So I was in a different LCS than usual the other day (I am lucky to have at least three comic shops within walking distance and another not too much further) and my eye fell on a graphic novel that I had never seen before:
Jar of Fools: A Picture Story
by Jason Lutes; Drawn & Quarterly, 2003
I picked it up and flipped though the pages; I liked the art and had an impulse to buy it.
Then I glanced at the prose introduction and saw the first sentence: "Okay, so five or six years ago, I impulsively picked up Jason Lutes' Jar of Fools in a local Seattle comic book store, flipped though the pages, liked the art, bought it for a few bucks, and took it home." That synchronicity was enough to persuade me; any shadows of hesitation were dispelled when I saw that the introduction had been written by Sherman Alexie.
I did buy it and take it home (for more than a few bucks, though). I occasionally like to read a book or see a movie about which I know almost nothing; I had gotten lucky with my last "blind" graphic novel, Daisy Kutter, and the serendipity came though again. Jar of Fools is an excellent book that tells a complex story in a compelling manner.
Lutes chronicles a brief period in which several lives intersect: an alcoholic stage magician, his estranged girlfriend, his rapidly-becoming-senile mentor, and a small-time con-man and his daughter; in addition, there are "appearances" by the magician's dead, escape-artist brother. All of the characters have to come to grips with the gap that exists between what they want and what they can get and learn to do the best with what they have.
A story such as this one, concerned with desperation, depression, and struggle, could easily descend into bathos, but Lutes fills his characters with so much humanity and his plot with so much wit, humor, and detail that we are engaged, captivated, and, in the end, just a little bit hopeful.
What impressed me the most was Lutes's command of graphic storytelling. Working in a ligne claire style (or close enough to it to make no nevermind), Lutes masterfully uses all the techniques and elements particular to comics to bring his story to life: the page layouts and panel transitions build the narrative as effectively as the expressions and body language, and Lutes is not afraid to use emanata and graphic balloons. In short, Lutes knows that he's creating a comic, not an illustrated story or a static movie, and that's the understanding that moves a creator into Eisner territory. That he has fashioned what would be a wonderful tale in any medium makes it so much better.
Jar of Fools is simply a great book. I've read it twice now already, and I'm sure there are plenty more reads left in it.