Jason Shiga is an Oakland-based cartoonist perhaps most well known for Meanwhile, a Choose Your Own Adventure-style comic that allows readers to make decisions that influence the narrative of the story. He received a Xeric grant for Double Happiness, and has won Eisner, Ignatz, and Stumptown Comics awards. Other published works include Fleep, Bookhunter, and Empire State. He recently completed his self-published twenty-one issue serial Demon, which was picked up by First Second and is scheduled to be released in four volumes starting in the fall of 2016. I first met Jason at a book-signing event at Fantastic Comics in Berkeley, California in May 2013. The interview below is a condensed version of three conversations that took place between July 2014 and April 2016.
Jeanette Roan: Could we begin with how you got started? Did you grow up drawing?
Jason Shiga: I actually did draw a lot when I was growing up. I went to an arts magnet school from kindergarten all the way through ninth grade. A lot of magnet schools have different themes, like music or science, and I ended up going to one focused on arts. I remember a typical assignment would be to read about Roman baths, and then draw a picture of what you think that they would look like. It was super fun going to an arts magnet school, and it was just great to hand in pictures or illustrations for class assignments.
Did you ever do a comic for an assignment?
Oddly, no. I do remember there were kids who were into making and reading comics, but for whatever reason I wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t really until college that I got into comics.
In the past you’ve mentioned the influence of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Do you think of your life in terms of critical moments when your decision to do one thing or another could lead to very different kinds of outcomes? Is there such a moment in your life in regards to becoming a cartoonist?
I do, all the time! In relation to becoming a cartoonist, it’d probably be taking a DeCal class called “Comics as Literature” at Berkeley taught by José Alaniz. [The DeCal Program consists of student-run courses offered at the University of California, Berkeley on topics not addressed in the traditional curriculum.] We read Understanding Comics and Maus in that class, and a number of selections. We also made our own comics. After that semester I wanted to do another comic, and then another one…
What do you think it was about comics that made you want to keep making them?
It was fun to make, and there’s something about having drawn it one day and then literally the next day you have the book in your hand and it’s on the shelf at the comic book store. I wasn’t too serious about it until I met up with Dylan Williams [founder and publisher of Sparkplug Books]. This was before I graduated from college, so I was already pretty serious about comics by the time I graduated. After graduating, I started meeting up with other local cartoonists. I began hosting drawing nights at my house called Art Night and that was when I started taking comics even more seriously. But I don’t think I necessarily had it in my head that I was going to be a professional indie cartoonist, because at the time that just didn’t exist. In fact, I remember having a conversation with Gene Yang. I said something like, “I’m going to be a security guard.” That way, when I’m at the front desk, I’ve seen these guys, what they’re really doing is just reading a book. What’s to stop me from bringing some paper, some pens, and a lightbox I could plug in, and just doing that, and potentially getting paid to draw comics? And maybe foil the occasional robber.
So from pretty early on you were thinking about how to support yourself while also finding the time to make your comics.
I actually tried to make a go of it as a professional artist after I graduated from college. I did comics for a newspaper called Youth Outlook, I had a strip in the Examiner. I’d just take any sort of paying gig that came along. But it was really tough to cobble a living together that way. So after six months of that, I got a job at the Oakland Public Library. I kind of gave up on the idea of being a professional artist at that point.
Art Night at the time would have been Derek Kirk Kim, Gene Yang, Jesse Hamm, and Lark Pien, though it would become much larger in later years?
That sounds about right.
How did gathering together on a weekly basis with other cartoonists for Art Night help you develop as a cartoonist, especially at a time when there weren’t a lot of formal institutional spaces for that kind of community?
I’d like to think that art, and comics in particular, can be created in a social vacuum. That idea appeals to me because I wasn’t always the most social person, especially during my teenage years. I feel you can learn comics on your own, but having that social atmosphere can accelerate your learning. I think Gene talks about Art Night as if it was his comics schooling. There are actual comics schools these days, like CCS [Center for Cartoon Studies] or SCAD [Savannah College of Art and Design, Sequential Art Program]. I think for me, all the critiquing of each other’s stuff, asking Derek what kind of pens he uses… You can learn all these things in a really fast way that would just take forever to learn on your own.
Was there a moment in your life when you felt like you had indeed become a professional cartoonist?
When Art Night was at its full swing, that’s when I first started doing books for Sparkplug. I was working on Double Happiness, Fleep, Bookhunter, and Meanwhile. I was working at the Oakland library for most of this time as well. I’d say the summer of 2008 is when things started to change for me. That’s when I got my advance for Meanwhile. 2008 was an interesting year. I think it was around this time when Persepolis, American Born Chinese, and Fun Home all hit. A lot of traditional book publishers were just opening up comics imprints, so I think 2007, 2008 is the year that a lot of alternative cartoonists were scooped up and offered book deals, and I guess I was part of that. Abrams decided they wanted to release Meanwhile as a children’s book, so I quit my job at the library, which was very bittersweet because I had been working there for ten years. It wasn’t like, “Take this job and suck it!” I started as a library aide, and by the end of it I was working in computer services at the main branch. I just loved my co-workers, but it had always been a dream of mine to work full-time as a cartoonist, and that’s what I did.
You weren’t worried about what would happen after this one advance was gone?
Well, I was a bachelor at the time. I thought I could stretch this out over three years if I ate beans and rice for every meal. In three years, I could make another three graphic novels, and I’d only need one of them to sell. I also had a back-up plan. If two of those graphic novels didn’t sell and I was down to my last year, I could always live in a van and stretch out the advance even more. Another back-up plan was to move to the Philippines. I remember someone telling me that they were able to rent a room in the Philippines for seven dollars a night or something, so I remember doing the mental calculations. I figured I could stretch out my advance for ten years! In that amount of time I could make ten graphic novels, and return from the Philippines with ten graphic novels, and sell each one for ten more advances!
That’s great that you thought all of it through so carefully [laughter]. Practically speaking, what did you do after receiving the advance?
I decided that since it was going to be my first big published book, I would do it up nice so I basically redrew and colored Meanwhile from scratch since my art style had changed a lot from when I first started working on it. During that time, I wrote another graphic novel, Empire State. I was able to get an advance for that, and I figured I could keep that cycle going, so after I got the advance for Empire State I started working on Demon, and that is where my luck ended.
But then it sort of picked up again.
But then it picked up again.
Congratulations on the First Second book contract for Demon, that’s very exciting! Did you plan for this to happen: build an audience online and through subscriptions, then land a book contract with a major publisher?
Well, I submitted Demon to publishers maybe two years ago, and honestly I was kind of unreasonable about it. I had a number of demands. It’s a serial, so it must be released as pamphlets! They should be monthly 24- or 32-page pamphlets, because Demon is an homage to the old superhero comics or 1990s alternative comics. (Those are some of my favorite comics, like Hate by Peter Bagge.) I also refused to remove anything. There’s a scene where the main character constructs a shank out of dried semen. There’s another scene where the antagonist farts semen into the main character’s face. There’s camel sex. I was like, “I will not change a single panel!”
Also, a lot of the issues were insane. Issue seven was four pages long, and I insisted it must be four pages long. There’s another issue that has no images in it, but I think it might still be a comic and I insisted this issue must exist as well. I was like, “These are my demands: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven…” Not surprisingly, publishers passed on it. I was indignant. I was like fuck you all! I thought to myself, I got my start self-publishing mini-comics, and there’s no reason I can’t go back to doing that, so I bought a Risograph printer, started printing up issues, and then I figured I would try to release it as a webcomic as well, because, you know, that’s what all the kids are doing these days. I had been kind of a webcomic skeptic for the longest time but decided I’d stick my toe in. I’m a webcomic convert these days. I love webcomics! A few months in I started a Patreon campaign. The basic model is there’s the webcomic, and if you want to buy a subscription, the books run about a month ahead of the comic, so you get to read a month into the future. It’s a pretty basic model that’s worked out well for me.
How did you get the idea for Demon, in particular the idea of being able to die and possess other bodies?
I’m a huge fan of ’80s body-switching comedies, like Vice Versa and 18 Again! with George Burns. I also liked the recent Community episode that was an homage to the body-switching comedies. That’s always appealed to me, being a person but inhabiting another body, and I always wished that the premise had been a little more fully explored in those films. So I decided to try to explore every little corner of that premise. But it’s not a new premise that I came up with.
I really enjoyed the parts when Jimmy was trying to figure out how this actually works, what happens with what kinds of bodies, what transfers over and what doesn’t, all of that was fun.
I’m also a big Death Note fan. That was a big influence on the book. I love Light Yagami’s very rational and systematic approach to figuring out exactly what the book can and can’t do.
Why did you choose Risograph printing for this series? What is your process like?
I bought a Risograph printer because I wanted to do a two-color comic and it’s the cheapest option. I do also like the way it looks. It has that really warm, organic feel to it. And when the registration is just a little off, it looks really sweet. I do my penciling with ballpoint pens. If I make a small mistake I’ll just write an “x” through the line and draw another one. There’s no need to erase it since it doesn’t show up in the finished art anyways. I draw my pencils on letter size paper, I blow them up to ledger size on a photocopier, and then I lightbox those and ink them with a brush and a pen. That’s pretty much it. For lettering I print out the letters in Photoshop so I can adjust all the kerning and get that right, and then I just trace over that with a Micron. Then, I do my coloring in Photoshop and call it a day. Something that’s always attracted me about comics is that you can buy all the raw materials you need to get started for five bucks. There’s no reason you cannot be a cartoonist!
Did you develop this process pretty early on, or over time?
I developed it over time. I used to pencil with pencils, but I like the feel of pens better. With pencil I usually press down too hard and my fingers get tired. With ballpoint pen you don’t have to press down very hard in order to make a dark line. I think when a lot of cartoonists start out, they read How to Draw the Marvel Way, and maybe the Jessica Abel and Matt Madden book [Drawing Words and Writing Pictures], and they’ll buy the Ames lettering guide, a blue pencil, all the tools that the pros use. I remember when I did all my lettering with a Rapidograph, because that’s what the pros use. Those are hell to clean up. But as I did more and more comics, I’m just like you know what, I can do it this way, this way’s easier, and with comics, a lot of it just comes down to what’s easiest, what can allow you to do it the fastest.
Even at its fastest, it’s still incredibly slow and labor-intensive.
Yeah, but I think one of the advantages of comics over a lot of other mediums is that one person can put out a lot of comics in a way that’s difficult in a lot of other media. I feel comics are designed to be drawn quickly. A cartoon is basically a paring down of reality into the most basic forms and shapes and lines.
With Demon, you’re printing and sending out hundreds of booklets each month, right? How are you doing that?
After I’ve got all my pages colored, I separate them out into red and black. I print a red layer, that is, I print the whole issue in red, and then I replace the ink cartridge, and then I just feed those printed pages right back into the machine. I use Kelly brand copy paper—it’s the cheapest they have. Feeding the printed pages back into the machine, that’s what gives it that weird, slightly off-register quality. Then I go to San Francisco to cut the books. I rent a little guillotine cutter. To activate it you have to press a two-man switch, so you put your thumb on one side of the machine and you have to put your other thumb on the other and press both of the buttons at the same time so there’s no danger of your fingers being anywhere near the blade. It’s a clever design. I love the whole process of Riso printing. I love the way Risograph printing looks. The Risograph works on a different technology than photocopiers. It’s actually wet ink that’s being pressed through onto the pages rather than the way regular copy machines work by catching this powder called toner which gets heated up and turns from dust to become fused into the paper.
What’s going to happen with the First Second version? They’re not going to use a Risograph printer.
No, but they’re going to print it in two colors. I might stick in some intentionally mis-registered parts to get that slightly off-register feel.
They’re also going to put it out as four books. Why not just one giant one? Didn’t you say you wanted to make Demon one page longer than Craig Thompson’s Habibi?
Yes! I don’t know why First Second is doing it in four volumes, you’d have to ask them. I’m a little bummed that Craig Thompson will have a larger book than me. I might hire a bookbinder to take all four volumes and stick it into one hard cover. Actually, I might have them make two, one for myself and then one I can mail to Craig Thompson.
Do you have a little rivalry thing going with Craig Thompson? Does he know about this?
Yeah, I told him. He knows my plans.
I saw that you recently put out a question on social media about whether you should dedicate Demon to your son. Have you come to a decision yet?
I want to, but my wife is against it. The day I put it out to Facebook was the same day Jimmy and Hunter were having their naked sex fight in the webcomic. So that didn’t help. In my defense, however, I want to say the cum shank sequence was very tastefully done. You never actually see Jimmy ejaculate. It’s all done off-camera, through implication.
What about the naked sex fight scene?
OK, that maybe not so much.
Now that you’ve finished Demon, what kinds of reactions have you been getting from your readers? You’ve written that there were moments when you wanted to give up. How does it feel to complete such an ambitious project?
Oh, it’s been so nice! My patronis [Jason’s term for his Patreon subscribers] have been emailing me thanking me for the series and congratulating me. It’s been great getting all these kind words from my readers and friends. And I feel great! It’s amazing! You can quote me on this, it’s like I took the largest dump in the world! Relief, fatigue, triumph… all the emotions you would expect when taking a really big dump. Honestly, being a cartoonist is a very solitary profession, so it’s not like in the movie Chasing Amy, where, you know, I’ve got a double desk with Ben Affleck or whatever. I’d say almost every cartoonist I know is really good at being able to sit down in front of a drawing desk for eight hours and just pound out the pages. That’s probably the most important trait for a successful cartoonist, even more than something like artistic ability or writing ability… [laughs] It’s been great finishing because I’m getting to spend more time with my family and my friends. Man, when you have a kid, it’s crazy, you really have to pick and choose what you do with your time. I want to be a good dad, I want to be a good friend, I want to be a good cartoonist, I want to be a good husband, and have interesting hobbies, but realistically, I can probably do only two of those things—maybe three, if I cut down my sleep to five hours.
Why were you skeptical about webcomics before, and what converted you?
Well, part of what I like about comics is the physical experience of holding a book in your hand, flopping down in an armchair, and thumbing through the book. For me, that’s always been an important part of reading comics. The iPad kind of changed my opinion. I tried reading some Kazuo Umezu titles on the iPad and I found that really pleasurable. That changed my mind a little bit. I hate to say it, but a lot of the reason I wasn’t more open to webcomics was I hadn’t found a lot of webcomics that I liked. I had the experience of asking where to start, and then someone would recommend two or three titles. I would check them out and not understand why the person liked them. I think one thing about webcomics is a lot of them are very niche, so they’re about subjects like video games, for example—that’s a popular genre of webcomics—but if you don’t play video games or know too much about them, it doesn’t make any sense. I’m also more interested in longer stories rather than four-panel strips, but those are weird to get into because when you check out a longer webcomic series you’re thrown right in the middle, and you don’t know who the characters are or what the story is.
You could go back and start at the beginning.
When you go back and start at the beginning, sometimes it turns out when the guy started the webcomic, he was thirteen years old and the comic looks like a bunch of stick figures that are crudely drawn and then you don’t want to read it. Also, there’s just so many of them, it’s really intimidating. Though I’ve been drawing and reading webcomics for a couple of years now, I still don’t know how big it is. You could tell me there’s ten thousand webcomics or you could tell me there’s eighty thousand webcomics. I have no idea.
Now that you’re a webcomic creator, what have you enjoyed about it?
I like the immediacy of it. Interacting with the readers is pretty fun. It goes back to the 1990s. It reminds me of the old Eightballs or Optic Nerves. I just love those letter pages, when Dan Clowes or Adrian Tomine would print letters from people writing in, and respond to them. It’s just this fun way to interact with the readers, which is sadly kind of absent from graphic novels. But webcomics are kind of perfect for that; everything old is new again.
The comments on your webpage where you put up Demon and also on your blog are really interesting sometimes. In the pamphlets you include a mailing address and encourage people to correspond with you. Have you actually received any letters in the mail?
No. These days it’s all through the webpage. It’s 2016—who’s going to write a letter?
For a beginning cartoonist, would you recommend webcomics as a way to get work out there?
A friend of mine who had an idea for a book once asked me whether he should try to submit the book to a publisher, or try to self-publish it as a webcomic, or try to get something going through Patreon. My advice was, why does it have to be one or the other? Given the First Second contract for Demon, the money I’m getting from Patreon is essentially like a second advance. Maybe in the olden days people might have been worried about webcomics taking away sales from a published book, but I think First Second has been pretty smart and savvy about the opposite being true. I think webcomics can actually help build an audience and publicity for an upcoming title. So I would definitely recommend webcomics or Patreon as a route to go for making cartoons. I don’t need to tell anyone that. I think that the younger generation of cartoonists pretty much does most of their work online these days.
That’s their default, where they go first?
It’s funny, when I talk with teenagers, I’ll ask, “What comics are you reading?” They’ll list seven webcomics that I’ve never heard of. But it makes sense. When I was a teenager, I didn’t have that much disposable income to plop down on comic books every Wednesday. I would have totally read free comics online. Anyway, I’m not a pioneer in webcomics or Patreon. I am merely copying a well-established model of webcomics that has been going on for ten years.
I’m assuming your job at the Oakland Public Library gave you material for one of my favorites of your books, Bookhunter.
When I used to work at the library, I spent a lot of time shelving books and it was kind of boring. I thought, wouldn’t it be more exciting if a huge crime happened and I had to use all my knowledge and skills as a library worker to solve this crime? I had read about the case of a historical bible that was stolen from a display at a library, and I thought it would be a plausible case to base the story on, so that’s basically where the idea of the story came from.
Did you have to do research about library systems, book forgeries, and authentication?
Yeah, a lot of that was actually really fun. I could just ask older librarians about how things worked in the ’70s. They didn’t have computers, so how would they keep track of patrons? Once I had a pretty good understanding of how they catalogued and kept track of every single book and patron, and which patrons had which books, all without the aid of computers, I designed a crime around that.
So all of the information about the databases and how they could be accessed, all of that is real?
I made a lot of it up, but it’s all sort of based on reality.
Special Agent Bay in Bookhunter looks like an older version of Jimmy Yee, who’s in many of your stories. Is Bay Asian American? His racial or ethnic identity isn’t marked explicitly.
Yeah, he’s Asian, but it’s not mentioned explicitly. This is actually really important to me. When I was growing up, whenever there was an Asian person on TV, it was always a major event, you know, bring over Mom and Dad, there’s an Asian person on TV. There was George Takei as Sulu from Star Trek, Pat Morita in Happy Days. Pat Morita was also very briefly given the starring role in his own police drama, called Ohara. I remember when that came on TV it was life changing. I was like, “Wow, the Asian is the star of the show, solving crimes. This is crazy!” So anyway, I want to say every protagonist of every one of my books has been Asian.
Your stories are often set up as a kind of puzzle or mystery to be solved, and there is a proper outcome. There is an answer that can be arrived at.
A lot of genre fiction does follow certain rules or tropes. Bookhunter resolves very cleanly, but you could say that about most detective stories in general. And I love genre!
Do you have a favorite genre?
Science fiction. I love science fiction. I don’t appreciate stream of consciousness type storytelling. I’m not super into diary comics, or more nebulous types of stories.
Trying to figure out a puzzle or mystery reminds me of your earlier work Fleep and also the recent book The Martian by Andy Weir. I thought of you when I read that book—have you read it?
The Martian is fantastic. I love it! It’s probably one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve read in the past decade. One of my favorite space problem-solving movies was Apollo 13. My favorite scene was the part where they cut to NASA and they’re trying to solve a challenging problem. They dump out what the astronauts have to work with, and it’s something like a three-ring binder, a roll of duct tape, and some tubing for a fuel vent. They just have to MacGyver a solution. The Martian is essentially an entire novel of that scene.
Have you done what you would consider a science fiction comic? If not, do you want to do one?
I want to do one. I haven’t done one yet.
You don’t think any of your works count as science fiction?
Demon might be science fiction.
I also recall that you are extremely fond of romantic comedy.
Yes, that’s another one.
I think I can see what you like about science fiction, but what is it that draws you to romantic comedy?
I never really put too much analysis into what exactly appeals to me about the “rom-com,” as they say. They’ve been around since at least Jane Austen’s time. It’s an unbeatable formula. I do like looking at rom-coms from different eras because they reveal little differences in attitudes or prejudices about relationships within that era’s zeitgeist. They’re revealing about a society’s norms in a way that old Buck Rogers movies aren’t necessarily, although those are fun too.
Do you have a favorite era of romantic comedies?
I like the late ’80s, early ’90s era.
It’s the time of your teenage years.
Yes. There’s that old joke, “What’s the golden age of science fiction? Is it the ’40s, the ’60s, or is it thirteen?”
This discussion of romantic comedies makes me think of your book Empire State. I can’t remember exactly where you said it, but you once said that it was your favorite of your books. You described it as an ugly child that nobody loves but that you love all the more because of that. Is that accurate?
I just feel very protective of it. It’s my most personal book, but also, probably the least well-regarded critically. It’s also one of the books I’m most proud of.
Was it a stretch for you? It does seem very different from the other books you’ve done.
Yeah, it wasn’t puzzle-based, it was more character-based. There are a lot of things I would change about the book if I were to do it today. It’s not a perfect book. I think an important thing for an artist is the idea of trying to grow and try new things rather than perfecting the type of story that you’re really good at. Those experiments don’t always turn out well. I’ll be honest, I was kind of bummed at the critical reception of the book.
A critic’s job is to evaluate the work and give his or her opinion of it, but when it’s a work that you created, that you’re very invested in, and it’s also semi-autobiographical, I can imagine it’s hard to hear negative responses because it doesn’t seem like just a criticism of the work, it can also seem like a criticism of you as a person.
Yes! How dare you! I’m still mad at those guys! No, I’m just joking. I’d like to think that some of the stuff I tried in that book I will be able to repurpose for future books, for example, trying to make my characters a little more complex and nuanced. Characterization has never been my strong suit, so it’s kind of about trying to exercise those muscles. That’s always good for me.
I think as an artist if you keep doing the same thing over and over again, you might perfect that one thing, but you don’t really evolve, you’re just repeating yourself.
I love second acts in comics, or in any medium really, but comics is the medium I know best. I love David Mazzucchelli. I love how he had this whole mainstream career that preceded just knocking it out of the park in terms of alternative titles. Shannon Wheeler is another one. He could have made Too Much Coffee Man for the rest of his life, but for whatever reason he really wanted to get into The New Yorker, and he’s doing great work over there. I play this game a lot with other cartoonists, which is which career would you most like to have. For me it’s Yoshihiro Tatsumi because that guy, he didn’t just have a second act, he had a third act. He did the kids’ comics, he did Black Blizzard, he developed a lot of contemporary manga vocabulary when he was like twenty years old, and then in the seventies he was doing all that stuff for gekiga. And then there’s the stuff he did in the past ten years or so, those great auto-bio comics.
There’s something exciting about that kind of level of vitality.
Yeah, he was in his seventies, and he was still trying new things. That guy’s got a really inspirational career so that’s always my answer when I think of a type of career I’d like to have.
I recall seeing a video of you at The Escapist comic book store in Berkeley talking about a marriage proposal in Empire State. Is there really a marriage proposal in the book?
Well, I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to spoil the surprise for people, but I’ll say this. Somewhere in the end papers of Empire State there is a marriage proposal to my wife, and that is how I asked her to marry me.
You created Empire State, waited for it to be printed up, and then used it to propose to your wife? You have to tell this story!
Right before I left for a long trip to India I submitted the manuscript for Empire State with the proposal in it. My plan was after I got back from India I would propose to her. India gets crazy, I don’t want to go into all the gory details, but I almost died. There was a terrorist bombing, and I almost died there, and I almost died again when I got lost in the woods. I lost seventy pounds.
If would have been terrible if you died over there and you had this proposal waiting in the mail!
It would! Honestly, I don’t think she would have been able to find it. After my return we got the proofs of the book back, and I just put the book on the coffee table. I told her there was a hidden message somewhere in the book. She tried to find it but was unsuccessful. So I gave her a hint, and told her it was in the endpapers. She still couldn’t find it. I said I’ll give you another hint, it’s in the back endpapers, not the front ones, the back ones! At this point she’s like, just tell me already, I hate these puzzles! I said no, you must find it yourself! After, gosh this must have gone on for like three months…
Oh my god, you made her keep trying for three months?
Yup. Well, I hate spoilers myself, so I didn’t want to give too much away. I wanted her to have the feeling of accomplishment that comes from solving a puzzle. So yeah, every week I’d give her another hint. She got closer and closer, although I think by the third month she was just like I give up, I don’t care anymore, just tell me, it can’t be that important. And then we were traveling up in Canada, and I thought, today, she’s going to figure it out.
You brought the page proofs with you to Canada?
Yes, I brought the book with me to Canada. When we were packing, my wife was like why are you bringing the proofs with you to Canada? I said, I don’t know, so you can work on the puzzle some more? Anyways, I decided I wanted to do this on our last day in Canada. We went to a park for a walk, and I brought the copy of Empire State with us so that she could work on the puzzle some more. I think she was getting really irritated by this point, but then she solved it, after a bunch of hints, and a bunch of prodding. I tried to time it so that she’d be using the sunset—there’s another hint for my readers—to help solve the puzzle. She said yes, and I guess the rest is history.
On the inside back cover of issue fifteen of Demon, in a review of Bryan O’Malley’s Seconds, you wrote something I found very moving about how you wish your father had lived to see your comics career take off. How did your parents feel about you going into comics, and what do you think your father would make of your career now?
I don’t know what my dad would think of my career, but I can always speculate. My dad was an animator in Japan, and he was very supportive of my pursuit of comics. He worked on a bunch of Japanese titles from the sixties that you might not know. But he also worked on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Did I tell you about the second version of Rudolph they made? In the original version of Rudolph, Yukon Cornelius died and all the toys got left on the Island of Misfit Toys because Santa never rescued them. It was a really dark ending. All the kids were deeply troubled and disturbed by it. They had to go back and reshoot a bunch of scenes, like the scenes where Yukon Cornelius pops back and says, “Bubbles bounce!” or the scene where Santa Claus picks up the misfit toys. Anyway, my dad worked on the revision parts. You know, he lived long enough to see a lot of my earlier books like Fleep and Bookhunter get published. He saw me on French TV. Kind of a bummer he didn’t get to see Meanwhile get picked up. He died just a few months before I got the advance from Abrams. Such is life.
My mom died the following year, but the week before she died, we got the proofs for Meanwhile so she got to see that. After my mom passed away I was going through the house and I found one of my dad’s travel journals. I guess before my dad met my mom, he had a family in Japan, he went kind of AWOL, he just left them and wandered through India for a year and kept this really interesting travel journal. It was in Japanese so I had to get it translated, but after my parents died I thought it would be an interesting idea to go follow my dad’s route when he was India. This is the trip I went on after submitting the Empire State manuscript. He kind of used his journal as a sketchbook so it was really emotional for me going to a new city and seeing a temple or something that he had drawn, and then getting to see it with my own eyes and thinking oh my dad probably stood right here.
You mentioned this trip at the back of issue number eighteen of Demon, but I didn’t know what led up to it. What do you think your dad would have thought about some of the racier parts of Demon?
I think he would have liked them. Before he died, my dad gave me his old sketchbook. One of them was a drawing of a vagina. Inside the vagina was another vagina. And inside that one was a smaller one. And they kept going on in an infinite recursion. It was like a vagina fractal. So yeah, who knows, maybe he would have loved the comic!
So your parents didn’t suggest that since you were studying math in college that you should become an engineer or something like that?
I know a lot of Asian parents are very pushy when it comes to academics. But my dad was an artist. My parents were always very supportive of what I chose to be. Ultimately your parents just want you to be happy. Have you read Gene Yang’s and Thien Pham’s Level Up? That’s one of the themes of Level Up. That was one of my big realizations when I had a kid myself. Before I had a kid, I remember thinking that if I became a successful cartoonist my father would be really proud of me. Now that I have a kid, I just want him to be happy, I want him to be a good person. I don’t care what he does. As long as he’s happy and he’s a good person, I’d be just as proud.
I think anyone who manages to raise a child who grows up to be a happy and good person has done a fantastic job.
NEXT UP: FRANCE!
I believe you wrote that you were giving yourself six months to rest after finishing Demon, and then it’s back to the grindstone. What will you do in six months’ time?
In six months, our family will be moving to Angoulême, in France! I applied for a cartoonist residency, and we got it. We’re moving there in August. I’m not sure, but I think we’re going to take the apartment that Jessica Abel and Matt Madden are currently living in. They’re the current Angoulême cartoonists-in-residence. Sarah Glidden’s been a resident, along with a bunch of French cartoonists. They’re setting us up with an apartment, and a studio for me, and preschool’s free over there.
What are you going to work on while you’re there?
While I’m in Angoulême I’m going to work on my most ambitious project to date. It will be another choose-your-own-adventure comic, like Meanwhile, except that Meanwhile was only seventy pages, whereas this one is going to be five hundred pages. It’s going to be split into two books, and the two books will be joined together along a third spine. The pages of the book will be facing each other so that you can essentially open the book from the middle. It’ll use the same tab system that Meanwhile uses, except that in addition to tubes taking you to different pages, that is, different tabbed pages within one book, tubes will also cross the middle spine into the second book. The most exciting part is that when you’re reading one book, the pages in the book that you’re not reading can basically store states, meaning you could be reading the same panel in one book, but depending on the page that the other book is flipped to in the book that you’re not reading, the next panel in the sequence could be totally different. The long and short of it is the book you’re not reading will be able to store memory, almost like a computer. The story that you are reading will be able to access the memory in the other book and feed you sequences of panels depending on what’s in the memory.
You explained something like this in your California College of the Arts talk. You compared it to a video game where you have a knapsack in which you can store tools, gold coins, potions, and weapons, as you go.
Yes! So for example, one thing you could do is you could go to a store that sells a lamp, a map, a rope, a ladder. You have enough money to buy two items from the store. You go off on your adventure, and depending on which two items you brought along with you, when you get to key junctures in the story, you can take those items out and use them to help complete your adventure. That’s something you wouldn’t normally be able to do in a choose your own adventure book.
What is the title of the book, and what is the story about?
It’s called The Box. The idea is that it’s two stories. Without getting too specific, one’s a maze or a dungeon that you’re trying to navigate, and the other story takes place in one room, but it’s one room that has many different objects inside the room so you can use the objects in many different ways and combinations. The maze doesn’t have that many objects, but it has a lot of pathways.
Intriguing. And a little confusing. Is this something that you’re going to make and then send to publishers, or have you already worked out that part of it? The making of this book sounds like it could be very complicated.
I haven’t worked out the publishing part of it. It could very well be unpublishable.
Jeanette Roan is an Associate Professor in the Visual Studies Program and the Graduate Program in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts.