This post was originally published at sequart.com in 2008.
Jason is one of my favorite cartoonists, a master of pitch, tone and composition. His comics are simultaneously hilarious and tinged with sadness, a balance achieved in part through his use of a "funny animal" motif. That anthropomorphic use of animals accomplishes three things: it creates a certain reader expectation of silliness, it allows him to subvert that expectation with the use of horror, drama or slice-of-life situations, and it allows him a free hand to inject weirdness into the proceedings without breaking the flow of the story. In Pocket Full Of Rain, we see his earliest strips, many of which were done using a more realistic style. This book is fascinating for all sorts of reasons, especially in seeing Jason as a younger cartoonist cycling through his influences, trying his hand at various genres and riffing on his personal obsessions.
What's interesting in reading this is that an observer of the artist can see that Hey...Wait, his first work in English published by Fantagraphics, is really a transition point between his earliest work and what he's doing now. Jason has since moved away from that kind of story, but it's clear that his career was leading him up to that point. The title story in this collection is his longest earliest work and bears many hallmarks of his later, more mature style. There's a doomed relationship, an air of danger settling in on it, a heavy dose of weirdness, slipping between reality and fantasy (sometimes from panel to panel) and a liberal sprinkling in of pop culture references. In many ways, it's a brilliant story, with the central love story having an aching resonance. There's an exuberance to the imagery that Jason uses, but there's also a certain stiffness to the art at times. That doesn't just come across just in terms of action, but it also brings a certain unwanted emotional slickness to the proceedings as well. The central villain is much more fearsome when he suddenly has the head of a wolf, for example, but when you compare this to future Jason stories, the decorative aspects of his art almost interfere with his emotional narrative.
It's interesting to read the many autobiographical or semiautobiographical strips in this collection. We see stories about potential romantic opportunities missed, insane landlords, growing old, losing hair, not getting into art school, etc. There's a funny early strip where Jason is talking to an anthropomorphic friend coming up with lists of annoying people who should die, which ends with Jason getting shot by a character who showed up in many of the book's other strips, shooting random people. There's an insane action story called "Invasion of the Giant Snails" which reminds me a bit of Gilbert Hernandez in its zany tone and what Jason Lutes' art would look like years later in Berlin. Jason himself notes that he was going for a David Mazzucchelli vibe. This comes in a section dedicated to influences, as we see an X-Files take-off, a Basil Wolverton pastiche, a Hugo Pratt parody and a strip about Ernest Hemingway. None of this is what I'd call top-drawer work, but it is interesting to see him work through these influences and put his own stamp on their styles.
The section that reprints some newspaper strips he wrote is fascinating because his Charles Schulz influence is in such strong evidence here. The pacing, the punchlines, the surreal subversion of expectations and more are in evidence as we meet a cast consisting of a ball-and-chain convict, a sentient cactus, and sheet-wearing ghosts. The best gag involves the convict pulling aside a curtain at a polling both, and the cactus pulling aside the curtain on the other side--wearing a wig and brandishing a knife ala Psycho. These strips are hilarious and were an obvious starting point for his simultaneously silly and deadpan style that mixed in timeless gags with pop culture obsessions. The final strips are a clear lead-in to Hey...Wait in that they mix oblique symbology, an obsession with mortality and a certain lurking dread. The main difference is that he uses a sort of warped realistic style, with oversized heads and distorted facial figures. Once again, the art slightly deflects what he is trying to convey emotionally. Switching over to simpler, more iconic figures allowed him a sort of visual versatility that allows him the freedom to instantly modulate the tone of his stories and switch gears very quickly without it jarring the reader. It's also allowed him to refine his line to an achingly beautiful extent. This book is certainly a must for any fan of Jason or someone who has an interest in artistic development and its fits and starts.