Review by Graham Johnstone
“Why are You Doing This?” is a question asked by a fugitive, first of his rescuer, then his antagonist, so providing the title of this sixth English book by Norwegian John Arne Sæterøy, aka Jason. He was, by this time, well established with a Harvey and other awards to his name.
The uninitiated might literally judge Jason’s books by the covers: anthropomorphic animals rendered in a simple clear-line, cartoon style…? While it’s his writing that’s his strength, his simple art style masks visual exactitude and nuanced storytelling skills. This was first published in France, where anthropomorphism is a more accepted convention in comics for adults. His characters are also far from ‘funny animals’. They’re more likely to be depressed, downtrodden, fatalistic… like Alex, who we find here bed-bound. He’s been dumped by Claire who (unlike him) wanted to go places and do things, or as Alex puts it: have the kind of experiences “you can relate at an evening with friends”.
Claude’s going travelling, and asks Alex to water his plants. The two look very similar, necessitating careful reading at times – like when they’re having a phone conversation from their beds. This scope for mistaken identity triggers the main plot, turning a relationship story into mystery/thriller. When Alex catches the eye of someone in the flat opposite Claude’s, it throws him into the very experiences he normally avoids. He makes some surprisingly assured, possibly implausible, escapes, but he’s no simple action hero, and the events he’s caught up in present a number of compelling moral perspectives.
Jason’s writing, like his art, is understated. As a writer-artist he doesn’t need to assert his writerly presence with prolix captions. There’s no narrative text to explain the plot or direct reader reactions. Even the dialogue is restrained – across the eleven panels on the first page there are a mere seven words – and that’s counting a sound effect. Yet the dialogue both progresses the story and gives insight into the characters’ moral and philosophical dilemmas. There’s a good example of Jason’s understatement early in the book when Claude bumps into a couple who’re going to see Singing in the Rain – we only discover the significance much later, when we hear Alex talking about the same film – this is the woman who dumped him, going to see it with his replacement.
All this adds up to an affecting human story, that’s also gripping, unpredictable and a story about stories. To return to the question Why are You Doing This? – perhaps the characters do the things they do, (such as harbouring a wanted man), to have those stories to tell at the aforementioned “evening(s) with friends”. Perhaps the reason Jason the writer is doing this, is because such events reveal and change character. He never hits us over the head with lessons or conclusions, but these events push Alex from passivity to bold activity, to form relationships with new people, and ultimately take decisive action to protect them.
By the end, the thriller has reverted to a relationship story, and Jason doesn’t distract with an extended action climax, instead letting us read between the lines. Does Alex live to tell the stories he now has? Let’s just say the book ends with friends sharing stories.
Jason’s (appropriately single-named) colourist Hubert adds a mostly autumnal palette with subtly different schemes for each sequence.