It's always a happy occasion to receive new work from Rob Jackson, in part because one never knows what to expect from him. Horror? Science-fiction? Fantasy spoof? Autobio? Some combination thereof? There have been subtle changes for this artist with a remarkable work ethic. His line is still crude, but his layouts are getting clearer and simpler. His actual draftsmanship has improved, especially in a project like The Storytellers where he clearly worked a lot with outside reference material.
Let's start with part two of Jackson's horror-Americana mashup California. What I like best about it is that the protagonist, Billy, is suspicious of what deviltry his minister brother is up to, even as he can't begin to fathom the true weirdness that's going on. Expecting devil statues and whatnot, he ignores things like his brother buying occult books or bringing down dark forces as he worships on a hilltop. Jackson goes with the full Lovecraft treatment when a church aide (after drinking too much communion wine drawn from a dark, magical source) starts to grow serpents out of his body and uses them to open a mysterious door the minister had managed to uncover. While Jackson slowly reveals the increasingly creepy details behind the minister's machinations, he still keeps the reader guessing. The minister claims to be a force for good, but what's he really up to? There's a plain-spoken bluntness to Jackson's prose, that John Steinbeck-folksiness, that subverts the expected Lovecraft purple prose, making the the story all the more effective and unsettling.
The Storytellers is a labor of familial love, as Jackson weaves together family vignettes stretching over two hundred years. The story begins with Jackson's great-grandfather (also named Robert Jackson) as a boy, just after his mother had died. He was sent to live with his grandfather in his pub, who comforted the mourning lad with tales from his days as a smuggler. He told stories about his father being shot at by Americans during the War of 1812 and having his ship confiscated by them, as well as a story about his grandfather in Canada, trying to hike his way to New York after abandoning the British army. It's one of many colorful tales of Jackson run-ins with authority, including an uncle who was nearly executed in Chile, a relative who had to skip town after dropping some concrete on a cop, a female relative who skipped out on her husband to run off with a colorful salesman, a great-grandfather who drank way too much, another relative who demanded that that the men of his family have a drink and remember him at every pub en route to the cemetery (only to be thwarted by the women of the family who changed the route to avoid pubs), and a grandfather with grim war stories.
Structurally, the book (it's a beefy 75 pages) is fluid in its storytelling, jumping back and forth in time in a way that makes sense. Jackson is careful to establish key members of the family and then work forward and backward as the focus switches from young Bob Jackson to his descendants. What I like best about this book is that these are clearly treasured family stories passed down as part of a tradition of pub storytelling. Jackson clearly put a lot of thought into how to properly record these family stories in print for posterity in a way that made sense and paid proper tribute to the best of the storytellers. It helps that the family has no censor whatsoever, relishing their scrapes with the law and their adventures just outside it. Despite that craziness, one can also sense a long tradition of love, support and continuity in the Jackson clan; despite the misadventures of many children, they were always welcome back. This may be my favorite of Jackson's comics; it has the flourish of his fantasy stories with the unvarnished truth of his autobio.