By now, I’ve read three comic books by Jason, the relatively mysterious, mononymous cartoonist, and I still find it hard to properly describe his style. He is playful in tone, delicate in themes, yet distinct in approach and design. Not to simplify his work, but he often takes high concept genre narratives – time travel (I Killed Adolf Hitler), wrong man thrillers (Why Are You Doing This?) – and buries them in very human, ho-hum contexts, gently undercutting convention with dry humour.
He is without immediate peer, and perhaps the closest I can get to him is Jim Jarmusch, the indie film director who, in a more overtly arty sense, takes American film genres like the western (Dead Man), prison (Down By Law), and gangster movie (Ghost Dog), and refracts them through his deadpan stoner wit.
Werewolves Of Montpellier is Jason’s (a Norwegian, who now lives in France) latest work. It comes emblazoned with a back cover quote from filmmaker John Landis, excitedly proclaiming it to be “another werewolf story to warm the cockles of your heart!” This is, no doubt, delivered with cocked eyebrow, or tongue placed in cheek, or voluminous beard split by a great big Landis grin, because Werewolves of Montpellier is anything but ‘another’ lycanthropic story.
Sven is a foreigner in a French city. He spends his days playing chess with his pal, Igor, or hanging out with his Hepburn-obsessed neighbour, Audrey. By night, he burgles. Donning a werewolf mask, he sneaks through open windows and ruffles through drawers and closets. Why a werewolf? Well, if anyone spots him, he says, they’d be too scared to attack him, or cry for help. But one night he’s photographed in the act, and the local coven of real werewolves aren’t too happy about having their cover blown.
That’s the plot, anyway. Boiling Werewolves Of Montpellier down in such a way doesn’t capture Jason’s subtle, subversive humour, a significant amount of which is carried through his particular art style. Very much in the clear line mode of artists such as Hergé (Tintin), Jason’s pages are full of straight edges, minimal strokes and blank spaces, often with uncomplicated backgrounds and sparse details.
It’s a remarkably stifling style, especially when combined with his drab anthropomorphic characters and consistent use of a (cramped, by mainstream measure) two-by-four panel layout. Even though he tinkers with it at times, with a page given over to dizzy drunkenness, expressed by oddly-angled perspectives within the same framing, this is more for humorous effect than formal experimentation. It’s certainly not a medium for action, for example, and his moments of movement, such as a moonlit chase across the urban rooftops, have a starched quality that calls attention to its own absurdity.
It’s a form made for melancholy, which suits his anti-genre approach. For Werewolves Of Montpellier is less about the grand sweep of its pseudo-horror set-up (which is utterly demolished by a delicious final page denouement), and more about its mundane aspects, which resonate further than the book’s forty-odd pages.
These odd little vignettes consist mainly of warm character moments, such as Sven and Igor discussing the culture and women of their adopted country (“There’s one weird thing about France… When you’re introduced to someone, even a man, he always says he’s…” “Enchanted, yeah. That’s weird.”), or the developing relationship between the protagonist and Audrey.
It soon becomes apparent that Werewolves Of Montpellier is a story of loneliness, of a romantic adrift in a different culture, pining for a lost love, stumbling through his social life, and observing as the relationships around him crumble or lose meaning.
This would be dreary if it weren’t for Jason’s dialogue, translated from the French by Kim Thompson with a mix of pith and bluntness, which achieves a particularly cheeky tone when addressing the more supernatural elements of the book with laconic familiarity (“Do you know how to kill a werewolf?” “Yeah, my granddad killed one once in Rumania” “No kidding?” “Yeah.”).
Jason remains a unique creator, as Werewolves Of Montpellier once more explores personal themes within a gently parodic context. It may seem arch to some, and certainly might confound those drawn in by testimonials by the likes of Landis, since it is less an American Werewolf, and more a character-based twist on the urban-set, banal, and darkly absurd Warren Zevon song, Werewolves Of London, which famously starts: “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand, walking through the streets of Soho in the rain…”
Werewolves Of Montpellier is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.