Why Aren?t You Reading This?


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Why Are You Doing This? by Jason.  Fantagraphics, 2005.

Norwegian cartoonist Jason (born John Arne Sæterøy), came to prominence first in his native country, then France, and finally in the United States, with a series of near-silent, existential anthropomorphic fables.  In his graphic novel Why Are You Doing This? he brings his distinctive style and pacing to an old-fashioned tale of suspense – which, incidentally, cleverly conceals an existential anthropomorphic fable.

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As the book begins, the chief protagonist, Alex, is despondent that his girlfriend has left him, and that his life appears to lack direction.  He fears his existence is wholly empty because he has no stories to tell, only a series of bland, undifferentiated incidents.  “How many stories do you have to tell?” he asks anyone who will listen.  His friend Claude dutifully urges him to snap out of it.

The monotony is relieved as Alex witnesses two murders for which he is wrongly accused.  The building tension and anxiety following the murders evokes Alfred Hitchcock in his best films, as the author reveals the shadows beneath a seemingly normal world.  And the plot that unfolds pays even greater homage to Hitchcock, as Alex tries to clear his name and catch the killer while evading the police and suspicious citizenry.

Alex is inadvertently absorbed into the life of Geraldine, a single mother.  He thus inherits an instant family, crafting another static, structured life to replace his former emptiness.  But Alex’s drive to find the killer remains, and soon, against his will, he brings the family into his own drama. 

“Why are you doing this?” he asks as Geraldine brings him, an accused murderer, into her life.  “Isn’t that what people do?” she replies, her question suggesting that each character is merely playing a role, basing their lives on what they perceive to be normal expectations.  When Alex later addresses the same question to the killer, no answer is provided, though the killer, too, is guided by the story’s inevitable dark logic.

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Jason is one of the purest contemporary practitioners of the “clear line” style pioneered by the Belgian artist Herge (Tintin).  This style has been referred to as a “democracy of the line,” in that each object and character are delineated in equally weighted lines, creating a flat, vacuum-like atmosphere.   The visual style interacts perfectly with the theme of the story, as the reader is introduced to Alex and Claude, two slackers occupying lives of dull monotony. 

The formal effect is reinforced by the page layouts, with each page comprising a consistent grid of four equal rows, emphasizing a smooth sequential flow over complex page compositions.  And the colors, as in the work of Herge, are solid, primarily pastel hues, adding the illusion of dimension and weight to the forms while paradoxically presenting a flat, unshaded surface.


As in all of Jason’s stories, each character inhabits an odd, unidentifiable animal form, most resembling a humanoid with a dog, cat, or bird head.  Their empty eyes, devoid of pupils, similarly contribute to the existential atmosphere, as each character stares vacantly out into the world, with an open indifference and emotional emptiness – or what Russian psychologists have termed a “flattening of affect.”

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In each scene of silently building tension, or meditative ennui, Jason provides a clinic on sequential storytelling, demonstrating how comics are capable of using imagery to tell a story in a way no other medium, even cinema, can capture.  And in the end, after the suspense has built to an inescapable climax, Geraldine notes with sorrow and unease that now, at last, she has a story to tell.


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