COMICS BREAKDOWN: JONA ON JASON’S THE LEFT BANK GANG
Look, I’m going to be perfectly honest here, I’ve had a few drinks. You don’t need to know this, but I felt that full disclosure was necessary before we proceed. I do not promise coherence. Cool with that? Awesome.
So, I wanted to do a quick breakdown of one of my favorite books, The Left Bank Gang by Jason. If you don’t know Jason, or haven’t read this book, I suggest you go out and take care of that right now…
It’s cool. The whole thing is only forty six pages. I can wait.
Great. Let’s get to it.
**Obligatory spoiler alert**
This book is basically the original Midnight in Paris. It features Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce living in France, but as cartoonists (instead of writers) in the mid 1920’s. It’s presented in Jason’s signature “animal people” style, with consistent 3x3 conventional grids, and an immaculate sense of pacing. In short, the whole thing reeks of Jason, and I love it. I mean, seriously. All literature has been replaced with comics in this universe. What’s not to love?
The story starts with Ezra walking about in the street. He passes a beggar, ignores him, and subsequently bumps into Ernest Hemingway. I may be stretching this a little—or maybe I’ve had one too many alcohols—but I think it’s kind of interesting how Ernest and that beggar have the same character model. Jason only has so many models (a few dogs, some birds, cats, etc). He constantly re-uses them, and, often, the similarity between these characters is either the butt of a joke, or a major plot point in the story. Either way, I’ll get back to that bum in a bit.
So, Hemingway and Ezra meet up, exchange a few words, and part ways. Later, Ezra meets up with Scott and, later, James. Really, the first three pages serve to establish the world and introduce the protagonists. It’s quick, effective, and shows Jason’s sense of pacing.
Quick aside – I used to not get that term… “pacing.” What does that even mean? That the story is not ever boring? What does it mean to Jason? Reading his stories, I’d say his sense of “pacing” is very mathematical, with story beats happening at approximately even intervals. I’m not sure he does it on purpose (there’s no way of telling outside of asking him), but he seems to push for a major twist or development every six pages or so.
Take the first three pages for example. The first time I read this book, I felt confused. Then, he spends three more pages really letting that concept sink in. We get to see the authors working on their comics, what getting published is like, and so on and so forth. I was having a pretty good time with it. And then, all of a sudden, we are introduced to Zelda Fitzgerald, and the first words out of her mouth?
Well, excuuuuuse me, princess. I was having a great time thinking that all great American authors loved comics as much as I. But no, you just have to come in and move the story forward.
How dare you.
So she complains, and berates Scott, and asks him to “pour [her] a drink,” and we can see that he’s torn between her and his work, and we see Hemingway’s struggle with his work, and his fear of failure, and he fails to draw a woman at a café, and we meet Gertrude Stein, and there’s a bit of a meta humor about comic design, and Hemingway is shown to be having nightmares about World War I, and we meet Hadley, who loves him very much and manages to lull him to sleep in a true and honest, loving embrace.
That’s six pages. It’s funny, but no fun; kind of existential, really. I don’t want those lives. These people seem lonely and detached. They all want something, but they aren’t sure what it is. It’s relate-able, but frustrating. They even come off as a little pathetic.
Then, on page thirteen, we are introduced to Zelda’s lover, Edouard.
This page is funny, because it shows something that readers can’t discern from Jason’s simplistic art style; that Zelda is a stone cold fox (dog person), who can give anyone a boner. I mean, she literally gives her neighbor something to jerk off to, despite the fact that her sex noises fucking woke him up in the middle of the night.
This is important because of reasons. Number one being that this is page thirteen. I don’t mean this in an “oh-no-the-number-thirteen-is-so-symbolic” way. I bring this up because this is approximately a fourth (Left Bank is 46 pages long) of the story. Going back to that whole pacing thing, this is Jason advancing the plot at regular intervals.
Let’s test this theory. The halfway point should be around page 23 (give or take a page). That means that he midpoint of the story is…
To reiterate, I’m assuming that you read the story and that you know that this whole thing is about these great authors suddenly deciding to rob a bank, because pages six through twelve showed just how much they need something to validate their lives (namely money). So, what is this page? This is when the antagonist makes a move against the hero. It’s is when the whole plan is doomed. It’s a change of fortune. It’s a point halfway into the overall arch that changes everything.
It’s a major story beat.
That’s why I love page thirteen so much, because it sets the stage for the rest of the book. By page twelve we already know the characters. If the story ended here, we could just call it an interesting exercise designed to delve into the minds of these cartoonists, etc. etc. etc. And that’s true, but that’s not a story. That’s a vignette. Jason’s trying to tell a story.
So, we get page thirteen. More things happen in these nine panels than in any other page of this book, and the whole thing is about dicks. It’s brilliant.
This story is about these writers trying to prove themselves, right? That’s kind of the major theme set up by the first twelve pages. So, why not spend the next six pages talking about dick sizes? Well, not right away. Jason has to take us out to dinner before popping the question.
We’re not THAT easy.
Well, maybe a little…
I love that this happens, because it’s a true story. F. Scott Fitzgerald really did ask Ernest Hemingway if he thought his “manhood” was “adequate.” The fact that Jason has turned this into the major driving force for one of his most celebrated works is a testament to his writing.
I mean that in earnest (haha, pun). They spend like six pages just talking about their literal and figurative dicks, trying to figure out if they really are big enough.
These guys are just big balls of walking insecurities. So much so, that six pages later, Zelda uses her boner inducing powers to seduce yet another man… Ezra.
So, by the time we reach page 23, every aspect of this tragedy has been meticulously set up. If I wanted to get really technical about it (and I do), I would draw a crappy chart that looks sort of like this:
It’s a traditional three-act structure. There’s a catalyst on page six; a first plot point on page twelve; a midpoint on page 23; a low point on page 36; and a climax on page 42. It’s all very symmetrical, with major developments happening at evenly spaced midpoints, which are just changes of fortune for our heroes.
The main one happens at the actual midpoint of the story (page 23), where Zelda, the arbiter of penis sizes, decides to manipulate the robbery. That separates the story into two halves.
The first half has a midpoint of its own. It happens in the transition between pages twelve and thirteen, when we learn that Zelda has a lover.
The second half, too, has a midpoint (page thirty six), where Scott sits alone after Zelda abandoned him (the low point).
These last two form the beginning and end of the second act, which is all about the characters trying to confront their insecurities. Conversely, the first act was about the characters becoming aware of these insecurities in the first place.
Since this story is about men trying to prove that they have “manhoods” of acceptable sizes, we can confirm that Zelda showing her discontent right on page six (halfway into act one) serves as the catalyst to the whole story.
And the climax? Well, it brings Zelda’s story to an end after she gets shot.
Again, all of the major plot points are changes in fortune for our heroes, but they all revolve around Zelda. This serves to ground the story and give it a coherent direction, despite the fact that there are multiple protagonists in a world so different from our own.
Everything else is just Jason doing his Jason thing (the stuff we all love); all leading to that sad, sad ending…
A panel that bookends a story that started with this image.
I love Jason comics. I could talk about this book forever, but now I am tired. Good night. I hope that all made sense.
-JonaJason novi comics novi jona comics The Left Bank Gang Writing
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