Insight into the Meaning of the Universe: Catching Up with Jason Shiga

When the Journal last spoke with Oakland-based cartoonist Jason Shiga, he was preparing for a move to Angoulème, France for a year to work on his new ambitious project titled The Box.

Over a year later, he is back in the United States, and last fall, the final volume of his magnum opus Demon was released on First Second Books. The sprawling tale of Jimmy, the immortal actuary, is over and Shiga has made significant progress in The Box, which he calls his dream shot comic.

We caught up with Shiga last November to find out about his artist residency in France, the premise of The Box, how he remembers Demon, and the importance of having Asian-American experiences in comic books.

How was your time in France?

It was fantastic. My wife and my son, we all moved to Angoulême, France as part of the Maison des Auteurs Residency program. It’s a fantastic program and residences range from three months to four years. I thought one year would be perfect for my family and I, Kazuo was just the right age to learn French, and as for me, they set me up with a studio, and I just went there everyday to work on whatever I wanted. There were no requires. And I basically got to work on my dream shot comic, a 600-page interactive comic book called The Box. One of the nice things about this residency is that they completely set you up with an apartment, a studio and pre-school for Kazuo. I didn’t really have to think about too much or worry about the economic viability of whatever future project I was working on. I had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do whatever the hell I wanted, and for me, it was this giant choose-your-own-adventure comic.

What was your daily schedule like there compared to when you were in the United States?

It was nice because everything was so close. It’s a small town, so pretty much everything that was important for us was inside the ramparts, so, our apartment, Kazuo’s preschool and the studio were all within five minutes walking distance of one another. Every morning, I would walk Kazuo to school. From there, I would walk to the studio and put in a morning of work. I would walk home for lunch and eat some baguettes with brie and sometimes some smoked duck with my wife. After that, I would go back to the studio, put in an afternoon of work, and then come home for dinner.

That sounds like a pretty good life.

Oh my gosh, I didn’t want to leave. I still try to walk to my studio here in California but it’s 45 minutes to get there. Everything is just more spread out and expensive now that I’m back home. But yeah, I don’t have a day job really, and wherever I am, whether it’s California or France, I try to take my comics seriously and treat it as a job and as a profession. I think it’s the least I could do. I know at an elementary school reunion recently, I met one of my old classmates who gets lowered down into sewage pipes, and he has to swim through human feces and there are tampons and condoms floating by his face. I was thinking, you know, this guy puts eight hours every day into a job that he probably doesn’t like. This is the least I can do, right? I’m not swimming in human excrement. I’m just sitting down to draw comics. The least I can do is treat it like a profession.

Did you also find it fulfilling from a creative standpoint to just get a change of scenery for a year?

For me, the thing about Angoulême, it wasn’t so much the French countryside or the culture there that was inspirational, it was the studio itself and being surrounded by so many other cartoonists from all these different backgrounds. About half of the cartoonist there were international. I met cartoonists from India, Iran, South Korea, and Mexico. The residency is open to anyone in the world. It was great just getting to meet and learn about cartoonists from all walks of life.

You also went to a comic book convention in Dubai. What was that like?

That was surreal. It was my only time in the Middle East and it was fantastic. It’s a lot like the comic cons you would see anywhere else. They kind of just replicate it, like a New York or San Diego Comic-Con, and plunked it down in the middle of a desert. They have giant Nickelodeon booths, cosplayers, and all that. The artist alley for me was the most interesting because they have a lot of local artists and cartoonists. I was talking to some people there, and they literally flew in cosplayers from the United States, put them up in fancy hotels and have them show up to the convention and cosplay. It was very surreal.

A lot has changed in the United States since you left for France. Is it a little weird to be back?

Yeah, it was totally weird. It was like in Back to the Future Part II when Marty McFly came back home and Biff was in charge of everything. But, I mean, I don’t know, you could say Donald Trump is his own thing, but you could also say he’s part of a global wide trend towards isolationism and populism. Europe has its own version of that. There was Brexit. I was in France during the election when Le Pen ran against Macron. So I don’t know if it’s isolated to just the United States. It was kind of weird being away from all that when it went down. I remember the night of the election, because there’s a time difference in France, I went to sleep thinking I would wake up to Hillary Clinton being president and history would be made. My wife woke me up at four in the morning and she was yelling, “Jason, Trump is going to be president!” I was still groggy and was like, what’s going on, is this a dream, is this reality, what’s going on. Yeah, [laughs], it was a bummer. I don’t know what else to add to that.

Tell me about the concept of The Box, which sounds like your most ambitious project to date.

The Box will be a 600-page interactive comic with its own unique automatic memory system. So it’s almost like a computer where the reader will be able to store little bits of information into the book itself and then access that information later and process it in certain ways. If this sounds too complicated, I can assure you all of the mathematics about it will be under the hood for the reader. It will just be like playing a video game, or reading a choose-your-own-adventure book that somehow keeps track of where you’ve been in the story or what items you’ve picked up along the way. I spent the whole year in Angoulême basically designing and working on the mathematics behind it, and right now, all I have to do is draw it, which, in a sense, is the easy part.

A lot of your work involves building puzzles. What was the process like for this?

I’ll go ahead and tell you the premise. There are two stories and the narrative bounces back between the two. One story is about a woman who has returned home after trying to make it as a science fiction writer. The second story is the science fiction story itself. The places the reader visits in one story affects what happens in the other. To get through one part, you need to be good about solving puzzles in the other part. I compare it to Legend of Zelda, where there was a dungeon world and an above ground world, and doing well in one world helps you in the other world. The story alternates between the two narratives, and you get to the see the connection between the two worlds. Once I had the stories for it, the hardest part was figuring out how to design it in such a way that it would fit into this format I came up with. So, of course, that required lots of different levels of flow charts and tab allocations. That’s why it took me a year because it was really complicated.

What do you hope the readers get out the experience of reading The Box?

I hope, like everything, the readers will have some new insight into their lives, the meaning of the universe, what it is that makes for a meaningful existence here on Earth. Maybe that sounds a little too grandiose, but I hope readers enjoy it and I hope it’ll be a smash. But who knows, I like to tell people that the book I want to make is also the book that I want to read. I imagine if I got hit in the head with a brick and lost all my memory and picked up my own book, it would be my favorite book. So, you know, I just hope enough people like me out there and they’ll get into it too.

Do you have a release date that you’re aiming for?

You know, it’s done when it’s done. I’m hoping it’ll be finished in two to three more years.

The final volume of Demon recently came out from First Second Books. Now that some time has passed since you finished that series, what is it like to look back on it now?

It’s a series that I’m really proud of. It’s the longest series I’ve done by far, and it’s the most ambitious in a way that it’s the most personal. I think it’s just something I’m really proud of and I’m glad to hear that it’s doing well and it’s found its audience. I mean, I guess there’s an added dimension to it because it took so long. I spent the last seven years of my life on this book, so it intersects with a lot of personal events in my life, the big one being the birth of my son Kazuo who just turned five years old. He was born in the middle of the project and just thinking about the book and all the things my family and I went through while I was working on it, it’s a special book to me because it was made during a special point in my life. I still remember when my son was three, he found a copy of Demon and he found a page where Jimmy had a gun pointed at his head and he pulled the trigger and blood was exploding everywhere. Kazuo was like, “This is funny.” I was like, yes, that’s raspberry jam falling out of his ears.

Demon was originally on Patreon. What do you think about the online space for independent artists promoting their work today?

For me, the most exciting part is the way comics or the web is being used to distribute comics, which for me growing up and making mini-comics in the '90s, the whole mini-comics model seems like it’s old but new again. Except now, it’s really pumped up on steroids, where the artists can basically speak directly to the readers. I remember in the '90s, a lot of comics had letter pages, and that’s new again too in some of the webcomics. For me, it’s great seeing people who don’t have access to publishers or distributors being able to put out webcomics with 50 readers initially, and be able to grow it over the course of a decade into a huge webcomic with thousands of followers. I’m even more hopeful for the future, as more and more people get web access, I imagine we’ll be reading web comics from who knows where. For some kid in some far flung corner of the globe, all he has to do is pick up a pencil and a paper, and maybe they’re not even using those anymore, but they can just throw up a webcomic online, and we’ll be able to read it. It’s pretty exciting to me. I guess part of me feels like an old man in the world too, because whenever I talk to teenagers they’ll always tell me about their favorite comics, they’re almost always either into manga titles or webcomics, so it seems like the world is changing and I’d say mostly for the better.

Your dad was an artist, I wanted to hear more about how he encouraged you to be in the creative field. And as an Asian, how important is it for you to include Asian-American characters and experiences in your work?

My dad was a cartoonist and an animator while he was living in Japan. He always encouraged me as a kid to pursue my art. There’s the stereotype of Asian parents pushing their kids into engineering or whatever, but my parents were never overbearing like that. They were always extremely supportive of my comics career. It’s something that I feel is a part of me, it’s a part of my blood. My half-sister, who grew up in Japan, also works in comics as well. She’s an assistant for a Shojo title that comes out of Nagoya. I feel like it’s this funny connection that runs in my blood.

As for the Asian American experiences, you probably remember as a kid, if there was an Asian character on television you would get really excited. For me, there was this TV show called Ohara with Pat Morita. It was some stupid cop show, but the lead was Pat Morita, and at that time, it was just so rare to see Asian people represented on TV. He was probably literally the only Asian face you could see on TV at the time. I would run into the kitchen every time he was on TV and said, “Mom, there’s an Asian man on TV, you gotta look!!” It was really exciting. It’s better now and it’s better in mediums like comics, but I still feel like white faces are the default when it comes to Hollywood. But I guess one of the nice things about comics is that there’s no producer who says my characters have to look white in order for the comic to be successful.

I have a friend who is Asian and he wants to be a screenwriter. So he’s working on a screenplay and I asked him to tell me about it, and he said it was based on his own childhood and his own family but he had to make them white. And I was like why don’t you make them Asian? And he said, no one is going to buy that. That’s crazy to me. I feel like even in comics there are a lot of minority comics that want mainstream success, they want to somewhere down the line be able to option their comic book into some big budget Hollywood movie. Even with everything working for us, it’s an auteur’s medium, we get to write, draw and control every aspect of a story, and even then, maybe half of the Asian people working in comics still will default to a white protagonist.

Anyways, it’s important to me. For readers just to be able to see people that look like them is really special, especially for children, being able to see that is something that is important. As a writer, as a creator, for me, it costs nothing. It doesn’t cost extra work. I don’t have to draw more lines or anything. The cost to me are nothing, the benefits are, I wouldn’t say they are boundless, but I’d say it’s hard to describe to someone who didn’t grow up like we did how important it is to see that and to read it.