December 2006

Carrie Jones

fiction

The Left Bank Gang by Jason

What would happen if the top expat literary luminaries of the teens and twenties were gathered together in Paris at once? What if instead of being novelists they made comics? What if they looked like dogs and birds?

Jason answers these questions in The Left Bank Gang. This graphic novelette features F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway as friends and fellow cartoonists, surrounded by the excitement of Paris and struggling to get by. Sick of never knowing where their next paycheck is coming from, the four devise a plan to rob a bank. When Zelda Fitzgerald decides to relieve her malignant boredom by interfering with their plan, people end up dead.

Jason revives almost century-old gossip to flesh out his famous characters in The Left Bank Gang with varying success. Zelda appears as merely an alcoholic psycho, whose deviousness holds a hapless Scott in her clutches, with no hint of her complexity. Jean-Paul Sartre is a stripy-shirted hooligan obsessed with the effect his penis has on the ladies (though, as shown in Literary Lives by Edward Sorel, that one may not be too far from the truth). Hemingway and Fitzgerald are the invincible superhero and the arrogant, insecure sidekick of this book. Hemingway is portrayed as an all-American manly man that punches out detractors in the street, takes in vicious boxing matches with Joyce, but loves his Hadley and their young son. In a particularly nice touch of character building, Hemingway awakes from a horrific WWI dream beginning a sweet scene with Hadley that lends the blustery writer his Kryptonite. His relationship with Fitzgerald is fatherly, and though F. Scott depends on him for affirmation about his love life and work, as well as a strong shoulder to drunkenly rest on, Fitzgerald’s growing envy of Hemingway’s work and his unraveling personal life foreshadow doom for the two. Instead of the nasty social snubbing and tragedy that befell the Fitzgeralds, The Left Bank Gang gives the friends an end that is bloodier but much more happily cartoonish.

The temptation to litter The Left Bank Gang with literary in-jokes must have been almost overwhelming with a set-up this ripe for play. Jason does throw in a few lines here and there (regarding Dostoevsky’s confusing characters, Hemingway says, “They all have the same face and all those Russian names. I can never manage to keep track of who’s who;” on Knut Hamsen’s dense Growth of the Soil, Joyce exclaims, “You’ve got to leave some white space, for Christ’s sake! Let the page breathe!”), but never lets the opportunity for an easy joke overwhelm the story at hand. Gertrude Stein gets a nicely detailed one-page cameo that impishly sketches her as an uptight lecturer with the opinions that Hemingway is just a “young punk,” that including sex and “filthy language” is no way to sell a magazine story, and that partying is no way to live. Alice is nowhere to be seen.

By imagining these dusty old creators in the prime of their youth, full of expectations and not quite bent by disappointment or failure, Jason has created a fun alternate history and a pleasantly diverting crime story. The minimal, cool colors and detailed but uncluttered panels of the book make it a smart, funny treat.

The Left Bank Gang by Jason
Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 1560977426
48 pages