Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > CR Reviews

Isle Of 1,000 Graves
posted May 9, 2011

imageCreators: Jason, Fabien Vehlmann
Publishing Information: Fantagraphics, softcover, 56 pages, May 2011, $14.99
Ordering Numbers: 9781606994429

For Isle Of 1000 Graves, the cartoonist Jason works with a writer, Fabien Vehlmann, for what is at least the first time in his strong North American publishing run. It's a fun collaboration over which to muse because it's hard to tell exactly what Vehlmann brings to the table. The writer has grasped onto Jason's use of deadpan humor and wistful character moments to an uncanny degree. While 1000 Graves moves more smoothly than some of Jason's setpiece-dominated past works, that wouldn't have been a surprising thing given how much quality work the cartoonist has made over the last several years.

It's a fun story. A child finds a copy of the treasure map that she believes her father followed. He never came home. Allying herself first with a bunch of pirates and then a single member of the crew, part of the fun in the narrative's first half is watching the child -- like Charles Portis' Mattie Ross a youth of above-average intelligence but surpassing drive -- protect herself through extremely childish means: by making things up. The island turns out to be the home of a school of torturers and executioners, a place that uses the lure of treasure to recruit live bodies on which to practice. The best moments of humor in the work come from the classic juxtaposition of an inhuman practice brought roughly under civilization's heel. In the course of finding out her father's final fate, the child is joined by the most oddball of the current class. They make their way off the island employing the same limited but effective skill-set that brought them here. Because of this deliberate care in both building their personalities and working from them in terms of how they react to certain story moments, both leads come across as incredibly endearing. A story-ending plot twist almost gets lost in a by-that-point hilarious one-liner about the methods used in bringing it about.

I imagine there may be some fans that feel this story more conventional and less arch than what they're used to with Jason. It never quite kicks over into that spirited run of pages that characterize a lot of past works, where he's uncorked some sort of mad, messy wellspring at the bottom of a certain kind of storytelling. If there's a criticism of the genre in which he's working this time out, it's far more muted than in the past. It's also perhaps the first story Jason's ever told that feels bigger than the cartoonist's employment of various techniques, more grand that the sum total of its punchlines. In the form of Vehlmann, I suppose Isle Of 1,000 Graves is at least that much bigger. If his contributions can be measured in impact of the final result, he's more than made his presence felt.