December 19, 2011

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Isle of 100,000 Graves

Written by Fabien Vehlmann
Illustrated by Jason
Fantagraphics

A young girl's father went off to sea ages ago to find the legendary (and deadly) Isle of 100,000 Graves.  She wants to find him, despite the protestations of her abusive mother and skeptical adults.  With an unreliable crew and a bit of extortion, she finds the island--but is she prepared for the horrors waiting for her there?  The island comes by its name honestly, and soon our heroine must fight for her very life and the truth she so desperately needs.  Can she escape the Isle of 100,000 Graves?

I'm a huge fan of Jason's work, having read his comics for almost as long as I've been reviewing comics.  It's a little strange to see him working with a collaborator here, but the combination works seamlessly.  This book has the same feel of other recent Jason books, with an examination of the motivation of a central character who tries to challenge the prevailing worldview.  In this case, it's Gwenny, a girl who is expected to accept that her father is lost forever, but refuses to do so.  She manages to stay one step ahead of everyone else in the book, using her wits and never taking anything for granted.  If I were the type of person to write thousands of words about a particular comic artist (I'm not), it might be fun to look at the heroes of, say, Jason's last five books and see what links them together.

I'll leave that to those with the time and inclination, however and return to this book.  Vehlmann's script plays perfectly to Jason's strengths, mixing understatement with visual deadpan humor and dark comedy and adding a touch of action for just the right combination.  The reader is amused, horrified, and captivated all at the same time as Gwenny tries to avoid death at the hands of those who run the island.  The dialog that goes along with the terrible scenes of execution and the perfectly bureaucratic nature of the island's dedication to the arts of torture and murder are pitch-perfect.  Jason and Vehlmann walk a delicate tightrope here and manage to get the balance just right.  Make too many jokes and you devalue the terrible crimes committed and take away the danger needed for the reader to appreciate the lengths to which Gwenny will go to find the truth.  Keep things too dark, however, and you end up with a book that would be okay, but missing the magic that we expect from Jason.  We need a book that won't flinch from rending people limb from limb or burying them alive, but also can make botching an execution funny.

This book does that in spades. Take the one-panel gag about mass execution via cannon. That's amazingly funny, not just because of the idea, but in how the characters respond to it.  When the ship's captain faces death in the torture room, it's both funny and tragic, because the explanation of how he's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't is presented in deadpan fashion, ala British comedy.

The book is full of moments like those, almost from start to finish.  One moment you can be laughing at something really horrible, the next you might want to sigh, especially when Gwenny is dealing with her family.  The ending of the book is particularly moving, with Vehlmann and Jason leaving us on an ending that can be read several different ways.  That's another Jason trademark, and it's nice to see it again here.

Isle of 100,000 Graves is yet another great book in the prolific career of one of my favorite cartoonists working today.  If you are a fan of his work, you need to add this to your collection.  If you've only heard of him by reputation, then don't hesitate.  Pick up Isle of 100,000 Graves today, and be ready to hope Jason writes 100,000 books, all of which are sure to be great comics!