Column: Global Ghoul: The Living and the Dead

By Dale Carothers

Jason. The Living and the Dead. Fantagraphics Books (December 2006). USD $9.95. ISBN: 978-1-56097-794-0.

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The Living and the Dead by Norwegian cartoonist, Jason, is nearly a silent book. There are only a few lines of dialogue and these are set between the panels like the dialogue cards in silent films. You can almost hear the flicker of the old-style projector and the tinkling of the accompanying piano.

Jason doesn’t provide names for his characters, so I’ll assign a few here. We’ll call the main character “Dog”, because he’s an anthropomorphised cartoon dog. And we’ll call his love interest “Hattie”, because she wears a hat, and because I can’t quite tell what kind of animal she is. Jason’s characters are always animals. All of them tall and thin. Birds, cats, dogs, hamsters, and so on.

Dog is a dishwasher. His pay sucks and he lives alone in a tiny apartment. One night, as he walks home after work, he’s propositioned by a couple of prostitutes. One of whom is Hattie. Dog doesn’t have the money to sleep with Hattie, so he calculates how long it’ll take him to save up for a night of passion.

Hattie’s life is similarly bleak. She lives alone and her pimp takes most of her money.

One night, a meteor passes over the city and lands miles away in a graveyard. The dead rise from their graves and head for the city, slow and shambling. Time passes. Dog collects paychecks and checks days off his calendar. And the dead draw ever nearer to the city.

Dog finally has his day. He’s saved up enough money. He can finally spend the night with Hattie. But before he can even finish his shift at the restaurant, zombies attack the city.

Dog learns the rules of surviving a zombie attack when he goes to collect his paycheck from his boss; I’ll call him “Rasputin”. The black beard, the menacing look, the fact that it takes him a while to die, all support my choice of name. Dog dodges about and stabs Rasputin a few times, but Rasputin doesn’t go down until Dog splits his cranium with a cleaver. Move quickly and inflict severe head trauma. It’s the only way to survive.

Jason’s art is simple. There’s no clutter in his panels and his use of perspective is perfect. He’s a bit like Paul Grist: a minimalist. But it works. Even his eyes are simple. Just blank white circles. But Jason conveys all of the emotion he needs through facial expression, body language, beads of sweat, and deceptively simple eyebrows.

Jason’s work may appear superficial at first glance, but when you sit down and read it, you see that the world he’s created is full of life…and, in this case, zombies.

Dog rushes through the city, dodging zombies. They are everywhere, peeling the flesh from their victims, leaving their bones exposed, but illustrated in such a deadpan manner that it undercuts the horror, making it all appear almost silly.

Dog saves Hattie from a zombie attack and they run off together. They barricade themselves in a house and share a few tender moments as the zombies slowly break in. During the scuffle, Hattie loses her hat – and, for the purposes of this review, the reason for her name. The moment proves prophetic later on.

They evade the zombies, Dog wading through them with a Conan-like ferocity – wielding an axe he found – and make their way to an apartment high above the city.

They lie down in bed and fall asleep. No sex. Just sleep. This is an interesting moment, since the beginning of the story is focused on their eventual sexual encounter, but the tender moments they’ve shared, and the violence they’ve witnessed, have brought them closer together. The need for cheap sex is gone. And all that’s left is companionship.

The sun comes up and, in most horror stories, this means that the danger has passed, but not for Dog and Hattie, because now, she’s a zombie. She’s lost her hat, her name (given by me, of course) and her humanity. Dog considers killing her, but instead, offers her his flesh.

We know their love is real, even after death, when, in the final panels they share Zombie Dog’s first kill. Dog and Hattie start out, alone and alive, but end up together and dead, and, it seems, happy.

I’ve read and re-read a number of Jason’s books. He is a master of meaningful subtlety – without ever straying into pretentiousness.

The Living and the Dead has a 9 out of 10 chance of waking Cthulhu from his eternal slumber.

You can buy The Living and the Dead from Amazon.com.