A treasure map, a pirate ship, a closely-held secret and a young girl searching for her father -- no, this story isn't going where you'd expect. Displaying all of the keen wit, sharp twists and disarming sincerity readers have come to love in books like "Werewolves of Montpellier," "I Killed Adolf Hitler" and others, "Isle of 100,000 Graves" teams the artist known as Jason with writer Fabien Vehlmann for a wholly original adventure tale that pushes both creators in an intriguing new direction. Vehlmann is renowned in Europe for graphic novel ("album") series including "Green Manor," "Seuls" and his current run on "Spirou et Fantasio," though few of his works have been translated into English, with the Sean Phillips-illustrated "Seven Psychopaths" being a notable exception. Jason, whose given name is John Arne Sæterøy, is a Norwegian-born artist known for drawing his characters as cats, dogs, birds and other animals, and for having these characters do extraordinary things. CBR News spoke with Vehlmann and Jason about their work on "Isle of 100,000 Graves," which arrives in stores June 8 from Fantagraphics.
"Isle of 100,000 Graves" is notable for being Jason’s first long-form collaboration with a writer. "I expect to run out of ideas at some point, and then I will have to work with a writer, so I tried it out now to see how it felt," Jason told CBR News. "I met Fabien at some festival, and we knew each other's work and talked about doing a book together. I had actually done a little two page thing with him for another project some years before. Anyway, I was curious about working with a French writer, and since he is also a quite well known comics writer in France and I would possibly reach a wider audience, I felt this was the right time."
Vehlmann told CBR that he first discovered Jason's enigmatic stories while trying to introduce a girlfriend to comics -- but, rather than the usual story of comics readers offering a "gateway" graphic novel, she introduced him to new material. "When I met my girlfriend (a philosopher), she didn't care at all about comic books. She made an effort to come into a comics store, but she was picking only radical or underground books -- which I didn't know at that moment of my life, 'cause I was only interested in 'mainstream' comics at that time, shame on me. Then she discovered Jason's work and told me to read it too: then I fell in love with both of them (my girlfriend and Jason's work).
"I met Jason a few years later, in a book-store, as he was signing his books," Vehlmann continued. "We talked a little bit and he told me that he had liked one of my albums, 'Saturday and Sunday,' drawn by Gwen de Bonneval. He then told me he would like me to write a story for him, one day or another. And it finally happened, to my greatest pleasure !"
Jason said that Vehlmann suggested the idea of a pirate story and things progressed from there. "I thought it would be fun to draw pirates. I also told him, please keep the sailships to a minimum! I didn't want to draw a lot of realistic sailships from all sorts of angles," Jason said. Though the collaboration was essentially a straight writer/artist division of labor, Jason said that he was given some leeway. "I was free to do changes in the drawings if I felt like it, I didn't need to follow the descriptions in the script. For the text, there was maybe one or two places where I made some suggestions."
Fans of Jason's previous work will notice that Vehlmann's sense of humor is quite similar and plays flawlessly with the the art. "We both love dark/deadpan kind of humor, and his drawing is just perfect for that. His very minimalist style also allowed me to talk about horrible things without being too shocking," Vehlmann said. "This is how I made the choice to talk about torture, for example. Any other kind of drawing would have been awful, for such a story."
"I was a bit surprised by the darkness of the story, since I figured it to be an all-ages book," Jason said. "I think my stories can be dark occasionally, but Fabien went much further than I had expected when the story reached the island. Like the scene with the parrot in the dungeon, it was almost like a Treasure Island film suddenly being directed by David Lynch."
As for the story itself, "It starts out as a pretty traditional pirate story," Jason told CBR. "There's all the visual clichés, like the captain with the wooden leg, the guy with a parrot on his shoulder and so on. There's a treasure map. But then it changes tone when they get to the island and the hangman's academy and becomes something else, hopefully something a bit more unpredictable."
Vehlmann described the story of "Isle" as "a cruel tale for all ages, about a young girl looking for her father; a story full of adventure, humour, pirates, executioners and love -- something between 'Pirates of the Caribbean' and Jim Jarmush's 'Dead Man.'" Though the book does indeed begin as a pirate yarn, the young girl soon finds herself on an island school for executioners, at which, intriguingly yet inevitably, some students just can't pass their exams. "I really wanted to show the absurdity of torture: in this school, students learn how to make people confess anything (even -- and above all -- false and invented stories), and when they succeed in that, the poor victims are brought to another section of the school where students learn how to execute them," Vehlmann explained. "This entire Kafka-style system is based on that goal: torturing and killing people, that's all. The director of that school never talks about 'finding the truth' or 'defending his country...' It's just a job, and an awful one."
The horror of the school, while taken to an extreme, has its roots in history and relevance to present-day concerns about torture. "You know, in France, a lot of men had resorted to torture in Algeria, and it has been quite a trauma for our people to discover that our army had such a 'savoir-faire' in that field (a savoir-faire we have exported in South America, for example...). For a country that is so proud to be called the 'Country Of Human Rights,' it's totally cynical," Vehlmann said. "Understand me well: I'm not naïve, my father was a professional soldier, a pilot and I know that sometimes a certain form of violence is necessary, when a fight is 'right,'" the writer continued. "I just hate the talion law, pretending that if our enemy is brutal and cruel, we should be like him. If we pretend to be 'civilized,' we should be able to act as humans, not as animals. And torture often leads you to be as scurvy as your enemies, and acting like this, we're both heading for a terrible cliff."
In 2010, Vehlmann and artist Yoann took the reigns of long-running Franco-Belgian comic "Spirou et Fantasio" with Book 51, after having collaborated on a one-shot that launched a spinoff series in 2006. Vehlmann described working on an established character like Spirou, whose adventures have been ongoing since 1938, and creating his own worlds in books like "Isle of 100,000 Graves" as "very different challenges, but in a way, similar."
"For Spirou, it's obvious that I haven't much room to maneuver, because the fans are expecting to see some famous characters, and they want me to respect the 'mythology' of that long series -- I suppose it's like being the writer of Batman in the USA, for example," he explained. "But in a way, it was a little bit the same with Jason: I love his incredible and unusual style, and I didn't want to change it totally... So even if I created the entire story and the characters of 'Isle of 100,000 Graves,' I also did kind of a 'forger-job,' trying to write as if I was Jason but also bringing my own private topics (death, childhood, etc...), which was a very exciting challenge.
"It's totally different when I write a script for myself -- I can then totally create my story from nothing, just trying to include elements that the artist will enjoy illustrating, 'cause I know he'll spend a great amount of time on an album (almost one year), so I want him or her to 'enjoy the journey.'"
Following this rare team-up for "Isle of 100,000 Graves," Jason will be returning to solo work for another volume due in short order from Fantagraphics. "I'm working on the last couple of pages on the next book, which will be another collection of short stories in the same format as ‘Low Moon,’ and where the script also will be by me," he said, referring to the recently-announced "Athos in America." "It should be out in English by the end of the year. After that, I have a couple of ideas, but nothing decided yet."
Beyond continuing with "Spirou" and his own series "Seuls" ("Alone") in French -- the latter being another dark yet all-ages story about a group of children lost in a town where everyone else has vanished ("Childhood and Death, again.. my favorite topics, I told you!") --Vehlmann has a few other interesting projects on his plate, at least one of which will be released in an English language edition. "One of my other books will for sure be translated soon in English, 'The Last Days of an Immortal,' a SF story drawn by Gwen de Bonneval, set in a future world where humans can live forever: the hero, Elijah, is a policeman and an 'exo-psychoanalyst,' that is supposed to investigate on alien-crimes dealing with humans... like 'NCIS' meets 'Alien.' And in a totally different field, right now I'm also working on an erotic book, gathering short shorties about sex."
"Isle of 100,000 Graves" is available June 8, 2011 from Fantagraphics.