Saturday, November 1, 2008

JAR OF FOOLS, by Jason Lutes

Before reading Jason Lutes's Jar of Fools, I'd always thought of magicians as showy, desperate nerds... like Criss Angel. This book put magicians in a new light for me, a light shared by con men, cafe workers, and other down-and-outs, which is actually a pretty big step up in my mind. The principal magician-type dude in this story is Ernie, aka the Amazing Ernesto. He's a depressed alcoholic trying to cope with a broken heart--the heartbreaker being his ex-girlfriend Esther, a disgruntled, depressed cafe barrista. Ernie's also plenty messed up by what happened to his older brother, an escape artist who drowned during his last attempt (which is, depending on how you look at it, either a failed escape, or the most final and successful escape possible). Al Flosso, or Flosso the Magnificent (he's a magician too), serves as Ernie's main friend, but only when he manages to remember who Ernie is. The rest of the time Flosso dwells in geriatric senility; usually forgetfulness, but sometimes vivid memories that temporarily supplant reality. A homeless confidence man and his daughter round out the rest of the cast.

Jason Lutes says his work has been most influenced by European and French comics, and that's apparent on every page of Jar of Fools--this book is a lot closer to Tintin and Snowy than Batman and Robin. That means, among other things, you get more panels per page, and a generally slower pacing, than what you'd find in the typical superhero piece. And that's a good thing for this type of story. It gives little incidences the chance to sink in, to reach greater emotional depths than they would otherwise be able to reach. In conversations the reader gets to watch as a character hears something, thinks about it, and then responds; this opens up the idea that the characters are cognizant, capable of thought, aware of and affected by the world around them. On the bottom half of page 52, for example, you get seven panels, only three of which include dialogue. The other panels, the one's lacking words, provide dead-air, space that reveals the sense of disconnectedness provoked by what has been said.

The artwork itself, a meticulous blend of cartoon simplicity and surprising realism, is also more in line with European comics. The settings are lavishly detailed and very real looking when shown, but that's probably less than half the time (if an average page has 10 panels, maybe four will include background). The rest of the panels focus on the characters, which are often drawn in pretty simple terms, especially in the beginning of the comic. During moments of stress or high emotion, a character's face receives extra attention--frown lines, tendons standing out in the neck, bags under the eyes, etc.--which heighten the drama for the reader. Another technique used to this effect is the inclusion of character shading--in most panels a character's face shows no shadows whatsoever, but in especially poignant moments the shadow-work is elaborate. Usually this works pretty well, but sometimes it feels a little heavy-handed (page 40 panel 4, for example).

Despite the similarities with European comics, much of what Lutes draws is marked by novel little details that seem like they've been pulled straight from the real world: the way rainwater slides down the outside of a window (page 13 panel 10), the way light coming through a rain-wet window paints the figure of a person inside (page 30 panel 6), the way thick glasses refract and distort the image of the eyes behind them, the way creases run across the bulby end of a nose when the nose is wiped (page 139 panel 6). The art is chock full of these visual authenticities, which make the world Lutes draws a richer place. It shows that he's a talented observant, as well as a talented artist.

Despite Lutes's skill at translating visual aspects of the real world to his page, each page also reflects the artist's hand--you are very aware, throughout the book, that every image was drawn by a human being. Again and again Lutes chooses to draw multiple panels in which one character remains static, and you can see how the image inadvertently changes in tiny little ways despite the fact that the person is intended to be perceived as constant. Pass through at a normal reading pace and you might not note it, but if you pause and look, it reveals the meticulous dedication the artist had for his subject.

The plot differs from traditional American comics, too; if anything, it's bohemian. These are characters who are defined by their inability to succeed in conventional society--they are united by the fact that they can't successfully conform. That can be tricky to portray without resorting to, or stumbling up against, cliche, but Lutes does a good job of sidestepping the stereotypes. Each character feels fully fleshed out, actualized. Their responses to the world around them are consistent, and reveal a lot about who they are as individuals. Of course, Lutes doesn't pick the most varied group of people to work with--they're all white, they're all members of the underclass, they're all depressed or vulnerable in some way. The two who stand out most from these unifying characteristics are Al Flosso and Claire, the con man's kid. But even these two are largely defined by the same thing: their longing for lost relationships.

In the end, the solidity Lutes gives to his characters stands as both the greatest strength, and the most notable weakness, of the work. The characters compel us to follow them, to watch them, and to be interested in them; they drive the story. But the story is split amongst so many solid characters that Lutes feels compelled to wrangle closure for all of them in the final pages, and he doesn't manage to do it. The way he twists the plot to accommodate the entire cast feels contrived, and a bit disappointing when compared to the quality of the rest of the work.

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