By Susan Tomaselli
“Europe? Rats! Dead as a doornail. Place for women and long-haired artists…only American loans that keep them from burying the corpse! All this art! More art in a good shining spark plug than in all the fat Venus de Milos they ever turned out.”
– Sinclair Lewis, Dodsworth (1929)
The streets of the Left Bank conjure up images of bohemia, intellectualism and art and 1920s Paris had legitimate claims to be capital of the world’s imagination: with Calvin Coolidge’s America supplanting Great Britain as the world’s leading industrial nation, and abandoning all to the dollar, there was a great cultural exodus to the Old World, a country in which culture was cherished and living was cheap. Congregated under a maelstrom of creativity were artists like Man Ray, Joán Miró and Pablo Picasso, and composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev. Dada was erupting, the salons were the places to be and writers John Dos Passos and Ford Maddox Ford called the city home. Drawn by its the artist allure, for F. Scott Fitzgerald – a writer who had already made a name for imself with This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and The Damned – and his glamourous Southern wife Zelda (who wanted to be either a ballerina or novelist), Paris meant escape, from his alcoholism and her psychological imbalance: “We are going to the Old World to find a new rhythm to our lives, with a true conviction that we had left our old selves behind for ever.”
Norwegian comic book artist Jason, best known for his Buster Keaton-esque, minimal dialogue comics Sshhhh! and Hey, Wait, transports you to a that Parisian Left Bank, with the decidedly down-at-heel Lost Generation of Scott, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and James Joyce for company. Imagined as not as literary writers but as struggling graphic novelists, anthropomorphised as animals and drawn with Hergé‘s ligne clare, the group tread the bohemian byways of Paris, the cheap coffee houses and Gertrude Stein‘s salon, never knowing when the next paycheck will arrive.
Jason is playful with the received wisdom on the gang and sets the stage amusingly to the first half of his two-hander: Zelda Fitzgerald is constantly bored (“Paris bores me. You bore me. Your friends bore me…I CAN’T STAND IT ANYMORE!”); the always critical Gertrude Stein has plenty of advice (“Avoid narrative captions. Never ever write ‘A little later.’ It’s unnecessary. The reader can figure it out.” And a few panels later Jason restarts the action with, “A little later.”); Jean-Paul Sartre, a man obsessed with his penis, is the archetypal Frenchman with his stripy top and cigarette hanging nonchalantly from his lips; the trouble in the Fitzgerald household (“Do you even love me any more? You used to be the first one to read all my comics. I loved showing them to you and watching you read them. You helped me erase the pencil lines and fill in the blacks. Remember? What’s happening to us?”)
There are plenty of literary in-jokes as well. James Joyce on Knut Hamsun‘s dense new comic book, The Growth of the Soil: “Why does he fill up every square inch of every panel? You’ve got to leave some white space for chrissake! Let the page breathe!” Hemingway on Dostoevsky‘s characters: “They all have the same face and all those Russian names. I can never manage to keep track of who’s who.”
Jason hones in on the relationship between Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hemingway, journalist and aspiring novelist, shared Scott’s ambition to write the Great American Novel. The pair met at café Dingo, Scott the master, Ernest his protégé. Here all-American Hemingway and Scott are dogged by fear of cartoon obscurity. As James Joyce says, “It’s because we read comics when we were kids. If we’d played football or climbed trees we’d be normal today. We’d have real jobs. We’d be bus drivers or carpenters, and we’d be happy.”
Hemingway comes up with a solution to solve their money problems: a robbery. This is where Jason’s title of Left Bank Gang takes on its other meaning, as he splices the narrative into a tangle of mixed chronology and different points of view, Tarantino Pulp Fiction style with a bloody shoot-out to boot.
Setting The Left Bank Gang in the glory days when the group were flush with expectation negates the need to discuss the messier elements of the characters’ biographical trajectories: the tragedy that was to befall the Fitzgeralds, the dissolution of Hemingway and Hadley’s marriage (he was to have an affair with Vogue editor Pauline Pfeiffer, separate from Hadley and marry Pfeiffer and have a son). Nor is there any hint of Ezra Pound’s anti-semitism, bigotry and unrepentant Fascism. Still, in The Left Bank Gang Jason has created a playful portrait of the Lost Generation, and a nifty crime caper that has us unabashedly rooting for Hemingway til the closing panel.
The Left Bank Gang by Jason