While Empire State’s back cover blurb and accompanying press release are most interested in promoting Jason Shiga’s latest release as a romantic comedy, it’s the book’s own parenthetical subtitle that keeps it real: “(Or Not)”, it simply says. This, as Derek Kirk Kim put it, is going to be that other thing: “semi-autobiographical fiction”. And while there’s plenty of the same ambition that propelled Shiga’s eclectic and impressive Meanwhile on display in Empire, the book is not of the same breed. Meanwhile, an eighty-page young readers’ graphic novel from 2010 that somehow managed to deliver the Choose Your Own Adventure format without being idiotic or screamingly obnoxious, turned out to be a skilled display for Shiga’s dual talents–his math-educated maze/puzzle-constructing conceptual skills AND his geometric cartooning style that speed-delivers his character’s bustling emotional states. (It takes about a half-second glance at a Shiga face to figure out a character’s mood.) When compared against the best moments in what’s considered his breakout work, Bookhunter, Meanwhile read like a victory-lap turned middle-fingers-extended snarl–here was a nice guy who could do cute n’ violent doing cute n’ smart, and in the one genre of comics outside of super-heroes (young readers) where you might actually make a decent standard of living. (Just as long you can come up with something that can peel some eyeballs off of that fucking Wimpy Kid, which is a lot harder than one would think.)
Empire State sees Shiga’s attentions focused in another direction entirely: himself, apparently. Unfortunately for the reader, Shiga’s fictionalized take on a 25-year-old himself is the kind of guy who sign his paychecks over to his mother, who then lets him have an allowance to buy his hard sci-fi pleasures (this is referred to in the story as “an Asian thing”), and he bases his idea of romance off of an ill-remembered viewing of Sleepless in Seattle, a movie even my mother is too embarrassed to admit having liked. Is this another story about one of those overgrown man-children that populate way more of American fiction than any sane person can tolerate? Yep, that’s the one. Hell, even the book’s aforementioned press materials warn you what’s coming: “Jimmy is a stereotypical geek who works at the library in Oakland, California, and feels trapped in his own torpidity.” Really? Is this the kind of romantic lead that non-Vampirella comics have come to? A man like Empire’s Jimmy, so terrified of adulthood that his vision of grown-up love affairs climaxes in the magic of a pity kiss in the airport, from a girl who just wants him to stop crying and fly the fuck back home to his needy parents?
In the end pages of the hardcover edition of Empire, Shiga buried a secret message inside what appears to be a homage-to-plaid maze. It’s a Where’s Waldo moment worth puzzling over, if only to remind oneself why he’s so much more interesting than this comic’s strengths indicate. Autobiographical fiction is hard in any medium, but in comics, it seems to have a rougher go of it when there isn’t flashbulb-friendly subject matter to hang the advertising on. And while the guy may have failed to stick the landing (as well as the approach, the dismount, and everything in between), Empire State was still his first time trying. Based off what’s come before, there’s no reason not to think he might come closer to pulling it off the next time around.