A Life Missed

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"Hey, wait...," can be an attention grabber, a warning, and a curse. It becomes all three of these over the course of the singularly-named Jason's new comix novella, "Hey, Wait..." (Fantagraphics Books; 64pp; $9.95), beginning with the come-on of the title. Originally in Norwegian, Jason's work has only just begun to appear in English. "Hey, Wait..." marks his first solo book in the States. A story about tragedy and regret told in a sweetly simple way, it stands out as one of the most beautifully sad comix in recent memory.

The first part of the book reads like a pastoral of a child's suburban springtime. Jon, the focus of the book, spends his laconic, carefree schooldays fooling around with his best friend Bjorn, reading comic books, eating candy and telling jokes. He lives in a slightly odd, magical universe where a pterodactyl may swoop down and fly off with his kite to his mild surprise. Stilts are used instead of cars and sometimes Jon's father lets him "drive it to the garage." The characters all have the faces of animals, but not in any sort of realistic way. If anything they look like African animist masks that convey the idea of an animal more than its literal shape. Jon seems to be a cross between a dog and monkey.

By the end of part one a tragedy partly of Jon's making has occurred. A warning, "Hey, wait," uttered too late, becomes his life's defining statement. At the end of the first part Jon grows up in a single sneeze. This will be the last we see of anything magical for some time. Where the childhood scenes were of fun and games, the adult scenes are of toil and loneliness. Though as a child he speculated about becoming a journalist and traveling, Jon becomes a drill-press operator. He eats and sleeps alone. In passing we learn of an estranged wife and child. In the middle of these scenes, a dream reworks the moment of years ago, but this time with Jon as the victim. Finally, at the end, Jon is allowed a tender memory, or perhaps a merciful reworking, from the happier days of his childhood.

Jon hides from the cute girl

Much of the book's power comes from its pacing. Jason has a gift for taking advantage of comix' unique structure of moments. On a large scale you may notice each page amounts to a singular event told in six panels — a kind of poetic meter. Events have a dramatic structure, including climax and denouement. Jon spies the cute girl from school coming down the path. He hides. She doesn't seem to notice. Or does she? On another page the boys kick the ball around until one notices something through an apartment window. It's a nudie calendar. Here then are the short dramas that amount to life's narrative. Jason has a simple brush technique that eliminates shading and texture. It's a style that lends itself to the simplified, parable-like premise of a man's life decided by a single regrettable event.

The ingenious title of "Hey, Wait," not only relates to the story but to the act of reading the story. Panels that display a character's quiet moment likewise become our quite moment, for real. Unlike traditional literature, comix, and particularly Jason's simple style, allow the reader to fully move into the space provided. Slowly, but altogether too fast, you look back and see an entire book, and an entire life, has gone past.

"Hey, Wait..." can be found at better comicbook stores and through the publisher's website