Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Moving Red Herrings: Lost Cat

Jason's new book Lost Cat is a metahomage to Phillip Marlowe and The Big Sleep, aware of its roots even as it refers to them and ultimately moves beyond them. There are any number of superficial similarities to Raymond Chandler's classic detective novel (subsequently immortalized by Humphrey Bogart in the film version): a missing person, a shady bookstore, a jealous boyfriend, an old man calling a detective, a nude photo, the detective getting beaten up, etc. Those are all misdirects. A closer look at the book reveals a certain structural similarity. The Big Sleep was a novel that was actually a fusion of two previously-published short stories by Marlowe. He combined two plots involving blackmail, missing persons and danger into one famously convoluted story. Similarly, Lost Cat is really two separate stories. The first involves the detective (Dan) finding a lost cat and returning it to its owner, a woman named Charlotte. Dan is drawn to her and asks her out to dinner. When she never shows, he tries to track her down, finding a series of dead ends, complications, lies and mysteries. The second story involves Dan getting hired by a supposedly dying old man to find a nude painting of his lost love. This involves more lies, double-crosses, betrayals, faked deaths, and beatings. Occasionally, the two storylines intersect in interesting ways.

However, that structural similarity is functional but still not quite what Jason seems to be really interested in regarding Marlowe. Indeed, Marlowe was less interested in plot than he was in character and mood. Famously, one character in The Big Sleep is killed but his murderer was never revealed. When the screenwriters who were adapting his book called him up to ask him who it was, he said he had no idea. He simply didn't care. While Jason's had some interesting high concepts and plots in his own works, they've always been secondary to the restrained, quiet tensions in the relationships he creates. In Lost Cat, Dan starts to have imaginary conversations with his object of affection as he is thrown for a loop by her disappearance and the set of facts that just don't seem to add up. The actual revelation of who she really is and where she went is a hilarious twist, one that's foreshadowed in ridiculous fashion a couple of times in the book but seems too ridiculous to be true. Jason gets at the idea that the actual story is less important than this lonely detective's yearning. Indeed, some of the funniest scenes involve this tough guy sitting around, waiting for the time to roll around so he can go to meet her at dinner.

As always, the humor and emotion shown in this book of Jason's typical anthropomorphic animal characters is strictly deadpan. Their dry and blank expressions nonetheless contain a wellspring of emotions reflected by the artist in the way he stretches out story beats for what seems to be a panel or two too long; that tension echoes the discomfort felt by the characters. Dan gets off quips (often while being beaten up) and manages to pick up a woman in a bar, but rejects her after he sees that she doesn't have books, unlike Charlotte's home and bookstore. There's also a strong sense of humanity running in this book, as Dan visits the comatose son of his secretary in a scene that reveals this tidbit in an offhanded manner. It's a quick, quiet subversion of the noir detective trope, done in much the same way Jason manages to both celebrate and satirize the genres he happens to be working with at any given time. It's a little dispiriting to know that this is the last book Jason worked with Kim Thompson on at Fantagraphics. His books will continue to be translated and published (they're very popular), but Thompson championed him and it was one of the great triumphs of his publishing career that Jason became such a success in the US and worldwide.Some credit must go to Thompson's particular style of translation, which favored translating vernacular rather than a strict word-for-word translation. This gave Jason's books an immediate sense of familiarity to a reader, especially since the genres he works in are familiar to any reader. There's no question that Jason is still at the top of his game, producing works that are funny but sensitive. They are comics that explore relationships, desires and loneliness above all else and the lengths we will go to in order to combat our feelings of being alone. In the case of Lost Cat, Dan would rather retreat into his fantasy world than face the harsh reality of betrayal.

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