Thursday, November 2, 2017

Catching Up With Rob Jackson

I've been reviewing Rob Jackson's comics pretty much as long as there's been a High-Low, and his wonderfully eccentric sense of humor continues to drift into new narrative directions. His three issue series Volunteers has the look and feel of someone who has some direct knowledge of (quite literally) trainspotting, or at least the industry born out of nostalgia for old modes of transportation that include trains. Jackson starts with a simple premise: a group of highly disparate people are volunteers for an old-fashioned railroad line that provides some folks with transportation, but it's mostly a local tourist attraction, with movie nights, gourmet nights, etc. The volunteers conduct the steam trains, shoveling in coal, polishing them, repairing them, etc. One thing that was obvious in reading this series is that Jackson really enjoys drawing trains and drew them freehand but with a remarkable amount of detail.

Jackson piled a romance story and a gangster story on top of this otherwise cute and eccentric milieu, as one of the volunteers hesitantly begins seeing another, who happens to be the son of a city councilman. No matter the genre, Jackson's trademark has always been piling narrative on top of narrative in order to create interesting interactions between characters and unexpected situations. Sally and her boyfriend Tristram go through the usual ups and downs of people getting into a relationship, but they also go undercover to investigate the office of a shady businessman who threatens the existence of the train's business. The story is a funny one, but Jackson adds down notes like Tristram genuinely getting disillusioned when he realizes his father is corrupt, or how sad and lonely Old Dan's life is. At the same time, everyone gets to have a role in saving the train line, even including the obnoxious busybody Imogen, who saves the day by delaying a deal from going through simply by walking into a meeting and blabbering on. It's a wonderfully ridiculous scene and precisely the sort of thing that Jackson's so good at. There's also something incredibly British about this comic, not just in terms of vernacular but also culturally. It's all relaxed and low-stakes, as Jackson can't quite help but gently make fun of genre work while producing work that's squarely in that realm.

Japan is a travel zine from Jackson, and it was a nice excuse to craft a souvenir that's part collage, part scribbled drawings and part brushwork. I think there's some magic marker in there as well, but it's all black and white. The difference is in terms of the plastic quality of the line--big, thick and full of energy. He drew various pagodas and nature scenes in this style, trying to capture as much visual information as possible as spontaneously as possible. It works, as I got the sense of the essence of what he was trying to capture without losing any real sense of detail. Jackson talks about things he sees, food he eats and odd things he encounters along the way, great and small. There's one page where there's a copy of the Tokyo metro system, annotated by Jackson to note the things he had done at each stop and favorite bars. Japan reflects his other work in that Jackson shows a genuine curiosity about the entire world and has a knack for turning anything into a narrative that he can't quite take seriously. His crude character designs fit his world just fine as they're expressive, distinctive and functional, especially since he particularly delights in drawing ugly characters. However, Jackson is never deliberately cruel to his characters, even the villains, as everyone is more-or-less part of the joke of existence in his eyes.

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