Silence in comics: an interview with Jason

Silence in comics: an interview with Jason
During Lucca Comics & Games 2019 we met Jason, the Norwegian author now back in print in Italy after a long absence from the shelves. We tried to discover his birth as an author and the reason beyond his silent animal-shaped characters.

Amongst the almost too rich in important international guests Lucca fair, Jason didn’t go unnoticed to us: featuring a unique style of his own, his stories, populated by animal characters, are a mix of action, horror, surreal and romantic settings, yet always retaining a personal touch made of silences, blank stares, melancholy. We had the chance to have him for a few questions.

Hi Jason, and thank you for your time in the first place. Let’s start from the very moment Jason was born as an artist: when did you decide to devote yourself to making comics, and what did inspire or influence you?
I started doing comics as a kid, 18 years old maybe. I read a lot of comics at that time, some superhero comics like Batman, Spiderman and also the classic French-Belgian albums like Lucky Luke, Gaston, Spirou and also Tin Tin which I think was the real inspiration that made me start doing comics. So that was the beginning, I started working for this humour magazine in Norway, and I made some money from selling comics and most money I spent on buying more comics, and author comics like Moebius, Bilal ,  Hugo Pratt.

The scandinavian comics scene is yet not so popular, in spite of many talentuos artists. What are the typical Norwegian traits in art and culture that have shaped your education and career?
I don’t know, we have long cold winters in Norway, that affects our work and it might hear some savour of melancholy, maybe, in the comics which you also see in the local Scandinavian art tie… Bergman, Aki Kaurismaki… so that’s the thing I can think of

Your career is more than 20 years now, with many books published; yet your creative vein doesn’t seem to be stopping. What do writing and storytelling mean to you?
Well, now I try to look outside of comics, and the way I draw is very much influenced actualy by the ligne claire but for stories I try to put more influence by movies, I already mentioned the Kaurismaki that I like, and people like Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and also the old movies from Buster Keaton and silent movies… yeah lots of science fiction movies, western, film noir (05:18 ???) I like, and also writers, I think Hemingway has been an influence, Raymond Carver, his short stories I like, so mostly from outside really of comics.

Your poetics makes large use of silence as much as of inaction: your characters think, or just stare, and yet the reader is not quite aware of their feelings. What effect are you trying to achieve this way?
I like silence in comics. For the most part I avoid thought balloons, I don’t want to say that the characters are thinking, the reader has to make up his own mind or guess what the characters are thinking.

Is it important to you that the reader and the characters stay somewhat distant, rather than looking for identification at all costs?
Well, the fact that my characters are often silent, and that they show no expression, I think it creates some sort of distance, and at the same time, just as having no thought balloons, the characters showing no feelings, again the reader has to put their own feelings into the characters and guess if the character is sad or happy or what feeling does he have, so I try to make some meeting between me as artist and the reader, so the reader has to do some interpretation of the story. If I have one rule in making comics it’s don’t tell everything, leave a little mystery for the reader to find.

Speaking of which, what about your choice of using animal characters in your stories?
I did an  album in a realistic style, this was around 30 years old, it took a long time and I was not quite happy with the result , so I started trying out different other styles, including animal characters, which I thought it worked better for the stories I wanted to tell. I think there is something more universal about animal characters, everybody can identify with them, some of the magic of, like, mickey mouse and Donald Duck.
Now I’ve been drawing these characters for 35 years maybe, and I think there is no limit, we can tell all kind of stories with animal characters, even more serious stories . I don’t see a problem, I don’t see  any reason to change, I think it works best for the stories I want to tell.

Melancholy, irony, invention are words that well describe your work: what’s their role in your idea of comics?
Irony is not something I really think about, melancholy yes, I can see that in my work. I try to have like a balance between humor… but at the same time I think that at the bottom of the story there might be some melancholy. And often I have thought that a sad ending has more effect than a happy ending. Again, I want to give the reader something to think about; if everything is solved at the end, if everyone is happy, I think the story is easier to forget. A sad ending sits longer in the mind of the reader.

On the camino is a bit different from your other stories. It tells about your pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. In the story the focus is mostly on you and your comments, ranging from laconic to caustic. So you fluctuate between telling your personal journey and criticizing this sort of tourism. How was the story born , and why did you feel the urge to write it?
Well, as I mentioned in the book , I turned 50 years old and I wanted to mark it somehow, and I heard about the camino. I live in France where the camino starts, so it all came together and I decided to do it myself, to walk the whole camino to Santiago. I brought a notebook and a sketchbook so I made some notes and some sketches , so about half way into the camino I knew it could be a book. So the camino took 1 month to walk, the book took about a year to make and people can read it in half an hour. Yes it’s my first autobiographical book, which is something I stayed away from. I thought that it would be wrong to turn the walk into fiction so it had to be autobiographical. So you have the practical side of just walking every day, but also there is some stuff about  shyness  or social anxiety. I have some problem talking with people, or I used to, but on the camino it’s much easier to stat conversations with people and I wanted to express that in the book. 

Beside comics, you have been regularly keeping a blog (catswithoutdogs.blogspot.com) for ten years now. It collects your paintings, short reviews, pictures taken during your walks, and everything  in the same tone as your comics. Can we say that it is an extension for your narrative work? and, why did you choose this way, among others, to communicate with your readers?
I don’t have a website or Instagram or nothing, I started a blog to have some possibility to meet the readers, to talk about the books I make, talk about movies I like. In the beginning I did lot of movies reviews, I often write about books I read, I might show some sketches while I’m working on the book, ad also sometimes people send me suggestions for music or movies so yes, it’s like a conversation between me and the readers.

Jason

Jason (John Arne Sæterøy) is a Norwegian author living in France, also successful in the USA, where he’s
considered as a classic of contemporary comics. Master of visual rhythm and of a remarkable graphical
coherence, Jason has experimented almost every narrative genre in an original way, with a preference for
horror and noir.
Balancing between delicate humor and deep melancholy, his works may be (and often have been)
compared to Aki Kaurismaki’s movies; yet they bear lots of other influences, like Hergè, B-movies, Hugo
Pratt, Ernest Hemingway Buster Keaton, Ingmar Bergman.
His stories have been translated into 15 languages and have won various prizes; they’ve also been featured
on the “Sunday Magazine” in “New York Times”. Jason lives in Montpellier, France.
(translated from www.luccacomicsandgames.com/it/2019/comics/ospiti/jason )

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