Shifting One Degree with Jason's On The Camino


As part of his mid-life crisis, Norwegian cartoonist Jason walked in the footsteps of history. After his 50th birthday, he began a 500-mile pilgrimage by walking The Camino de Santiago, a series of trails throughout Europe that all lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Northeastern Spain. When asked why he’s walking the Camino, Jason answers “It was either this or buying a Porsche!” It’s half a joke but Jason is obviously looking for something on this journey; enlightenment, spirituality, answers or maybe even just the right questions to ask.

If you broke down the book panel-for-panel it would be:
  1. Jason begins walking
  2. Jason has an awkward interaction with others on the trail.
  3. Jason finds a hostel to stay at for the night
  4. Jason tries to have a meaningful encounter with his environment.
  5. Goto 1.

That’s a very simplistic view of On the Camino but it’s not that far from the truth. Compared to past books like I Killed Adolf Hitler, The Werewolves of Montpellier (reviewed for Popdose a long time ago here) or The Last Musketeer, books that went off in peculiar flights of fancy, Jason’s new book seems almost mundane. Yes, his characters are still very human-like cats and dogs but his story is much more grounded and smaller than most of his previous stories have been. Where in those stories, Jason likes to find his weirdness in the ways he juxtaposes fantasy and reality. In On The Camino, he’s finding the strangeness in the way that he’s removed himself from his own normal, everyday reality in an effort to find something.

The question of what he’s hoping to find hangs in the background of his story. Even Jason doesn’t seem to know what he wants from this journey other than that he wants something. Anything. He expects some kind of change even if he doesn’t know what that change is going to be. “It was either this or buying a Porsche,” a joke he many times on this walk, is filled with half-truths and half-lies. Having turned 50 years old, Jason wants to find some new meaning or truth that he feels has eluded him for the first five decades of his life.

Jason’s recounting of this trip is fairly regulated and staid. Told in unshifting 4-panel pages, his pilgrimage is a series of days and encounters that lack any kind of general or specific revelation. Even in Jason’s art, there’s no sense of the grandiose vistas or grueling days on the trail. There’s only the sense of the walk and the people on page after page. Even at stops where Jason visits churches and cathedrals, he goes through the motions of the experiences. At some of these, his emotional state seems open to having what could be called a spiritual experience but that only lasts within the moments of the physical experience and the next day is just another quest to find something again.

Often on this journey, Jason wonders if this pilgrimage is going to change him in some way. Even toward the end of the book, he struggles with what this whole thing was for. In the last encounter Jason shows with someone else, a police officer who patrols the trail, Jason admits that he’s not too sure what he gained from the journey. “But I don’t know if it has changed my life. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen on the Camino, like Martin Sheen in that movie?” The Camino cop responds, “Nobody walks the Camino and changes 180 degrees. You talked to a nun. You started conversations. Isn’t that one degree, at least? One degree is still a change.”

And this book is a testament to that one-degree change. It’s Jason’s first autobiographical work and it asks questions that his other books barely contemplated. While his comics have always tried to put order to a crazy world, this book tries to find optimism internally to the cartoonist himself. As he’s questioning his perceived lack of change, it’s evident in just how this comic stands amid his vast catalog. With the path that he was on, On The Camino isn’t something that he would have written and drawn in the past. It’s a degree of navel-gazing that was completely missing from his storytelling and this book demonstrates the awareness of that even while the cartoonist may not be completely aware of or even finished with an even one-degree transformation.