Review: Good Night, Hem
Throughout his career, Norwegian cartoonist Jason has been a master of mixing highbrow literary references with George Herriman-esque slapstick complete with funny animal characters. Good Night, Hem is no exception even if it takes a bit of time to build momentum and become truly emotionally resonant. The book consists of three chapters, basically, two short stories and a coda that ties everything together set during different time periods of Ernest Hemingway’s life. Chapter 1 follows his exploits with the “Lost Generation” (Highlighted in silhouette) in 1922 as he goes from the literary haven of Paris to the fiesta, and of course, bull fights of Pamplona, Spain. Chapter 2 is set in 1944 as he and a crack team of nobodies try to take out Hitler while chapter 3 wraps up in Cuba in 1959 as Hemingway takes stock of the events of the book and reflects on his life and his friendship with Athos, the immortal musketeer.
Although Jason sticks to a simple, yet powerful four panel per page layout and an iconic art style throughout Good Night, Hem, the first chapter of the comic is a wee bit of sensory overload. He keeps introducing names, faces, and some figures. Some like F. Scott Fitzgerald have gained immortality while the others hang out in the footnotes of biographies and had me digging through my old 20th Century American Literature syllabus. The constant namedropping and petty squabble interspersed with moments of humor and literary genius (i.e. Hemingway’s iceberg) don’t make for exactly pleasant reading, and the first chapter lacks focus compared to the second and third.
However, the first and lengthiest chapter isn’t a complete drag as Jason brings back one of his finest creations, Athos the Immortal about a decade after his last appearance in Athos in America. Athos’ physical presence alone brings the energy and melodrama of romanticism to a world of modernism, ennui, and infidelity as he truly lives with his heart on his sleeve leaping into the Seine River because he was rejected by the woman he was supposed to marry. The dynamic between him and Hemingway is really fun, and Jason gets playful (and a tad Shakespearean) and has them swap places for a day showing the power of fiction to try on different personalities and a way of looking at the world. It’s really clever that Jason makes them the same species of animal and has them end up having matching shiners, but what’s not clever and funny is their trick involves attempting or succeeding to be with each other’s lover. This doesn’t end up going well and is something that a problematic figure like Hemingway would try to pull, but it’s a classic storytelling trope that hasn’t aged very well. It does play the role of creating a rift between the men and also saps Hemingway of his fast talking, punching first personality.
If Chapter 1 saps Ernest Hemingway’s famous persona, the second chapter rejuvenates it as he basically wants to kill a bunch of Nazis and end World War II. There is a heightened fantasy (and comedy) feel to this part of Good Night, Hem like Inglourious Basterds, but with more restraint. (Except in the big mission scene.) Jason takes the stories of Hemingway’s exploits during World War II, including manning a Nazi hunting submarine in Cuba before the United States entered the war, and speculates what would have happened if he had achieved his ultimate goal of punching out Hitler and ending the war himself. Unfortunately, the result isn’t pretty with panels of Hemingway’s being mowed down or irreparably psychologically damaged.
Most of chapter two focuses on a side character named Paul, who finds romance in the midst of training, sneaking, and getting ready to fight Nazis, and Jason sets him up for tragedy culminating in a panel where he draws him like a beat-up rag doll repeating the same line of dialogue. War is never glorious even when it involves killing Nazis, and Jason shows the recklessness of Hemingway’s “hero ball”, initially through the farcically bad training exercises and finally through SS rifle fire. The cumulative effect of the fight scene is enough to draw him into yet another depression, but storywise, it’s the most effective part of Good Night, Hem. Jason takes his time setting up the relationship between Paul and Marie. He also both visually, and through dialogue, creates a parallel between Paul and F. Scott Fitzgerald and makes him a romantic who wants to live an adventurous life and write it down like Hemingway. This doesn’t happen.
Athos returns in chapter three as Ernest Hemingway contextualizes the events of Good, Night Hem into a tight narrative structure a la his actual writing. The cynic in me says that it’s Jason covering his ass after the meandering of chapter one, but it is a nice tone poem on immortality, adventures, and the simple pleasures of petting a cat and having a quiet life. Jason uses the character of Athos to show how any historical figure can be treated as a hero or larger than life when they have some very deep flaws. (See the flashback montage of Hemingway and his relationships with women.) I love how he depicts the aging process as well as turning in some of his sharpest, most insightful writing.
Good Night, Hem gets off to a wobbly, frenetic start with names and incidents and overlapping conversation that is really only readable thanks to Jason’s layouts and comedic timing. However, it picks up in chapter two with tragicomic thoughts on war, heroism, friendship, and immortality and ends up being a decent little read even if it’s not Jason’s best stirring up powerful emotions through black and white panels of anthropomorphic animals.
Story: 6.0 Art: 8.4 Overall: 7.2 Recommendation: Read
Fantagraphics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review