Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Sunday, May 22, 2011


"It ain't a magician's world anymore."

PLOT-SUMMARY: Ernie Weiss is a professional magician. At the story's opening he's become a penniless drunk, traumatized by the death of his brother Howard, who perished in a bungled escape-artist stunt, possibly committing suicide. Ernie has also split from Esther, his girlfriend, but he dreams about her and she finds herself unable to bond to a new boyfriend. Ernie is then forced out of his torpor when Al Flosso, the elderly magician who taught him his trade, escapes a senior-care institution and takes refuge with Ernie. To dodge the institution's orderlies who come looking for Flosso, Ernie throws in with confidence-man Nathan Lender, who allows Ernie and Flosso to live with him and his little daughter Claire in Nathan's car, which is hidden under the pilings of a major bridge. In exchange Lender requires Ernie and Al to teach Claire the magician's trade. Lender says that he wants her to learn a "legitimate" trade. However, he ends up using Claire's talents to rip off a cafeteria cash-register. By this time Esther has by chance happened across the quartet's hiding-place, which works out well for Ernie; his obsession with his brother's death boil over and only Esther manages to stop him from fatally imitating Howard's deadly stunt. Then Ernie and Esther see a police patrol about to descend on Lender and Claire. To distract the cops Lender lets the cops catch him with the cash register, and pleads with Esther to take Claire back to her mother. As she does so, Ernie and Al head toward an uncertain future, though Al seems strangely confident about their fate.

MYTH-ANALYSIS: As Flosso's quote above suggests, there is no magic, not even "magic-realism," in Jason Lutes' world, and yet the vibe of JAR is much like that of the magic realists. Visually this impression is supported by the leitmotif seen in the above illustration: grids of power-lines suspended over the cityscape, which Flosso compares to "some kind of spider's nest-- and I don't wanna be here when the owner comes home." Despite the fact that the wires are never anything but the tools with which human beings communicate, Lutes uses the power-grid as a symbol for the failures of communication, which haunt the characters like so many bad dreams.

All of the characters are to some extent haunted by the past. Ernie is the most obvious, in that his obsession with his dead brother almost costs him his life, but Esther is haunted by the failure of her relationship with Ernie, Al by the memories of his vanished youth, and both Lender and Claire by the breakup of Lender's marriage. Yet Lutes does allow for the possibility of communicative breakthroughs, though none of them take place over the phonelines, except for an early scene when Flosso calls Ernie for the first time.

Not covered in the above summation are some other details: Lender, who just wants to make it easier for Ernie to teach Claire tricks, happens across a pawn-shop where he obtains, to Ernie's horror, the very strait-jacket in which Howard perished. Briefly the story takes on a Pyncheonesque air as Ernie tries to find out who pawned Howard's jacket; the trail leads to an electrician's union whose company logo resembles one seen later in the scene where Flosso ruminates about the spidery nature of the power-lines. However, given that Lutes wants his characters to triumph over their obsessions and failures-- a rare attitude in artcomics-- Ernie never learns the secret behind the jacket's pawning and ceases to pursue the matter once Esther saves him from self-immolation.

Lender's backstory isn't pursued in as much detail as Ernie's, but he's no less poignant. Lender insists to Flosso that his confidence-games are illusions that make people feel good, even as the illusions of magic do-- though both professions are being marginalized by the world of technological advancement. It's certainly no coincidence that Lutes names him "Lender" when in truth he lives by "borrowing" on human needs. But he does manage a moderate triumph by sacrificing himself to save Claire and returning her to a normal life.

Esther, Claire and Flosso don't face turnabouts quite as vivid as those of Ernie and Lender. But Lutes gives attention to the negative forces in their lives as well-- Flosso by seeing his world pass away, Claire by the uncertainty of her parental breakup. As for Esther, Lender also indirectly spurs her out of her lethargy in what would ordinarily seem a negative influence. He swindles her with a con-game and flees her wrath, which she then vents on a loudmouth who makes remarks about Esther's resemblance to a "brick shithouse." This gets a warrant declared against Esther, but this bit of bad luck forces her to flee her old life so that she stumbles across Lender's camp and providentially saves Ernie from his fatal obsession. It's also fitting that although Ernie and Esther do to some extent recover some of their love, JAR ends with them separating, muting the relative triumph and allowing the reader to realize that all the characters still have a long road to travel.

No comments: