The world of Norwegian cartoonist Jason is a sedate, alternate history world of deadpan dogs and belligerent bunnies. In this world, animal versions of the Lost Generation of American literature produced graphic novel versions of their great works while adrift in Europe, being poor and watching bullfights.
It isn’t necessary to be deeply read in Jason’s previous efforts to enjoy Good Night, Hem, but it is rewarding — a version of the Hemingway here (along with fellow ex-pat Scott Fitzgerald) appeared in 2006’s The Left Bank Gang, in which Papa and friends commit a bank robbery. Athos, an ageless musketeer also present here, appears in both The Last Musketeer and Athos in America.
The brief summaries above of just those two characters might suggest to the uninitiated the sorts of high-concept, “low-brow” action one might expect from a Jason story, but it really doesn’t get at Jason’s dry, almost imperceptible sense of humor, which runs like an undercurrent beneath scenes of awkward social encounters, moments of marital strife, and unprovoked violence.
Good Night, Hem begins in the way that any of the more navel-gazing novels by the authors the book features might: affluent and bored, the expatriate authors of Paris wander through bars, run into one another at sidewalk cafes, and contemplate the purchase of their friend’s art in galleries. Like all those great novels, there’s a whiff of possibility inherent in a group of great minds coming together — talks of bullfights and fishing trips are bandied about — but the humorous, somewhat ironic turn of humor provides that such things, in actuality, very rarely occur. For all their bluster and dramatics, their lives are leisurely and eventless.
For those readers worried that the book might fly over their heads if they’re not deeply studied in the Lost Generation, the book walks a fine line. While a lot of the circumstances are vague and disconnected, there are small references, like Hemingway’s lost manuscripts, which get a brief scene almost apropos of nothing. On the other hand, that banal sense of spinning wheels can be applied to any lofty, self-serious group of artists — if you’ve been around communities of punk rock kids or pockets of painters and poets, you’ve lived through this sort of lazy ambition.
Several pages later, Hemingway’s famous Iceberg Theory gets calmly, casually rejected. This might be the best summation of the sense of humor present: small refutations of these writer’s place in history, presentations where they may very well have gotten it wrong (whether it be Hemingway or famous publisher Harold A Loeb on the wrong side of history).
This moment is also a perfect example of the literary barricade to Jason’s work — I can assure you that most readers won’t have any idea who the hell Harold A Loeb was, let alone why his calm and casual refusal of a theory taught in every Intro to Creative Writing course is funny. There’s also a question of whether it is funny; there’s the final question of whether or not it’s even decipherable.
That final question concerns the fact that Jason’s tight, iconic characters — models of a studied and incredible talent in cartooning — also have the problem of being incredibly similar. I had to flip back several pages to the uneventful single panel that identifies the bunny with glasses as Loeb so that the Iceberg Theory page could have its full effect. For as perfectly laid as every line in the book is, it insists on your every ounce of attention. This problem is addressed by the cartoonist himself as a gag in-world.
Good Night, Hem — and the ongoing world Jason continues to create — is undoubtedly comics for English majors, which is a high bar for entry, as it’s a very particular and fussily small club that has deciphered the works of Gertrude Stein. It’s also a little hard to not read into the work a sort of idolatry of the writers, who are becoming harder and harder to justify as we move further and further away from them. I’m not, personally, an acolyte of the Hemingway fan club — I think that he was a misogynist windbag who overinflated his own importance. But even that knowledge and opinion is now so niche in consideration as to render this book — and this review itself — unreadable to the average comic fan.
For those of us snobbily in the know, however, the book is a quiet joy.
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