I had the wrong idea about this book. I feel like I say that a lot in this blog, but why not say it if it’s true? We all come into new experiences with expectations and ideas, and we’re all wrong a lot of the time. There’s no shame in saying so.
I expected Good Night, Hem to be a standalone graphic novel about Ernest Hemingway. Since it’s by the Norwegian cartoonist Jason, I thought there might be a genre element of some kind, or that it might be told slyly in some other way: I didn’t expect a straightforward biographical story.
I wasn’t far wrong, but I’d forgotten that Jason had already written about Hemingway and his Paris circle of the 1920s in The Left Bank Gang – well, sort-of, since those characters had the names of the Lost Generation circle but were comics creators planning a bank robbery. And I didn’t know that Good Night, Hem is also a sequel to The Last Musketeer , since Athos is a major character here.
So, to sum up: Good Night, Hem is not really a sequel to the previous Jason book in which “Ernest Hemingway” appeared, but it is a sequel to a completely different Jason book that was not about Hemingway. This is par for the course for Jason: you don’t go to his books for straightforward and obvious.
Oh, one other thing: it’s not a single narrative
, but three loosely linked shorter stories: one in Paris and Spain in 1925, when Hemingway is inspired to write The Sun Also Rises; one in Paris and other points in 1944, where Hemingway is inspired to lead a group of young Frenchmen (are they supposed to be writers? I’m not sure) to train, airdrop into Berlin, and capture Hitler to end the war early; and a short coda set in Cuba in 1959, where Hemingway muses on Athos, their combined histories, and life in general.
So it is largely about Athos, in a sideways, Jason fashion. Hemingway is the focal character, but Athos is more interesting and harder to understand – the story is told from Hemingway’s viewpoint, but it’s largely about Athos (except that odd middle section).
I also think Jason’s books have gotten less dense recently: he switched from a mostly nine-panel grid to a four-panel grid, so each page has bigger, more open panels with less action and dialogue. On the other hand, I don’t have the books in front of me to check, but I also think his recent books are longer – so I may be saying they have about the same amount of action, but spread out onto more pages, so it feels longer and more relaxed.
What happens? Well, the first section is pretty straightforward and relatively close to history, only with the addition of an immortal musketeer in the group going to Pamplona: it’s focused, like Sun itself, on the sexual tensions within the group, and adds to them by having Athos and Hemingway be essentially doppelgangers. (Not that Jason has that many character types to begin with, so this may be lampshading in his part.)
The second section is an old-fashioned nutty Jason story, along the lines of I Killed Adolph Hitler, in which completely crazy, impossible things are presented straightforwardly and just happen anyway.
And the ending is, again, more of a coda, summing up Hemingway’s view of Athos and cataloging all of their interactions. (He also inspired The Old Man and the Sea!)
I didn’t think this completely came together as one thing – the middle section is too different in tone, style, and concerns – but all of the pieces are good, and all show Jason doing good work in his mature style. I wouldn’t pick this up as a first Jason book – Hitler or the newer Lost Cat or maybe Werewolves of Montpelier are better choices to start – but it’s a fine continuation.
 No good link for that book: it was the first Jason book I read, in March of 2009 when I was an Eisner judge, so I stuck it in the middle of a massive post covering the 94 books I read that month.