JASON SHIGA: Interview with a Crazy Genius

MIND-BOGGLING — Jason Shiga’s “Meanwhile,” an experimentalist comic book, can be read in all different directions. ©Jason Shiga

“Crazy + Genuis = Shiga,” wrote Scott McCloud, considered by many to be the foremost authority on comics. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to argue that those two words do not apply to Jason Shiga. A favorite in the indie comics scene for more than a decade, Shiga won renown for his dark humor and unconventional storytelling techniques, which often incorporate his love of math and puzzles.

The Oakland-based writer and artist was profiled in Time magazine, has been nominated for two Eisner Comic Book Industry Awards (best graphic album for “Book Hunter” and best single issue for “Fleep”) and he won the 2003 Eisner Award for “Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition.”

Now, approximately seven years later, he is beginning to get it. He is creating kid-friendly, but still somewhat warped, comic/puzzle/games for Nickelodeon Magazine and his groundbreaking “choose your own adventure”-style interactive Web comic “Meanwhile” has recently been published in book form by Amulet Books. The plot, or perhaps plots, of the book involve time travel, cloning and a fateful choice between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. The Nichi Bei Weekly recently caught up with Shiga to talk about “Meanwhile” and his overall body of work.

Nichi Bei Weekly: First off, how did “Meanwhile” get published in a hardback, glossy, color format? It’s pretty amazing on the Web, but it’s a different thing altogether to have a physical copy of it in your hands. It also seems like sort of a risky project for the publisher to take on. How did you convince them it could be made into a book, or how did they convince you?

Jason Shiga: You’re right. It was a very expensive and risky project. It took 10 years from the time I finished the book to the time I found a publisher who was willing to take a chance on it. As for managing to convince my publishers to take that risk, I guess I have to give 100 percent of that credit to my agent.

NBW: Laying out a comic book seems to be a difficult thing, even in a linear story. In “Meanwhile” there are additional layout challenges, in that panels read in all different directions, and pages flip back and forth. Still, the pacing of the story is quite good. How did you manage to give the panels that sort of rhythm while they go in all different directions?

JS: The unconventional layout of “Meanwhile” made my job both easier and more difficult. Before I even started drawing the comic, I had to flowchart it, and plan it out down to what parts of each timeline would happen on each page. That limited me in one sense, but in another way freed me up. I had as many panels as I wanted to accomplish that bit of the timeline. I could make the panels any size. I could place them pretty much anywhere so long as I started from (for example) a tab on the left and led off the page on the right. If there was an important panel, I could just make it bigger and surround it with a lot of empty space.

NBW: “Meanwhile,” “Fleep” and “Double Happiness” all, I believe, were created at about the same time. They also seem to share a similar theme. A character either knowingly or unknowingly sets out on a quest for their identity. The results are at best complicated, at worst downright depressing. Am I right to read that into your work? Was there something in particular in that period that you were exploring, or was it a coincidence?

JS: I think your guess is as good as mine. Most authors I know don’t begin with a theme they want to explore and obfuscate it with a story. I think more often the case, we all just take our peculiar interests, sci-fi novels, other comics and our own weird perspective on the world and use those tools to write the greatest story we can. Honestly, I’d never thought that identity was very important to me. But since you point it out, it does seem to be a recurring theme.

NBW: Your visuals and stories appear pretty simple on the surface, but closer inspection reveals them to be quite complex. Was this something you thought about consciously? Were you ever into drawing more realistic looking characters?

JS: I try to draw the most appealing characters that I have the ability to draw. But I’m not very good at drawing realistic characters that retain the same level of appeal. For me it’s a learning process. I’ve gotten better at drawing over the years. But I like to think I’m still improving.

NBW: You’ve also created a video game (I assume) by yourself, among many other jobs that seem like they are not necessarily made for one man. Have you or would you ever participate in something more collaborative? Like illustrate a comic or video game written/produced by someone else?

JS: I do not like working with other people. There’s always a point in the process where I think we should go one direction, but my partner thinks we should go another and then we both have to compromise our visions. Comics  [are] the perfect medium for antisocial psychopaths like me. No, just kidding. One thing about comics is that they take such a long time to draw it seems insane that I would spend a year drawing someone else’s idea instead of my own.

NBW: I always assumed your characters were Asian, even though in many cases it was not explicitly stated (though in some cases, such as “Fleep” and “Double Happiness” it pretty much is). Are the characters in “Meanwhile” and “Bookhunter” supposed to ‘be something’ racially? I ask because of the recent “Airbender” controversy.

JS: They’re Asian. But that detail isn’t essential to the plot so I didn’t include that information. Do they ever mention in Harry Potter that he’s white? Unfortunately, I think most people will assume a character is white unless told otherwise. You could say, “A man walks into a bar…” and nine times out of 10 people will picture a white man walking into a bar. You could draw a smiley face and unless you make their eyes slanted, people will assume it’s a white man’s face. But there’s nothing white about two dots and a line. It’s just perception.

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