If anyone has heard of Jason Lutes before this UK publication of Jar Of Fools it’s probably due to his work Berlin: City of Stones. Over the last 15 years Lutes has published a handful of graphic novels: Jar of Fools, Houdini the Handcuff King, and the Berlin series among them.

Jar of Fools follows an alcohol addled, broken-hearted magician as he comes to terms with the end of a relationship and the unexpected suicide of his escape-artist brother. His journey is framed by the increasing senility of his mentor and the attempts of a low life con-artist to persuade the magician to educate his young daughter in the ways of magic.

A sense of detachment, of being out of time saturates this book; the magician’s acknowledgment that he is no longer relevant and the literal underworld the characters inhabit support this feeling. The magician’s own traditional take on his vocation removes him from the modern world – his kind of magic is the magic of smoky clubs, starched collars and sleight of hand, an antiquated form of showmanship made redundant by CGI, Vegas and television. In the magician’s aging mentor’s own words, how can you top Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear on peak-time TV?

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Accordingy to Lutes’ Wikipedia page, a trip to France exposed him to ‘Bandes Dessinées‘ comic strips (Tintin and Asterix for example), which have greatly influenced his style (see his homage to Hergé on page 77 of Jar of Fools, and extra points if you spot the reference to Chris Ware). Having myself grown up with Asterix comics I can easily relate to these simply drawn characters and the rhythm of the uniform panels on the page. In some ways Lutes reminds me of Chester Brown, another European-influenced comic artist, insomuch as both keep a regular grid of panels on the page and use simply drawn characters, able to express a wide range of emotions through a few considered lines of ink.

Jar of Fools is neatly paced, and does not suffer from the transition from a series of issues in to a single volume. Lutes uses dream sequences and alcoholic hallucinations to show our protagonist’s state of mind, and successfully incorporates these sequences into his narrative, reinforcing the detachment from reality his characters all suffer from. With such doomed characters inhabiting Jar of Fools, a feel-good ending was never going to be on the cards, and although the characters all go through some sort of awakening the ending is downbeat but open-ended enough for the reader to form their own conclusions.

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A graphic novel that I will revisit again, in Jar of Fools Lutes has created a work that is engaging and a joy to read, a refreshing change from the navel-gazing that constitutes much of contemporary American ‘grown up’ comics.

Many thanks to Faber & Faber for supplying a copy for review.

This review first appeared on bookgeeks.co.uk.

Buy a copy here.

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