The Last Musketeer by Jason, Fantagraphics Books, $12.95.
This may well be my favorite of Jason’s works yet, and considering how highly I esteem books like The Left Bank Gang and I Killed Adolph Hitler, that’s high praise indeed.
For those unfamiliar with his work, the Norweigan artist known as Jason primarily toils in the realm of genre mash-ups. Why Are you Doing This is an ode to Hitchcock with an existential bent. The Living and the Dead is a zombie pastiche. Meow Baby offers comedic takes on various horror and sci-fi icons. The only book that really avoids easy genre classification is the emotionally powerful Hey Wait, which served as his American debut and to an extent left some readers (at least those disdainful of genre trappings) with a sense of unfulfilled expectations ever since.
What keeps these books from being mere sheer exercises in style, however, is Jason’s strong, memorable characters, his sharp sense of humor and his deep sense of empathy.
You wouldn’t think this would be possible at first glance. He consistently draws in a flat (though colorful and well-detailed) style and rarely if ever allows his anthropomorphic characters to show even the barest hint of emotion. He lays his stories out in a very structured grid that he never deviates from (Hitler, for example is an eight-page grid all the way through. Musketeer is nine).
Yet its through clever and subtle use of these tools that Jason is able to wring an impressive amount of pathos from his cast. A slight hand movement here, a silent panel there, quick cuts between scenes or periods of time make all the difference. He has the best sense of timing of any cartoonist working today.
Musketeer is a big, sloppy mash note to the boys adventure tales of both the pulp novel years and Dumas’ era. The central conceit is that Athos — the Athos — is still alive and well after all these centuries, though a bit of a drunkard. No real explanation is given as to how he’s managed to survive all this time. He just has, though he’s a sad anachronism, talking in florid prose and eager to appear courteous and heroic in a world that has little need of either trait.
All that changes when the Martians invade Earth. Athos hops a Buck Rogers style spaceship and finds himself a host of villains straight out of Flash Gordon — though these characters seem a bit more self-aware than in Alex Raymond’s day.
In fact, Jason gets quite a bit of mileage out of the standard adventure cliches. I particularly enjoyed a series of gags involving the evil but bored emperor and a lowly guard he keeps pestering (“Isn’t it a pain in the ass standing around all day?”). There’s also a smart aleck, rebellious princess and of course, Athos himself, refusing to do anything but the correct thing and talk like he didn’t just step out of an Errol Flynn movie (“Your fiendish plan will never succeed!”)
Considering how hard Jason plays for laughs (there’s even a Catherine Deneuve joke) what’s ultimately surprising about The Last Musketeer is how affecting it is. By the end, when a tribute is given to a fallen comrade, I found myself getting more than a little choked up, so invested had I been with Athos and his adventures. Far from indluging in false sentimentality, I found that Jason had well earned the sorrowful ending he chose.
Considering that this is the second to last book in Jason’s catalog that Fantagraphics had to translate (the final, early work catch-all Pocket Full of Rain coming out next month) that makes Musketeer a book to treasure all the more. We probably won’t see anything like it for some time to come.