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Jar of Fools: A Picture Novel. By Jason Lutes. Montreal: Black Eye Books, 1997. 142p. $13.95. ISBN 0-9698874-5-0.


Adults, teens; adult situations, language

NOTE: This story was originally serialized in the Seattle, WA Stranger and the Providence, RI Nicepaper.

Ernie Weiss is a young, washed-up stage magician tormented by his older brother Howard's suicide. (Howard, an escape artist, jumped into the river in full weighted strait jacket.) He also dreams of his former girlfriend, Esther. Ernie spends his days bumming around town, drinking or just fighting off bad dreams. One such dream--of a dancing Esther melting away in his arms--prompts him to start poking around in a drain grate before he comes back to himself. He's helped up from the grate by Nathan Lender, who claims to recognize Ernie and tries to chat him up. However, Ernie's in no mood for this and runs off as it starts to rain.

Soon Ernie hooks up with his mentor, Al Flosso, once a fine magician, now an old man living in a nursing home that he hates. Al runs away from the home, and Ernie invites him to stay with him for a while. Elsewhere, Esther leaves her current boyfriend to go to work at her job as a counter girl at a funky cafe. She hates her job, and she's not too thrilled with her boyfriend or herself, either. She still dreams of Ernie and his brother. At the cafe, who should come in but Nathan Lender, who pays for his coffee and cookies with a $20 and pulls a minor scam on Esther to get more back in change. She figures it out, but he escapes in his car, and in frustration, Esther socks a guy who makes a sexist remark about her. Also in the car is Nathan's young daughter Claire, who views her father's minor thievery with skepticism. Her father reassures her that things will get better because "I got a plan."

While Al is taking a walk, men from the nursing home try to get him to come back with them. As Ernie races to save Al, Nathan drives up with a proposition for Ernie. Ernie says he'll do anything as long as Nathan helps him rescue Al. Al wriggles out of his jacket and jumps into Nathan's car, and they speed off. They end up under a highway overpass; Nathan and Claire are homeless and live in their car. Nathan explains to Ernie that he wants Claire to have a good life and an honest trade, so he'd like her to learn magic.

The quartet is soon a quintet with the arrival of Esther, who has run away from everything, partially because there's a warrant out for her arrest for socking that guy. Ernie is delighted to see her, but their relationship quickly grows rocky again. Other complications include Al's wandering wits; Nathan's possession of the very straitjacket that Ernie's brother was wearing when he died, and Ernie's quest to find who fished it out of the river; questions about Claire's absent mother; and Ernie's own suicidal feelings, which culminate in an unforgettable evening when he puts on the strait jacket and stands on the bridge where his brother stood....

This sketchy summary can't do justice to the plot, which is deep and rich and subtle, if mightily depressing, though it does end on some hopeful notes. The characters are wonderful, realistic and sad; you care about what happens to them, and you cry for them when things don't work out well. (At least, I cried for them.) Al's "senior moments" are at once amusing and sad, as when he absently pours a cup of coffee into his top hat, puts the hat on--no coffee spills out, which amazes Ernie--and wonders what happened to his coffee. Nathan is rather heroic in his way, grifting to put food on the table (so to speak) for his daughter and trying to educate her toward a better life; his revelation about Claire's mother, and his enormous sacrifice at the end of the book, are truly touching. Ernie and Al truly need one another, Ernie to have someone to straighten him out, Al to have someone to care about and stay focused on, and both for the company. Al also brings much-needed humor into Ernie's life; he's a crotchety old dude, but he can still joke and laugh, whereas the spark has gone out of Ernie.

I really like the stage magic conceit throughout the book. Not only are Al's antics and mental wanderings centered around magic, but stage magic is used as both a tool of freedom (Al's escape from the nursing home, Nathan's confidence that magic will help Claire succeed in life) and of entrapment (Ernie's depression about his brother's suicide). I did, however, find Nathan's possession of the strait jacket to be a bit contrived and convenient. Why did he obtain it? It's implied that Nathan got it because he figured out the connection between Ernie and the "escape artist who died," but one would wonder why he would bother. Did he think he would please Ernie? Even if he did, what did he think Ernie would do with it? Since the strait jacket figures into the plot in a major way, a good justification for its presence was necessary, and we didn't get it; the one notable weakness in the book.

Lutes's black-and-white art, simple, clean, and full of interesting angles, is very European (i.e., Herge) influenced, from the linear format down to the little dizzy spirals that appear over characters' heads when they're confused. (The story is considerably more sophisticated than the average Tintin book, however.) There's also a touch of Japanese influence in the art as well, with its occasional quiet shots of unimportant but mood- or place-setting things, such as a rain-soaked telephone pole or a flock of birds flying through the sky. (Birds are a semi-frequent image in this story.) Only in some of the dream sequences do things get a little hard to follow, and that's mostly deliberate. Although Lutes's faces aren't quite as mobile as those of Terry Moore in Strangers in Paradise, they're still plenty expressive and up to the challenge of depicting a wide range of emotions.


 A nice little sequence as Al wakes up Claire in the car

Copyright 1995, Jason Lutes.

Jar of Fools is a worthy addition to the ranks of serious graphic novels meant for an older audience. Highly recommended for adults and teens with a taste for thoughtful comics.


Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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