Fantagraphics Books ($12.95)

by Yves Reisender

I dislike animal comics. It has always seemed unfair to me that we humans insist on imposing our own sloppy, inelegant traumas on the innocent lives of lizards or feral cats. At best, these cartoon critters are cynical, at worst obscene or cute to the point of cloying. However, given that Norwegian comics artist Jason has completely won me over with the anthropomorphic animals of his graphic novel Why Are You Doing This?, I may have to reevaluate my stance on the creature feature entirely.

Why Are You Doing This?, Jason's first full-color work, follows a cat-headed young man named Alex as he tries to discover who has framed him for the murder of his best friend. The piece's atmosphere of stylish claustrophobia has earned it comparisons to the kind of Hitchcock movie where an attractive if dim fall guy goes to ground, usually with the help of a mysterious blonde, to figure out how he has been implicated, why, and for what crime. As in Hitchcock's world, evil is commonplace and authority, a police force staffed by dogs and rabbits, incompetent. Thankfully, in Jason's story the protagonist is more a naive artistic type than thick ladies' man. The femme fatale isn't a fashion plate but a single mother named Geraldine, also feline, with an improbable shock of golden hair.

The seemingly casual dialogue, translated from the Norwegian by Kim Thompson, transforms idle conversation into a resonant play of action and speech. What in another work might be a throwaway remark, "How many amusing or exciting anecdotes have you lived that you'd be able to relate during an evening with friends?" becomes instead one of the central questions of the book. The other is, of course, the interrogative of the title—"why are you doing this?—a question that Alex asks twice, once of the woman who wants to save him, once of the man who wants to kill him. The answers he gets in both instances are, in a way, the same: "Isn't that what people do?"

If Why Are You Doing This? has all the strengths of a Hitchcock thriller—its square-paneled storytelling and clean, iconic lines recall both the best of classical Hollywood camera angles and the simplicity of older European comics—it has most of the weaknesses as well, such as a slight overreliance on coincidence. Although Jason generally negotiates the relationship between dialogue and visual storytelling effectively, the book gets bogged down in an expository central section which, like Hitchcock at his worst, puts all of the artist's considerable resources in service to plot instead of character. However, on the whole, Why Are You Doing This?, a book both stark and warm at once, represents some of the best of Jason's work. It is a short, delicate melodrama that, flaws aside, drives home convincingly the essential pathos of coincidence, guns, and the party anecdote.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006