Jason Shiga is known for, among other things, having a degree in pure mathematics from Berkeley. That background informs his comics; they frequently play out as problems waiting to be solved. That’s obvious in both Meanwhile and his epic Hello World, which are demented choose-your-own-adventure books that mostly result in characters getting killed off in brutal & hilarious ways. However, it’s true of his other work as well. Bookhunter was notable for its 1970s detective-show setting and the novelty of a “library police” existing in the real world, using the best technology of the day to solve book-related crimes. At its heart, however, the book is devoted to solving interlocking locked-room mysteries. Double Happiness is about negotiating and solving life-or-death matters related to race. Fleep is about a trapped man trying to solve the mystery of his missing memories while finding a way to escape from a rubble-pinned phone booth. Even Empire State, a quasi-autobiographical story about unrequited love, features a character trying to use logic as a method for finding love.
What that last book revealed is that Shiga is perhaps less a mathematician than he is a phenomenologist, observing others in an effort to understand and appreciate them. By phenomenology I mean simply a method of description that involves observing the object apart from its environment and our everyday understanding of the object. This forces the observer to abandon societal shortcuts in understanding an object or person, and in Shiga’s case, there’s a genuine interest in trying to figure out how and why people work. The result on the page is a sense of humor that’s equal parts bone-dry and socially awkward. Shiga sees human relationships in formulaic terms: there are rules, there are axioms, but they all rest upon assumptions that have no underlying proofs. Even though his new series, Demon, is in its form a rapidly-escalating supernatural action series, Shiga notes in the afterword that “at the end of the day, it’s personal. Ultimately, Jimmy [the protagonist] is me… When he expresses his feelings about the universe being a meaningless and chaotic miasma and consciousness as the ultimate cruel joke on humanity, he’s really speaking for me.”
That strain of nihilism has run through all of Shiga’s comics. The endings of Double Happiness and Fleep were quite shocking in this regard. The hero of Empire State does not get the girl. Even Bookhunter, a comic with a happy ending, has a shocking betrayal in its climax. Most of Shiga’s minicomics tend to have something horrible happen most of the time. In Demon, a webcomic that’s also being printed as a risographed minicomic (four issues are available to date), Shiga takes what was often subtext in his prior works and makes it the thrust of the comic. Shiga notes in the first issue that it’s the first of twenty-one. As such, he carefully unravels the main storyline in a slow and deliberate manner, which only adds to the fun, weirdness, and (eventually) the shocks.
We open the book with a man (Jimmy Yee, the long-suffering protagonist of Shiga’s kids’ books), thoughtfully writing at a desk in a nine-panel grid. There are few changes in action until we reach the middle panel, when Yee looks up and pauses, then returns to his note. In the final panel, we see that he’s hung himself. It’s a hell of an intro, which is followed up on the next page by nine panels of his body decomposing and gathering flies as the sun comes up. When he wakes up, alive, in the same hotel room, we get the essence of the first issue: Yee trying and somehow failing to kill himself. The first three issues follow him around as he realizes that he’s somehow been mistaken for a different person altogether, until the police show up and arrest him. The fourth issue begins with Jimmy putting together precisely what happens, which triggers an orgy of unexpected but absolutely understandable violence. We also learn why Jimmy tried to kill himself in the first place.
The clockwork intricacy of Shiga’s plotting is such that I’d prefer not to reveal more details, other than to once again quote Shiga’s afterword, where he says, in reference to his kids’ book Meanwhile: “If you are a child, please do not read any more issues. The characters use a lot of profanity and deal with some very adult themes such as murder, camel sex and drug use. Also stay in school.” The dry and jokey but almost academic tone of this “warning” is omnipresent in Shiga’s comics, which is part of what makes them so funny and why it’s almost shocking when one character says something like “Suck my private sector balls motherfucker” while laying in a pool of his own blood.
Shiga’s line continues to be wonderfully simple: all circles, squares, and triangles. Hair is usually indicated by sharp angles, and eyes tend to bulge out. Shiga’s characters in profile often are drawn without a mouth, adding a sense of blankness. With his Risograph, Shiga fills out each issue with light pinks and purples–appropriate colors considering how much blood is spilled. Beyond the mostly utilitarian quality of his line and use of color, the real visual treat here is Shiga’s page design and pacing. He takes his time on page after page, maximizing the eventual impact and payoff of each scenario. He uses rigid grids on some pages and shuffles panels around on others to create a disorienting effect that mimics the distress that Jimmy feels. The action panels are surprisingly visceral and fluid for an artist best known for his static images (with Bookhunter being the exception).
Demon feels like Shiga’s imaginary graduate school thesis. It combines elements from virtually every one of his books in terms of both story and art. There’s a formerly innocent character who is forced to become ruthlessly amoral. There are clever action setpieces. There are mysteries within mysteries. There’s squirm humor that gets its charge from violating social norms and expectations. At this point, the reader has just begun to see what Shiga is going to throw at Jimmy, and I’m particularly interested in seeing how a character who’s become as horrible as Jimmy eventually winds up–especially since Shiga is usually less than interested in rote, happy endings.