July 2007

Chris Barsanti

fiction

The Living and the Dead by Jason

The graphic novel's cinematic qualities have rarely been so well wielded as they are by the artist known only as Jason (no last name on record, and he was born in Oslo, but we won't hold that against him). In one of his more recent works, Why Are You Doing This?, the depressed protagonist is thrown into a more desperate kind of funk after his best friend is murdered for no good reason and he gets the blame. A classic wrong-man scenario in the Hitchcock mold, the mood of the piece was effectively helped along by Jason's spare and clean lines, highly dramatic and imaginative use of shadow, and a point of view that evokes a camera's inquisitive lens. There would be a film in there, if only all of Jason's characters didn't look like tall, rangy dogs in human form (it's the muzzles that give them away).

Glomming on quite nicely to the current vogue for zombie-related culture in all its grisly glory, Jason's newest, The Living and the Dead, strips away what little warm fuzziness there was from his earlier book and replaces it with a funny and strangely terrifying comedy of manners -- with human-devouring zombies. The filmic style here is not so much noir as it is 1950s science fiction; think of the paranoid classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers wherein the primary fear was not so much literal death as it was assimilation into an unthinking automaton. Another influence dates back even further: there is not a word of dialogue in these 48 pages, only a few intertitles like in an old silent film. So when the meteor containing that pesky and ever-so-catchy zombie germ falls on the city and incites a cycle of cannibalistic ultraviolence, there arebno cries of surprise or shouted warnings. Instead it's just the chasers and the chased, both equally blank-eyed and pupil-less (a nod to Little Orphan Annie).

The book's nameless protagonist is an embittered sort, toiling away in a restaurant's kitchen for minor pay. With his sullen anger, lowly plongeur status, and a vaguely Continental urban setting referencing Paris between the wars, he could be Orwell without the artistic temperament. The only thing he has going for him is to work enough days and save up a hundred bucks for that hooker on the corner he's attracted to. Before he and the gold-hearted hooker can consummate their mutual attraction, though, the zombies attack, and it's all he can do -- with pistol, axe and Molotov cocktail -- to keep them at bay. As in all zombie films, the undead are relentless and strangely cunning, and in his portrayal of their assault on the constantly fleeing heroes, Jason's book, for all its mordantly comic touches (a woman ducks into a store leaving her baby carriage outside only to return to find a zombie calmly munching on said baby) has a startling and unsettling bite.

But, yet, it's a romance. And a comedy. One with Jason's stark, black-and-white cityscapes and comics-y splatter action noises ("PANG!" "THOK!"). The Living and the Dead also asks the important question: is love stronger than zombies?

The Living and the Dead by Jason
Fantagraphics
ISBN: 978-1560977940
48 pages