John Arne Sæterøy may not be a household name, but his cartooning pseudonym may soon be. Best known as the one-named Norwegian cartoonist Jason, Sæterøy’s been slowly building a following across Europe and into the United States.
Jason’s books – among them The Last Musketeer, Low Moon, Sshhh!, The Left Bank Gang and more – have achieved critical acclaim and established a solid, and growing, fan base. Mixing classic line art in the vein of Hergé’s Tintin with deadpan humor and an enthusiasm for genre elements, Jason’s comics achieve a universality of hilarious, exciting adventure and accessibility.
Almost Silent, a nearly 300-page hardcover omnibus of four of Jason’s earlier books, arrives in stores in late February, offering readers a chance to get caught up with Jason’s work, or to experience it in a new, high-end edition.
We caught up with Jason to discuss the evolution of his comics and, among other things, the influence of Ernest Hemingway.
Newsarama: Jason, thirteen of your books have been translated into English for American readers now. How has the reaction been from your perspective?
Jason: I'm grateful the books seem to have found an audience and are selling. It's not something I take for granted. There are better European cartoonits than me who have had problems finding an audience in America. I don't have a website or a blog so I don't have that much contact with readers except at signings and conventions. It's always good for the ego when some pretty girl says she's a fan.
Nrama: The translation should be easy, as all four pieces are nearly silent, but Fantagraphics next U.S. edition of your work is going to be Almost Silent, a compilation of four earlier pieces. What can you tell us about the four short stories – “You Can’t Get There From Here”, “Tell Me Something”, “Meow, Baby” and “The Living and the Dead”?
Jason: As the title says, a lot of the comics are without text. In the beginning it was something I did to reach outside of Norway, to skip the whole problem of language. Then I realized it was something I liked doing, it was easier for me to work without text, it was easier to improvise stories. And then at some point it became a challenge to write dialogue, which is what I've been doing in the later albums.
Nrama: How long ago were these stories created?
Jason: I'd say between five and ten years ago. Some, the earliest silent comics, might even be twelve years.
Nrama: When you look back on your older work, do you wish you could change anything?
Jason: The stories for the most part I'm still happy with. Some of the drawings seem a bit clumsy to me now. "The Living and The Dead," the most recent story, is probably the one I'm happiest with, in that regard. Sometimes the characters can look a bit too similar, when it's only the shape of the nose that separates one character from another. This is something I have more in mind with later books.
Nrama: You seem to really enjoy exploring genre elements – both zombies and Frankenstein’s monster appear in Almost Silent. What draws you to storytelling traditions such as these?
Jason: I don't know. They are just story forms that appeal to me. Genres are sort of open frames that you can fill with whatever you want to talk about. They are fun to do and give you a certain freedom. "You Can’t Get There From Here" is probably one of my most personal stories. A lot more, I think, than if I had tried to do something directly autobiographical, or more serious. Often it starts by just wondering what a silent zombie movie would have looked like. Or what the Frankenstein monster would have been like if he was a horny adolescent.
Nrama: Your work has a very understated, deadpan quality, a quality not normally seen in comics. What influences, within comics and outside of it, do you see in your work?
Jason: The drawings, of course, are very much influenced by Hergé and the Tintin albums. The clear line and simple storytelling you find in those albums is a style that really appeals to me. I like film directors like Bresson, Kaurismäki and Jarmusch, where the camera doesn't move too much and the actors are pretty much told not to act. It's a more minimalistic style, where it's almost right on the edge of being boring. There can be poetry in those kinds of images. I like a writer like Hemingway who, at least in the early books, wrote in a very simple language. I like when things are left unsaid, when you have to fill out some of the pieces yourself.
Nrama: The deliberate pacing is a large element of your work. Nearly every page is locked into a solid grid and you don’t go in for extreme close-ups or angles very often; what does that sense of structure give to your work?
Jason: Again, visually it's a style that appeals to me. I like the structure of the grid. It gives each act the same weight. It's up to each reader to decide which one is more important. It doesn't look messy. It's important for me that the page is readable, that it's clear and hopefully appealing to the eye. As a cartoonist you shouldn't take for granted that people want to read your comic. A lot of comics, if you pick it up and look at it, you wonder, why on Earth would I want to read this thing?
Nrama: I love your anthropomorphic character designs. They add just a touch of surreality to the outlandish circumstances in your stories. Is it difficult to balance that line between adventure story and comedy?
Jason: Well, I hope the reader forgets at some point that he is looking at cats and dogs, standing up and dressed as people, that in the end they are characters you can identify with and believe in. The animal characters are, in some strange way, more human and more universal.
Nrama: You’ve been gaining incredible international recognition, here in the States, in France, and throughout Europe. Has the ability of your work to reach across languages and cultural divides surprised you?
Jason: No, not really. I grew up reading and enjoying comics from France and from the U.S. I don't see why I shouldn't enjoy some comic by some guy living in some village in Russia, or why someone living in, say, India, shouldn't enjoy my comics.
Nrama: How does this international recognition compare to your profile in Norway?
Jason: There's no big difference. I'm not a bestseller anywhere. It's more on a cult level, which is fine with me. Outside of Norway, people often see some kind of melancholy, Scandinavian quality in my comics.
Nrama: What are you working on now, and when can we hope to see in the U.S.?
Jason: I just have an album out in French; it's a werewolf story. It will be published in the U.S. in July. I'm in the middle of a new album, the first where I work with a French writer. It's more of an all-ages book, about pirates. Nothing is planned, but I hope Fantagraphics will be interested in publishing it. It should hopefully be finished in March. And then I'll start a new 48-page album or I'll do a new collection of short stories.