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Jar of Fools

What’s with graphic novels and magicians/escapists anyway? This is the third comic book (or novel about comic books) that I’ve read in the past few months dealing with escape artists.

Am I missing something?

jar-of-foolsBut I digress, what I’m here to do is review Jar of Fools written and drawn by Jason Lutes.

There is a test that I do at the library before deciding to add a book to the stack of comic books/graphic novels I take home with me. First I check the title and creator. Then I read the back cover for a quick synopsis of the story. Then I open and scan the art.

If the art is shit – too cartoony, too much color, not enough, etc, I close it and put it back on the shelf. I love comics because of their genius mix of art and words and story. But at the same time, if the art doesn’t fit with my particular tastes, or with the story…there is no point in my continuing to read on. If it were just a book, with only the words printed on the page, and I could paint the story in my mind whatever way I wanted…that would be one thing.

But comic books eliminate that step, and therefore, they must always be agreeable to the reader in some way, or they will be shuffled back to the shelf

I’m happy to report – that WAS NOT my experience with Jar of Fools. I was compelled by the title, as well as the back cover synopsis, and was pleased to find the art to be only somewhat cartoony, in a style that I could easily overlook for the sake of the plot. The art style also makes sense given that the content originally appeared as a weekly comic strip.

Here’s a sample. It’s not awful – the faces are legible, it’s fairly detailed, and Lutes makes good use of the black and white. It tells the story, but not much more. I think that’s the point – there is a definite emphasis on sparsity in this book, and that comes across in the art.

The basic plot is that the main character, Ernie Weiss (similar to Ehrich Weiss or Harry Houdini) is having a hard time dealing with the suicide of his escapist brother, and is consequently ruining his own life. He breaks up with his girlfriend, gets fired from his job as a magician, and ends up broke and penniless. And that’s just the first few pages of the book. The real fun starts when the mentor character of Al Flosso shows up – an elderly magician intent on escaping from his convalescent home.

A con-man and his daughter also appear in the first half, and then the ex-girlfriend is introduced. Eventually, these folks all come together and form a delightful band of outcasts. But, as any bleak story about down-on-their-luck vagrants has the potential to do, Jar of Fools takes the reader to the very bottom. There are some moments of grace, humor and warm fuzzies, but the general consensus is – it’s a tough world, with more lumps of coal than shiney new ponies. So don’t get your hopes up too much.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I would dislike comics if they were sunshine and lollipops all the time. In fact, something that I enjoyed about Jar of Fools was it’s ability to let me emotionally connect with it’s characters. So much so – I was irritated when the book came to an end and I couldn’t follow them any further.

I suppose I would have liked to be led a bit deeper into their lives. To see if maybe something good was going to come from their shared experiences.

I could fill in the blanks myself. Create the rest of their lives from my imagination. But, what’s the point. The ending left me feeling more depressed than uplifted.

It’s a raw story – not because it’s violent, explicit or anything of the like. It’s because the pain of the characters is so amplified on the page. You can watch the disintegration of Ernie through his facial hair and cheek lines. A handsome but scruffy young man ages into someone haggard and gaunt by the final panel. With no indication of any reprieve.

Apparently, this book has received critical praise from the likes of Chris Ware, author/illustrator of Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. which doesn’t surprise me, because both he and Lutes are catering to the same depressive emotional audience.

A Sidenote about Chris Ware: I was cruising the shelves for my summer textbooks yesterday, and happened upon the shelf that contained all the materials for the Spring 08 installment of “Graphic Novels as Literature.” Standard lit fair – Satrapi, Ware, Speigelman…and Lutes. I have read or own almost all the authors and books offered in the course. But I have to say – Jimmy Corrigan is my least favorite of them all. It’s dense, impenetrable, intricate, and utterly devastating to read. It’s ten times the depression I felt after the last panel of Jar of Fools. For the craft and attention to detail – Corrigan can’t be beat. But it’s not FUN to read. Jar of Fools felt a little more fun. But not by much.

Wrapping Things Up: There was also some commentary about how magician’s really have no more place in today’s culture. I’m not sure if that’s entirely true. I think there are different kinds of magicians now – rather than just stage performers. There are many people engaged in the art of illusion in all walks of life. Politics, movies, comic books, etc. Sadly, I don’t see many lucrative opportunities for performing magicians. Unless your name is Sigfried and you reside in Las Vegas.

And the idea that our society has become harder to fool…I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. It’s distressing to think that old customs are dying out, but I would much rather live in a skeptical society, than in one where everything uttered or seen is taken at face value. Of course, I wish people were more skeptical of the news, politicians, etc.

It would be nice if we all believed a little more in magic. 🙂

Much Love, Mindy C

PS – Interesting introduction by Sherman Alexie. That was a pleasant surprise, one I didn’t notice until after I’d read the book.

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About tinyheroes

Mindy Crouchley is a 33 year old woman with a degree in English and Technical Writing from Portland State University. She has accumulated three+ years experience in the Marketing and Communications field - with an emphasis on creating digital media content. She has been reading comic books since she was 10 years old. She currently lives in outer southeast Portland with her spouse Dan Robertson, her baby girl, and their dog - Jabba the pug. She spends her free time devouring books, crafting cosplay, video gaming, attending comic cons, writing stories/screenplays, attending book to film adaptation club meetings, volunteering, and watching copious amounts of TV and movies.

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