“Jar of Fools” by Jason Lutes

In the early 1990s Jason Lutes, a writer and artist living in Seattle, received a Xeric Foundation Grant. And we’re lucky he did. Because it provided him funds to complete and publish his first comic book, Jar of Fools. A two-part story originally issued in separate books, Jar of Fools is now available in a single volume.

Calling Jar of Fools a comic book is a bit like calling Crime and Punishment a murder mystery. Yes, Jar of Fools is a story told with words and pictures. And Lutes’ writing and drawing style is deceptively spare and simple. But beneath the simple surface is a subtle tale of loss, guilt, remorse, redemption — and magic. If you seek a book truly worthy of the phrase “graphic novel,” this is it.

Ernie Weiss is a down-and-out stage magician haunted by the death of his brother, Howard, an escape artist who dived into a river, shackled and straitjacketed, and never came up again. Ernie has lost his faith in magic and himself. He lives in a flophouse, drinks to excess, and wanders the streets with no purpose or direction. Was his brother’s death an accident or something else? Ernie cannot let the question go.

Howard’s disappearance also upset Ernie’s relationship with his girlfriend, Esther, who has been unable to face Ernie since the day his brother leapt from a bridge into oblivion. Esther seems to have shared a mysterious connection with Howard, but what? Were they secretly in love?

Ernie wrestles with these mysteries until he can barely move or speak. He is drowning, dragged down by feelings of failure and helplessness. Meanwhile, a shady character named Nathan Lender is following Ernie. Who is he and what does he want?

These characters are set on a collision course when Ernie’s mentor, a magician of the vaudeville era, escapes an old age home and unwittingly rescues his former student from the grip of emotional paralysis.

Ernie’s mentor, by the way, turns out to be Al Flosso. Magicians will instantly recognize the Coney Island Fakir and his trademark stovepipe hat — although, as Lutes points out in a disclaimer at the beginning of the book, “the Al Flosso depicted in Jar of Fools is based on the real Al Flosso in name and likeness only.”

Jar of Fools is a comic book for grown-ups. I say this not because the book contains some sex and harsh language but because it is a mature work with complex themes, fully realized characters — characters with all the doubts, contradictions and ambiguities of real people — and a distinct lack of pat answers. Like the hero of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Ernie Weiss is a man who has lost his way. Finding it depends on his willingness to let go of the past and to accept help from unlikely sources.

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