- Craig Graziano
The Left Bank Gang opens with a dog shuffling down the streets of 1920's Paris, keeping mostly to himself. He ignores a panhandler, but then sees another dog that he recognizes. They shake hands. One dog's name is Ezra Pound. The other's is Ernest Hemingway.
Gang is a clever nugget of alternate history fiction. Rather than focusing on complex geopolitical questions like "What if the Germans won World War II?" Norwegian cartoonist Jason turns to the zeitgeist of expatriate writers such as Pound, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Hemingway. His hypothesis is "What if all of these starving geniuses just got fed up and turned to crime?"
Each literary celebrity is drawn as an anthropomorphic animal. That stylistic choice is a staple of most of Jason's work and adds to the accessibility of his comics. Most are dogs, though James Joyce is a bespectacled bird.
The scheme is appropriately Ernest's. You don't run with the bulls of Pamplona without having a few other crazy ideas stored away. F. Scott Fitzgerald is happy to tag along. His wife Zelda is dissatisfied with Paris, and the homesickness is starting to spread to him.
The book splits into two halves; the first half deals with everyone's waning patience for the literary lifestyle. The latter half focuses on the job. Plans are made and each member is given a different task. Unfortunately, our heroes were simply not cut out for such a tawdry life. The heist quickly unravels, forcing the group to split up. Death and disaster ensues.
Jason's storytelling in this half of the book is tight and suspenseful. The best comparisons I can make are cinematic: Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. Both of those excellent films dive headfirst into a botched heist, occasionally dropping clues that will give the audience a clearer picture of just what went wrong. The Left Bank Gang allows the reader to carefully and rewardingly put the pieces together in the same manner.
Jason's writing is hilariously blunt. Famous figures are introduced with a casual, "Hey look. It's James Joyce." The lack of subtlety is charming and makes for a breezy 48 pages of reading. There are other enchanting details. In Jason's world, comics are the literary medium. I enjoyed Hemingway's complaint that all of Tolstoy's characters look the same to him. Gertrude Stein makes a cameo as Hemingway's mentor and all-around grouch, spewing rules that Jason himself doesn't even follow.
Neither Stein nor Zelda are portrayed very positively, though I imagine they struggled with similar obstacles in real life. The book is very much a boys' club. Though the artwork is both funny and appealing, Jason also manages to find room for underlying tragedy in this and most of his other books. Substance definitely accompanies the style, and comic books have never seemed so sophisticated.