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The Iron Wagon

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Hard to know what to fully make of The Iron Wagon (Fantagraphics), Norwegian cartoonist Jason’s adaptation of a detective novel from the early twentieth century. Re-enacted by the artist’s characteristically flat animal figures, the sepia-toned graphic novel reads like a genre work from the 1900’s – as translated by Kim Thompson, the dialog is as stilted as any early English drawing room mystery (“I’ve written nary a word save my name in the hotel’s guest book.”) – though between the wordy explanations of what’s going on, Jason utilizes his plain style for some subtle psychological effects. Buy into his oddball presentation (which, in its way, is comparable to American cartoonist James Kochalka’s), and you get an effective period dramatization of crime and guilt’s debilitating power; reject it, and all you have are a bunch of blank-eyed animals play-acting a dated, easily solved murder mystery.
To these eyes, Jason’s book works best in the dialog-free moments: when our unnamed rabbit protagonist wanders through the woods where dark deeds take place; when bird-woman Miss Hilde silently contemplates her naked self in a mirror; when our hero wakes to see the implacable detective silently watching him from the foot of his bed. The mystery takes place in the Norwegian countryside, where one of a group of vacationers is found bludgeoned to death in the woods. Within these woods, we’re told, can be heard the sounds of the Iron Wagon, an unseen mechanical creation that was last heard when an area farmer died mysteriously. In addition to the identity of the killer, the mystery of the Iron Wagon also informs the book.

In some ways, the latter provides the greater puzzle, since the killer’s identity will be readily sussed simply by noting who the book’s detective keeps encircling. But strict mystery formula is less the point (when we learn about the Iron Wagon, the solution comes literally out of the blue) of Jason’s adaptation – and, presumably, the Stein Riverton novel that inspired it – as much as the rapid disintegration of its murderer figure. (It’s his inability to mask his guilt that gives him away to Detective Krag.) What’s remarkable about the book is the way that Jason the artist is able to get beyond the seeming limitations of a style that expresses strong emotions through sweat or squiggly lines radiating from a character’s head to suggest so much more.
There are some moments when the artist’s cartoony animal art works against him. A scene where a constable exhaustedly falls off his bike when coming upon the murder scene is just plain puzzling, for instance. Comic relief coppers may be a staple of period detective fiction, but all the character does here is recall funny animal conventions in a work that’s generally disallowed such antics. It’s far removed from the book’s final scene, which shows our killer, sitting in a cell and contemplating the events that’ve brought him there.
In the end, I came down on the side of Jason’s book (first of his that I’ve read, though it’s got me wanting to check out others). Old mystery fiction is as stylistically rarefied as a fuzzy bunny comic, so in a quirky art comics way, combining the two makes a certain crazy sense. Hvaler Norway may not be Duckburg U.S.A., but I’m betting Scrooge McDuck would recognize the capacity for villainy nestled within its animal soul. . .

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.