Jason Lutes: Jar of Fools

Jar of Fools by Jason Lutes
published by Faber Trade Fiction,
distributed in Australia by Allen & Unwin
RRP: AUD $29.95

It is the recurrent and tragic curse of the appreciation of le graphic novel in the Anglosphere that highest praise, just like in the geeky introduction to Jar of Fools, soars in this vein: “Jason Lutes not only writes and draws good comics, he writes and draws good literature.” Through the Pulitzer-winning Maus, spawning the documentary comic from Joe Sacco to Satrapi’s Persepolis, comics have found their way out of the geek ghetto as substitute literature, as books with pictures.

To praise an achievement in a medium by elevating it to another, superior medium, is nonsense. Just like no film can be flattered by calling it, say, so good it’s no longer film, it’s theatre, so should a graphic novel not be asked to be prose. In this conflation of words and excellence, American comics are caught in an uneasy point, in which credibility is bestowed upon them by literary reviewers, for whom wordiness seems to signify accomplishment, who may be well-placed to position Tomine with Raymond Carver or Jason Lutes with Hemingway, but whose understanding of the purpose of images within comics often seems no better than sketchy. In this precarious balance, trying to keep happy, on the one hand, an audience that rarely articulates its own preference (rather than tribal and personal taste), and on the other an articulate, but often profoundly misguided mainstream collective of reviewers, many graphic artists seem not to be learning the rules of their own medium. The community, in other words, sometimes seems to be breaking down as a guild, losing its craft, its sets of skills.

To praise Jar of Fools for its literary merit is an even greater overlook, specifically because Jason Lutes is as good as he is because he understands the difference. Reading Lutes’s work, one is astonished by the fluidity, the ease with which images tell the story, so skillfully is the eye guided through the images. Lutes writes and draws, visibly, in the cartoonish Franco-Belgian school (citing Herge’s Tintin as a huge influence), characterized by a certain light, solid craftiness, and has often made a public attempt to remove himself from the American mainstream. In interviews, he has often complained about the lack of simple mastery of the medium that graphic artists (in the US) seem to exhibit: from the angles employed, the story-telling tempo, to the right amount of text on the page. To my surprise, I find that his clear, realistic yet simple style, and slightly off-beat humour, remind me strongly of Max Bunker’s Alan Ford, although it would be a strange coincidence indeed if Lutes was aware of this Italian classic. What may be shining through, instead, is a loan from the Italian simplified realism, artists such as Manara, or Giardino. Whichever case, it is a finely wrought graphic skill quite unlike the clunky, self-conscious attempts of the underground artists, or the over-computerized stylization of the new American mainstream. Like the best of craftsmen, Lutes makes his medium invisible.

Jar of Fools, first published by Black Eye Productions in 1994, re-published by Drawn&Quarterly in 2003, and finally available in Australia in a sexy faber&faber edition, is Lutes’s first graphic novel. Not quite fitting into any category, it is simple, genreless, graphic novelism. In a Seattle that’s neither now nor in the past, a hopeless, aimless magician Ernie Weiss is trying to get over a failed romance and rebuild a career with the help of his mentor, Al Flosso, who is combating dementia. A con man with a little daughter (who may be the greatest magician talent of them all) joins them in their drift through life, while Ernie’s ex-girlfriend Esther wanders in and out of the story, haunted by the suicide of Ernie’s brother. Jar of Fools evokes many things: early 20th-century stories of hunger and unpaid rent, from Hamsun to Hemingway, monochrome early Jarmusch, the vague sadness of the urban loser graphic novel genre. Most incisively, however, Lutes is able to say great things about bereavement and loneliness, using nothing but clean, subtle drawings.

It is an autumnal, quietly poignant tale, and it trots along with poise and grace until, in a sudden injection of haste, the last 15 pages turn the book into a rushed, Hollywood-like tying of loose ends, coupling of the separated and tragic but inevitable parting of the close. There are many reasons why a serialized comic in the early 1990s would take such a turn, but not a single one makes up for the fact that a fine, very fine graphic novel is thus turned into something similar to a well-done weekend afternoon television movie: a little gem unloved by every part of the system that creates it, except the enthusiastic author.

The Berlin books, Lutes’s current project, is certainly a more mature, balanced read. The second part of the envisaged trilogy, Berlin: City of smoke, has been recently released and is ammassing praise around the world; and it is the one Jason Lutes work I would suggest merits the ‘masterpiece’ moniker. Jar of Fools is merely a solid first graphic novel, and a good introduction to an ambitious young artist, committed to his craft.