Working under the mononym Jason, Norwegian writer-artist John Arne Sæterøy has spent his career amassing a unique catalog of comics, aided in part by a bizarre worldview and a bevvy of wacky characters. With Almost Silent, he’s assembled four graphic novels (three out of print since the mid-2000s) into a huge hardcover omnibus. The whole shebang is unified by a single impressive thread: nary a line of dialogue or intertitles to be found throughout.
Yet even across 300-plus pages of nearly pure pantomime, Jason manages to tell stories with more heart and depth and humor than some of the densest, wordiest tomes filling the world’s most crowded libraries. Suck on that, the written word.
Comics without words can be innately problematic for several key reasons. You’re relying on pictures alone to purvey not only emotion, but also plot points and other essential info. Words have a subtle power that images can’t always strike at. Luckily, Jason has found a way to make some of these basic “flaws” work decidedly in his creative favor.
For instance, given the monochrome nature and similar aesthetic of all the skeletons, zombies, and bird- and dog-people filling the book, it can at times be hard to figure out who is doing what and when. But that’s a positive: it places a burden on the reader not only to pay more attention, but also to get more inventive with the story itself. Place their own values and hopes on these characters, and expand these tales however their little brains might decide. It reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s penchant for foregoing quotation marks. Sure, it may be dizzying at first, but eventually these stories unfurl with the kind of kinetic joy that makes the reader feel entirely consumed by the story.
Part of that success is that, given the inherent “silence” of this huge collection, there’s only so much that can be explored. Or, there exists limitations on the kinds of stories Jason might pen. Again, that’s perfectly fine, and huge chunks of the book are comprised of quick, three to four panel stories. Like, the zombie stopping for a drink while chasing a girl. Or the angel and devil who buy surprising societies of literature. It’s not that these stories are surface level or pointless – it’s that very brevity that lets Jason tell absurdist yarns that are geared toward continued flights of imaginative fancy by the reader. Something to consume and chew on for as long as the individual sees fit. Things meant to tickle the funny bone, or poke at the kookiest part of the brain. Either way, these are things that stimulate digestion based on the reader’s specific needs and background, something only really great and impactful tales can ever truly accomplish.
That’s not to say that such brevity isn’t without downsides. Oftentimes, whether it’s the repeating characters or the general story motifs (lots of references to zombism, pissing, Three Stooges-esque violence, and mundane acts of everyday life), Jason draws himself into a repetitive corner. On the one hand, that idea of slamming your face into a wall over and over plays up some of Jason’s greater themes (the weirdness and dark undertone of mere existence). But it also means that readers are forced to power through similar arcs and ideas to find something that can once more whet the appetite. More responsibility is great for one’s audience, but it does feel like it can mask some of the creator’s shortcomings. Like passing the buck onto the people and not the man with the grand ideas and golden pen.
Until, of course, you get to the meat of the book – the graphic novels Tell Me Something, You Can’t Get There From Here, and The Living And The Dead. I’d argue that the first one in particular is a powerful example of what a few simple words/phrases can do. In Jason’s hands, some dialogue or intertitles feel like a gentle slap to the face, keeping readers focused and dedicated to the narrative being unfurled via the artwork and color and character’s interactions and physical movements. Any text feels cold and robotic (like a girl in the midst of a romantic maelstrom pleading, “I’m an adult. I can decide for myself.” with the passion of a dying carp). It only helps to align reader and the narrative, maintaining a focus on the art as the singular driving force. The Living And The Dead is especially efficient at this same idea, stripping away the dialogue and employing sporadic sound effects to A) push forward the action and B) emphasize key moments and actions.
Some of the smaller stories also employ dialogue – there’s an awesome story about skeletons and a U2 CD, or a werewolf-boyfriend meeting his bae’s parents. Some of these pale in light and depth to those stories without dialogue, if only because shortness + silence = more appealing use of Jason’s personal wackiness and whimsy. Even still, the dialogue doesn’t take up the entire focus, and Jason’s applications are meant only to enhance whatever emotion and tension existent in the art. Such efficiency in a tiny space makes for comics that are imbued with an extra charge of humor or thermonuclear awkwardness.
There was a moment in reading Almost Silent where I realized I hadn’t heard my own internal monologue in some time. No voice in my head trying to process a character’s intentions, or attempting to decipher the big ending/reveal. Just me and the content and however it made me feel (or didn’t for that matter). For that skill alone, Jason and this collection deserve ample applause. Short of that, you can mime throwing some large bouquets of flowers.