When I walked out of the house, the sun was setting and it suddenly dawned on me… I was immortal! I immediately ran back inside to work my spiritual epiphany into the comic.
-Jason Shiga, on "Meanwhile"
I draw a comic strip about mad geniuses. You know, evil-scientist types, with the insane laughter and the bubbling vats of unwholesome chemicals and the tampering in God’s domain. One of the themes I try to get across, and probably don’t most of the time, is the idea that genius isn’t just a matter of brains. Genius, the real rare deal, is all about seeing the world in a way no one’s ever seen it before. It’s watching an apple drop out of a tree and saying, "Gravity!" It’s looking at a comic book and saying, "If you think about it, the book is a pretty weird (but efficient) way of storing information. Instead of being laid out in a continuous linear fashion, information is broken into roughly equal sized chunks. Then 50-70 of these chunks are printed onto these movable flaps which all pile on top of one another."
Those last words are Jason Shiga’s. He’s a mad genius. A real one.
I know Shiga, a little. I’ve been to his home, which is cluttered with his key inspirations: "Peanuts" and "Family Circus" cartoons, Choose Your Own Adventure books, odd underground manga. He’s friendly in a shy, self-effacing way, with a nervous laugh and a staggering inability to accept that people are amazed by his work. The first evening I visited his house, he opened his closet and dragged out a project he had designed, built and then abandoned: "Theater Eroika," a comic drawn on a series of overlapping paper wheels. To read the story, which can take several directions, the reader turns the wheels to reveal panels through little windows. It was delicately and precisely beautiful – but not, Shiga explained with disappointment, a design that lends itself to mass production. Another time, I watched him assemble copies of his choose-your-own-adventure minicomic "The Last Supper." "The Last Supper" is printed on a single sheet of paper, which Shiga cuts and folds so that the comic can be read by unfolding it, panel by panel, in different directions. It’s a work of acrobatic origami I can’t imagine conceiving, much less developing into a readable, saleable form.
Strictly speaking, Shiga isn’t a webcartoonist. The Internet is just one of several structures upon which he constructs comics. He ‘s produced print minicomics, some straightforward, some fragile miracles of paper engineering. He’s published a Xeric-funded graphic novel, Double Happiness, set in the underbelly of San Francisco’s Chinatown. He’s drawn two weekly comic strips, "Bus Stop" (for the San Francisco Examiner) and "Fleep" (for Asian Week). He recently published Meanwhile, probably the most ambitious branching-narrative comic ever drawn, and a "programmable" comic called Hello World. Online, he has a website, as well as a Web version of "Fleep" at Modern Tales.
The Web is perhaps the ideal medium for one of Shiga’s passions: choose-your-own-adventure stories. In the past, he’s created interactive comics in a dazzling variety of print formats: "Every Dog" is printed on a series of slotted cards which must be assembled into order, "The Bum’s Rush" is a single large sheet of paper covered in linked panels, "Hello World" is divided into three sets of independently moving pages, and the massive "Meanwhile" is a graphic novel in which a dense network of lines and a forest of page tabs connect the relentlessly branching storylines. Online, however, choose-your-own-adventure stories are much easier to construct. A simple pair of HTML links can connect one page to the two possible pages following it. Shiga has transferred "The Last Supper" and "The Bum’s Rush" into online format, and, although the loss of his ingenious paper engineering takes away some of the fun, the online versions are more streamlined and easier to follow. They demonstrate the largely untapped possibilities that hypertext presents for interactive comic stories.
The other comics on shigabooks.com include Shiga’s early minicomics "Philip’s Head" and "Doorknob Bob," and the blood-spattered parody "The Family Circus," of which Shiga writes, "It is my Citizen Kane, if Citizen Kane was a piece of crap." Many of the comics are offered in two different formats, each suited to the Web: a clickable page-by-page version, and a one-page giant scroll.
Modern Tales is serializing Shiga’s comic strip "Fleep," which ran in the San Francisco paper Asian Week until its untimely cancellation; the Asian Week editors wanted a comic about the "Asian-American experience" and were apparently a little baffled to receive a strip about a man (but an Asian-American man) trapped in a phone booth. Here, again, the Web works to the comic’s advantage. A cerebral serial drama, "Fleep" was all but impossible to follow as a weekly newspaper comic. Online, with previous strips archived and available at the click of a mouse, the story develops gracefully. The fascination of "Fleep" grows from the gradual unfolding of the protagonist’s goal and his ingenuity at devising ways to reach it. One strip opens with the hero making a pendulum from a light fixture, screws, and dental floss in order to measure Coriolus force and determine his latitude, and builds from there… well, I know I’ve used the phrase "mad genius" a couple of times already, and I’ll use it again before this article is over, so I’ll back off for now.
Artists like Jason Shiga throw the whole "webcomics vs. print comics" debate out the window by demonstrating that the Web is just another format, ripe with possibilities, no more or less ridiculous than the fifty to seventy chunks of information printed on movable flaps that we call a book. To Shiga, a comic can be a book, or a website, or a wheel, or a blueprint, or a stack of slotted cards. His work challenges preconceptions about what a comic is.
Mad geniuses. What would we do without them?