneliness, but they are definitely being directed, even pushed, by their internal selves into situations that ultimately reflect their choices. The mundane, "fumbling about" existence, wherein the outline of the story hung around in the background like a faint mist, is replaced by plot-driven action that is both complicated and defined by the characters' idiosyncrasies and nuances.

Each story is told in a strict four-panel grid, which only compresses the earnest intensity of what turns out to be very impassioned storytelling. The art and coloring are cleaner and more vivid than ever, with greater variation in the line work, a sort of visual underscoring of his exploration of more complex narrative waters.

This is going to be a "love it or hate it" deal. If you find it not to your liking, you might want to wait and see what the next book brings. Definitely worth a look, though.

review by
Mary Harvey

26 January 2013

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