Jason Shiga’s artwork is as precisely functional as a mathematical proof: it communicates what’s happening in his comics clearly, it’s funny, and that’s about all that can be said for it. But he’s an excellent, very funny, enormously original, and wildly peculiar cartoonist–American comics’ equivalent of bands like the Raincoats and Beat Happening who were such gifted songwriters that they leveraged their lack of technical polish into a strength.
Shiga’s been selling his self-produced comics and books online and at small-press shows for over a decade, but his work has otherwise mostly been pretty hard to come by (apart from the 2007 Sparkplug edition of his Starsky-and-Hutch-as-library-cops thriller Bookhunter). The first mass-marketed edition of his work, a redrawn, colorized and slightly expanded hardcover version of his 2001 comic Meanwhile, has just appeared, and as soon as I started looking at it, nothing else mattered for the next hour or so. The first two people I showed Meanwhile to couldn’t put it down either. One of them was 25 years old; the other was four.
Meanwhile is a branching-path story, like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, although it’s also got undertones of quantum physics. The reader’s role is “Jimmy,” a kind of Everyman type who’s the protagonist of most of Shiga’s books. The premise of Meanwhile is that you-as-Jimmy discover a scientist’s lab, and he invites you to play with three of his inventions: a gizmo that allows you to read people’s memories, a time machine, and the Killitron 2000, a “doomsday device” that kills everyone in the universe outside it, sort of like an inside-out Schrödinger box. The first two machines have limited functionality unless you can find an access code (the old Infocom-game trick). The Killitron used to have an access code too, the scientist explains, but he removed it after “finding some other applications” for it. Universe-splitting wackiness ensues.
Each panel of Meanwhile leads via “tubes” to one or more options for what comes next, and the tubes often wind around other panels, off the edge of the page, and onto die-cut tabs, eventually landing on a page somewhere else in the book. (This edition is, blessedly, printed on extra-sturdy paper.) The cover claims that there are “3,856 story possibilities”; there’s a one-page version of Meanwhile visible here. For the original 2001 incarnation of Meanwhile, Shiga had to hand-cut the tabs on every page, which he’s reported took 20 minutes for each copy.
A lot of Shiga’s other projects are also puzzles of one kind or another. Every page of 2002′s Hello World is physically split in half; its plot turns out to be a problem in combinatorics, difficult enough that he initially offered a rebate of its $20 purchase price for anyone who solved it. Ctrl-Z is a mammoth 500-page branching-path adventure in which nearly every possible path results in your character getting shot, at which point you’re sent back to page 1. Shiga’s written and drawn a couple of relatively straightforward projects, like the not-quite-a-romantic-comedy Empire Park (which will apparently see wider release through Abrams eventually), but most of his books mess with the narrative norms of comics, one way or another. Some are more subtle about it than others–after its first three panels, Fleep takes place entirely inside a phone booth, which both frees Shiga up from having to draw much in the way of backgrounds and forces him to work overtime to keep the story visually interesting.
Maybe the most surprising thing about Shiga’s work is its open sentimentality, which is always a useful thing in a formalist. Most of his trickiest puzzles end up having some kind of emotional resolution. To say much about the climactic time-travel sequence of Meanwhile would spoil some of its fun, so I’ll just note that it’s much cleverer, and tenderer, than it needs to be for the sake of the puzzle–and that it makes one of the disastrous “wrong” endings more affecting in retrospect, too.
For a while, there was an online version of Meanwhile. Shiga almost always incorporates some physical element into his printed books, though, and the new edition of Meanwhile features some beautiful elements that would be impossible to reproduce in a digital translation. There’s one delicious image that can’t be reached by any of the story’s “tubes”; it can’t even be seen if you’re playing the game according to the rules. And the final payoff of the book isn’t even the puzzle’s solution. When you’ve finished experiencing Meanwhile as a game and start paging through it, looking for funny bits you might have missed, you’ll encounter another hidden sequence that resolves some of the book’s thematic strains and, as a present for hardcore geeks, alludes to a similar passage in Edward Packard’s 1982 “Choose Your Own Adventure” book Inside UFO 54-40. The days when comics are made of paper and ink may be drawing to a close, but Shiga’s still discovering tricks that only printed pages can do.
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