Sleepy in Seattle

Jar of Fools, Parts I and II by Jason Lutes (Black Eye)

Beneath the visual pyrotechnics and layers of skillful drawings, most graphic novels neglect their most basic responsibility: the story. And like any other story told in any other medium—graphic novels live or die with the quality of the writing. Employing the reliable tools of all fine writers (remember mood, sparseness, language?), Seattle-based Jason Lutes has created a stunning two-book comic. As Ernie, a down-on-his-luck magician, and his posse of misfit grifters evade the police and search for redemption, Jar of Fools transcends the limitations of its genre and winds up a damn good book.

Originally serialized in the comics-packed Seattle alternative paper The Stranger, the book displays a novelistic mastery of rhythm. “I set out to create a dense experience,” says the 26-year-old Rhode Island School of Design grad of Jar’s smallish black-and-white panels, which are packed to the point of cramped. And the language remains plush enough to sustain the plot through twists so jarring that pulpy Dashiell Hammett springs to mind.

Despite its writerly bent, Jar’s characters are so generously defined that the reader cannot avoid the intimacy experienced while viewing a superb movie. Displaying influences of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch alongside those of Faulkner, Lutes says, “Jar of Fools is intentionally cinematic.” Movie staples like dissolves and form-cuts add a visual continuity lacking in duncier sequential work.

In one scene, Ernie, despairing at the romantic and economic prospects faced by a wizard with a shaky hand, peers out his tenement. A run-down flat with two darkened windows automatically suggests a skull to the reader. When the next panel reveals that Ernie also finds a skull in his imagination, he becomes more than a 2-d character on a flat page. It’s not an epiphany. Not over-the-top. Just a powerful little moment.

Lutes is not a virtuoso. He renders Jar’s shaggy-haired characters with a hand that suggests he’s seen more than his share of Love and Rockets. But before the sort of mealy-mouthed shallowness that infects too many comics can ever gain a foothold, Lutes dons his writer’s cap. In one scene, Ernie receives a note from Esther, his estranged ex. “I can’t pretend to know what you feel, but please believe that it can’t be too far from this pervasive sadness that drains the color from my every moment.” It’s a beautiful sentence and anyone who’s ever been there knows it rings true.

Lutes has big plans for the future. His next project is Berlin, set in that city in the 20s. “Berlin doesn’t exist anymore—physically, culturally. The challenge is to populate an environment that no longer exists.” Planned for 24 issues over six years, it’s an ambitious scheme for a young artist. But if anyone can pull it off, it’ll be a creator who has proven he can reinvent the language of his medium.

Jar of Fools, Parts I and II by Jason Lutes (Black Eye)

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Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of Sea of Reeds Media. He is the former editor in chief of the New York Observer and also founded Green Magazine and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

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