THE BETA CANON :: Hey, Wait…

September 18, 2009 at 5:05 pm By:

hey-wait_fc_thumbWhen Hey Wait first came out, back around the turn of the millenium or so, it was only by chance that we got one at the store. One of my buddies was of Norwegian descent and proud of it, and when I saw the Hey Wait solicitation, which mentioned that the author “Jason” (real name John Arne Saeteroy) was from Norway, I thought I’d get one for the shop in case my friend wanted one.

When the book came in, I picked it up and leafed through it, and at first couldn’t figure it out. Then came the big “Hey Wait” moment at the center of the book, and after that I was hooked. I’ve been an I’ll-buy-anything-by-him fan of Jason’s since then, but I still think of Hey Wait as his best work, the most nuanced, the most beguiling. Even rereading it before writing this, there are so many things I feel like I only half-understand, images that hint at something I can never grasp all the way.

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The book reads almost at first like a collection of one-page strips, each one laid out in the same 6-panel grid. Each page is its own little vignette, sometimes detailing a moment in the characters’ lives, sometimes just a collection of static images for background. Jason doesn’t tell his story so much as allow it to accrete–the moments add up slowly to a sort of comfortable, worn-in picture of a couple of friends enjoying summer, dealing with boring classrooms, confusing adults, girls, etc.

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And then all of a sudden there’s only one friend. The second half of the book is almost a mirror image of the first–everything that was pleasant about the lives of the boys in the first half is absent in the second, as the remaining friend becomes an adult burdened by guilt and what seems like a dwindling interest in life. The world of the second half is as bleak, humorless, and despairing as the first half is pleasant.

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Most good cartoonists use the form and language of comics to create something unique, not simply illustrated dialogue with occasional captions for exposition. But Jason, especially in Hey Wait, is a master. From the anthropomorphized characters, which seem to only loosely resemble a collection of dogs and birds and so forth; to the fact that instead of driving cars, fathers come home in the evenings on stilts. Or that the “tough” characters in the book, the intimidating ones, seem to be rotting corpses, with visible skulls and torn bits of flesh.

Most scenes we’re shown in the book are quotidian in the extreme, such as the page featuring six panels of the boys reading comics, then agreeing in the last panel that Neal Adams is the best Batman artist ever. But in another, the boys’ kite is stolen by a passing pterodactyl. Hey Wait is normal enough to be your own life, but these little touches of strangeness lend it a pervasive dreamlike quality that forces you to reexamine things that otherwise you would not look at twice. Hey Wait is probably the most obvious in this; in later works Jason would tone that dissonance back to a more nuanced position, letting the situations and his characters’ often bland reactions to them do most of the heavy surrealist lifting.

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One of the stranger things about how Jason constructs his pages is that they often are not composed in a traditional way, with compositional elements directing your eye around the page. This is not to say they’re not composed–but Jason (usually) seems to be composing per panel. Each panel seems to be a snapshot of a moment–his pages rarely flow like a Jeff Smith‘s or Paul Pope‘s might, but rather are often a series of little cages, with the action stilted and chopped up. I’m inclined to think that this is, at least in part, a conscious decision–Jason’s stories are never about things flowing. If there is romance in his books, it is uncomfortable romance. If there is a battle, it is a clumsy battle. And, because of the static image quality of the panels, it often feels like, instead of being carried along as part of the story’s flow, we are forever merely watching it, removed from it–another level of discomfort? It’s hard to say whether or not certain choices an artist makes are purposeful or accidental, and harder to say whether it matters. But I’m a fan of Jason’s, and I prefer to think that he’s a smart dude making some ridiculously smart comics.

If you haven’t read Hey Wait yet, mm-mm you’ve got some good reading ahead of you. And if you have and dug it, I would also recommend The Last Musketeer, The Iron Wagon, and especially I Killed Adolf Hitler, one of my favorites. Oh but that new Low Moon is good too, and how could I leave out The Left Bank Gang? Jeez, he’s good. There’s a great profile of him at the Read Yourself Raw site too, that might be worth your time.

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