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On The Camino (2017)
Book Reviews

On The Camino (2017)

A more introspective travelogue than longtime fans might have expected, but one they might themselves need.

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Fans of international comics and graphic novels are probably familiar with the Norwegian artist who goes only by the mononym Jason, if for no other reason than his trademarked stylizing humans as dogs and cats against more adult themes and narrative-light storytelling. Much of his work can be enjoyed simply by intuiting his pantomiming characters and straightforward pacing, an approach that seems tailormade for an illustrated travelogue. But how does one illustrate the inner workings of the mind and soul, especially when embarking on a quest designed to affect both?

On the Camino chronicles his 32-day trek across the Camino de Santiago, a 780 km (roughly 500 miles) sojourn from the French side of the Pyrenees mountains across Northwestern Spain to visit the shrine of St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The rationale should make sense to anyone approaching a significant milestone: for Jason, it was to mark his 50th birthday back in 2015. “It was either this or buying a Porsche!“, he tells his fellow pilgrims, a humbling false premise from a man who’s never owned a car.

But you won’t learn much of this in Jason’s book, though you will learn interesting bits about the journey itself, such as what “pilgrims” are, or the importance of adorning your backpack with the iconic scallop shell and making sure to follow the yellow arrows marking the way. Many pilgrims make the journey for religious reasons, many others for more aspirational – perhaps even selfish – ones. Whatever the case, the lure of accomplishing such a mammoth athletic undertaking has its own rewards.

A constant unifier throughout the journey is “that Martin Sheen film”, The Way (released in 2010 and actually written and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez, whose name probably doesn’t carry as much gravitas as his famous father, excepting hardcore Mighty Ducks fans). While much of the trek’s underlying Catholicism is left unsaid – minus visits to the many monasteries, churches, and crosses dotting the landscapes – new-age spirituality is on full display, especially the type inspired by mass-media. One can’t help but think of the similar ‘pull’ many fans had to Italy and India after the success of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love (or, more honestly, the Julia Roberts film).

Even the most devout comic reader would probably agree the number of introspective comic travelogues out there range from “enough” to “enough already”, so the choice for Jason to add another might strike even his longtime fans as a bit odd. They needn’t worry; while drawn in his familiar anthropomorphic style he wisely avoids the narcissism and facile platitudes that plague too many of them. Jason’s own spiritual awakening may be light on cathartic “AH HA!” moments, but at least it’s not insufferable.

While many self-referential travelogues (especially illustrated ones) focus on the sights, sounds, and celebrations of their trek across such historical expanses, Jason opts for the more intimate; he relays the importance of washing socks and draining blisters than taking in some of the more exhilarating vistas. Like several of his fellow pilgrims, the quest for the perfect hostile seems as much a highlight as finding inner peace through endless hiking.

If there’s a repetitive quality to Jason’s endless cycle of hiking, eating, sleeping (and washing socks) perhaps this more accurately represents the actual trek than simply rendering its more majestic vistas in his familiar inky style. That he was able to (mostly) resist caricaturing some of the more interesting locales (and locals) must have been torture, but panels are still peppered in his characteristic style and humor, often depicting his inner thoughts in surreal fashion (films are a familiar motif, especially those of Tarantino and Marlon Brando), even tricking readers with the odd visual gag. I’m certain this autobiographical work will be seen as a huge departure for fans expecting something closer to his usual output, but that doesn’t make it a lesser work.

On the trails he happens across an ever-changing mix of pilgrims from across the globe that include Australians, Germans, Italians, Dutch, Korean, Americans, even fellow Norwegians like himself. The Camino de Santiago is truly an international affair as even those who don’t speak French or Spanish our pilgrims can be certain that a friendly “Buen Camino!” or “Buenos Dias” awaits them. It’s not difficult to see the attraction of allowing yourself the comforts of such total human companionship against the backdrop of rugged survivalism. Some go camping in the wilderness for a weekend, others hike 500 miles across Europe; to each their own.

The goal, apart from personal fulfillment, is to earn a Compostela, the official accreditation (i.e. diploma) showing completion of the final 100 km (62 miles) by foot or on horseback. Those pilgrims having walked the entire way will note that it’s during this final stretch where several families begin to appear, the bare minimum required to earn their certificate. Jason makes us aware this point is also where trail marker signs are defaced and garbage can be found strewn about.

A constant theme of disconnection flows throughout Jason’s adventure, be it antisocial behavior (especially with interactions of fellow pilgrims several decades younger – and older – than he), or especially in the electronic ‘invasion’ of what’s sold as a spiritual undertaking. He observes with dismay at the sight of webcams, iPads, and phones (though he’s not above using internet cafes to check on the status of fellow pilgrims via Facebook).

When an Australian pilgrim asks to film him with his smartphone, Jason declines, saying he’d prefer not to be on YouTube. “Mr. Hypocrisy!“, he labels himself, as he records this event for the book. Had he been asked to render John as a cartoon dog, however, he’d happily oblige. Such is the world of moral justification. While being interviewed by a television crew (surely because of his comic fame, though Jason never tells us) he offers advice to his ‘readers’ who decide to hike the Camino: “Walk in silence, not with an iPod.

On The Camino shouldn’t be viewed as a strict travelogue, at least not one would-be pilgrims could look to for explicit advice on making the trip for themselves. Longer and more sustained than what fans might’ve expected, it showcases an artist in the midst of transition, one hoping that trying something – anything – new and different may trigger a latent sense of self-fulfillment or meaning in a life that’s reached the halfway point. Merely completing the Camino de Santiago may not have the immediate transcendent effect some were praying for, but often the promise of such a life-altering experience is too good to pass up. And for others, as George Mallory once said, simply because it’s there.