Jason, Werewolves of Montpellier

Last week’s Left of Cool piece. This was the first thing I’d read by Jason, and I really liked it. Must find more.

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In an alternate Paris where everyone has the face of a dog or a bird, a werewolf burglar leaps across the rooftops at night. Sven is an artist by day, but once a month he dons a werewolf mask and becomes a notorious criminal. His reasoning, as far as it goes, is that if he is caught in the act the werewolf mask will startle his captor enough to give him a few seconds’ head start.

But there are real werewolves in Montpellier. When a picture of Sven in disguise is published in a local paper they realise that his notoriety poses them a serious threat. He must either leave the city or stay and face them. It is with this situation that the story of Jason’s Werewolves of Montpellier (translated from French by Kim Thompson) opens.

But the enmity of a gang of werewolves is not the foremost problem on Sven’s mind. A more ordinary book would focus on the feud with the group of werewolves as the central aspect of the story. But Jason’s graphic novel is anything but ordinary and the werewolf plot is almost insignificant here. This is in part indicated by the fact that Sven’s werewolf mask is only very slightly different from his real face, and by the anticlimactic nature of the resolution of this plot.

And so besides a couple of exciting and somewhat farcical rooftop chases and a minor surprise at the end of the story, werewolves are barely mentioned. This isn’t a book in which plot plays a particularly big role – most of the characters’ time is spent in playing chess or poker, in periods of long silences or in conversations that may have very little to do with werewolves, but do a lot to turn these characters into people. Werewolves of Montpellier is a very quiet book in many ways. It’s not just the sparseness of the dialogue; everything about it is muted, from the artwork (which is deceptively simple, and demands attention from the reader even to keep track of the characters) to the emotional reactions of the characters.

Particularly strong moments include the seemingly inconsequential discussion of how escalators provide opportunities to ogle women.  This is followed a few pages later by Sven’s hesitating before an escalator and then, in the next panel, climbing the stairs instead. Then there’s the section in which Sven is drunk and (in one of the few obviously experimental moments in the book) the panels turn topsy-turvy to indicate this.

Far more than lycanthropic thriller, then, Werewolves of Montpellier feels like an indie movie, or possibly even a romantic comedy. Some of the long, dialogue-free sequences call to mind movie montages. This is particularly true of one section, when Sven and Audrey spend a day together. Audrey’s Hepburn obsession (her real name, it turns out, isn’t Audrey at all) combined with her cat and the fact that she lives in the same building as Sven make for such an obvious movie reference (Holly Golightly is even namechecked) as to suggest that cinema is supposed to inform our reading.

Another presumably deliberate angle from which to look at the book is to take its title as a direct reference to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”.  The Zevon song also makes a point of talking about werewolves in the most mundane fashion possible (the lyrics have the werewolves drinking pina coladas and buying Chinese takeaway). 

As a clever undercutting of the more traditional werewolf story then, Werewolves of Montpellier is excellent. Yet what really makes the book worthy of praise is the laconic humour and the characterisation that somehow makes something sweet and touching (and amazingly, not annoying) out of the existentialist angst of lonely people. In less than fifty pages, and particularly sparse pages at that, Jason does more than you would have believed possible.

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