This summer, Fantagraphics released the latest original graphic novel from Jason, the Norwegian-born artist known for his anthropomorphic characters and deadpan, understated storytelling. "Werewolves of Montpellier" tells the story of a thief who dons the disguise of a werewolf and finds himself in over his head after true werewolves discover his secret. The story is also full of danger, heartbreak, quiet moments and an assessment of voyeuristic opportunities on escalators. CBR News spoke with Jason, whose given name is John Arne Sæterøy, about the new book.
In "Werewolves of Montpellier," a Scandinavian jewel thief living in France dresses as a werewolf to commit his crimes, which leads to him being pursued by the town's real werewolves. "That basic concept of the story I had a long time, at least ten or twelve years. I had been thinking about it, on and off, as a possible 48 page album. It was sort of a silly concept, but it could work," Jason said. "Something was missing though, an extra element. Then came the idea of combining it with an Audrey Hepburn film. It would be sort of 'An American Werewolf in London' meets 'Breakfast at Tiffany's.' Suddenly I got lots of ideas for dialogues between Audrey and Sven and I could start working on the album."
The faux-werewolf Sven's relationship with Audrey, then, is at the centre of the book, moreso than the conflict with werewolves. But even that evolved as the cartoonist further developed the story. "In the beginning it was supposed to be the real Audrey Hepburn. Somehow still alive and living in Montpellier, looking like Holly Golightly in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's.' That's not really my favorite Hepburn movie - that would probably be 'Charade' or 'Roman Holiday' - but she's at her most iconic in 'Breakfast,' and I could draw her as an animal character and you could see who she was supposed to be," Jason told CBR. "I have already used real people, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald in 'The Left Bank Gang.' I like the idea of using real people like that, but putting them in a new context. I had drawn about five pages when I realized, she's not the real Audrey Hepburn, she's a woman pretending to be Hepburn. So it's a story about two impostors."
As with a lot of Jason's books, the fantastic (in this case the existence of werewolves) is taken for granted by most of the characters. The artist said, however, that he does not use this convention to examine or explore anything in particular, but "It's mostly for the humor, I think." "And just for creating a universe where werewolves are totally natural. The same universe where mummies run after girls and a meteor will create an invasion of zombies."
Similarly, the characters are not anthropomorphized as particular animals according to any rigid symbolic system. "It has nothing to do with their personality, whether a character is a dog or a bird. It has happened exactly once, I made the detective in 'The Iron Wagon' a dog," Jason said of purposefully choosing animals. "It seemed to make sense for that story. But besides that, it's not something I think about."
On the other side of fantastic are the "mundane" details, the sort of things that go on in a lot of people's lives. In "Werewolves," this includes a chess game during which Sven's friend Igor discusses the wonders of looking at girls' asses on an escalator and a conversation between Sven and Audrey about proper umbrella usage. "I just like that mix of everyday life and the fantastic. I find the characters and the dialogues, their relationship more interesting than all the werewolf stuff. That's mostly there just to start the story," Jason said. "Originally, I had thought the two werewolves would kill Igor, to make it more personal for Sven to go after them. But it just seemed so typical, it's what would have happened in any Hollywood film. It just didn't interest me. A conversation about looking at girls asses or the politeness of Frenchmen is more interesting."
Setting his latest book in Montpellier served both aesthetic and practical purposes, the cartoonist told CBR. "I've lived in Montpellier for five years, so I wanted to use that as the scene for the story. No need to do research! Just have to look out the window," Jason said. "In the center of the city, the streets are very narrow, so it would be possible for Sven, a fake werewolf, to move around on the rooftops, looking for places to rob. And the red French rooftops, filled with antennas, just look good. A nice place for a chase between a real werewolf and a fake one."
Though "Werewolves" does not fall into the "more or less silent" category of some of Jason's works, there is still an economy of words. CBR asked the artist whether he knew going into a project whether or not there would be dialogue and whether he had a sense of when dialogue could add to or detract from a scene. "I did several stories completely without text. That doesn't really interest me anymore. I like to write dialogues. At the same time, if a sequence works best without words, great, I'll take them out," Jason said. "Silence can say just as much as words. There's a scene in the book between Sven and Audrey's girlfriend, he knows that she is cheating on Audrey, but instead of having a confrontation, they just look at each other coldly. The same with thought balloons, which I never use. I think it's more exciting for the reader to imagine what the characters are thinking instead of being told."
Though quite dedicated to working on his own stories rather than existing characters, Jason contributed a Spider-Man story to Marvel's "Strange Tales" anthology series earlier this year. But, he said, there are no plans to pursue more of these types of projects. "I was invited to participate in the next 'Strange Tales,' but I think I got it out of my system doing that Spider-Man story. I'll continue doing longer stories, or another collection of short stories like 'Low Moon.' That's what I'm working on now, actually."
In addition to the new title, Fantagraphics has been busy collecting some of Jason's shorter works together into larger editions, as with "Almost Silent" earlier this year and the upcoming collection "What I Did," which includes "Hey Wait...," "Sshhh!" and "Iron Wagon," his first three books for the publisher. Asked if there has been any noticeable change in his style or interests as an artist since those early books, Jason noted that those three in themselves don't necessarily share a focus. "I think they are quite different from each other. Maybe the color albums have more in common," he said. "They're all playing around with different genres. If I see some difference in the future, it's possibly doing something less playful and more for real. But it would probably still be within some genre."