Meanwhile . . . A Leviathan-Sized Jason Shiga Interview
Faithful readers, you know that I interview folks all the time on this site. I’m fond of quite a few of the people I speak with, but I get a special thrill when I connect with someone I’ve been following distantly for years. Today, I get to check the box next to, “Interview Jason Shiga”. It’s a box that’s been empty for far too long.
You see, back in 2010 I reviewed a truly loopy book called Meanwhile. Utterly brilliant, it took the concept of choosing your own adventure and applied not simply mathematical qualities but also philosophical ones. Needless to say, I was hooked. Yet for years afterwards, aside from the odd short story in a comics collection, Shiga’s work focused on his adult subject matter. And trust me, it doesn’t get much more adult than his Demon series. Gross and wonderful, that’s all I’ll say.
Now he’s back, and with a square focus on kids. And, to my infinite delight, he hasn’t lost his touch. The new Adventuregame Comics series debuts with the book Leviathan, and it’s a doozy. Part video game, part pick-your-path, part (you got it) philosophical/moral quandry, it’s a book that looks deceptively simple and then proceeds to throw you for a loop.
Questions? I had them. In droves, really.
Betsy Bird: Jason, thank you so much for answering some of my questions today. I’ve been a fan of yours ever since I first discovered MEANWHILE back in 2010. When I saw that title I’d never seen a book quite like it. Now, 12 years later, you’re coming out with the ADVENTUREGAME COMICS (starting with LEVIATHAN). Can you talk a bit about the series’ relation to MEANWHILE and how it came about?
Jason Shiga: For me, ADVENTUREGAME COMICS is a return to my roots as an author of interactive comics. In my career, I’ve always tried to alternate between these experimental interactive comics and more straightforward narratives. Even before MEANWHILE, I would make an interactive minicomic or Nickelodeon Magazine strip and then break it up with a detective comic or mystery like BOOKHUNTER or FLEEP. In the 12 years since MEANWHILE, I completed a massive project (DEMON) that ended up expanding to over 700 pages. Now I’m back doing interactive comics and it’s like a breath of fresh air for me.
BB: Unlike MEANWHILE, I really got a sense of LEVIATHAN that I was playing a game. Specifically, a game on my Commodore 64 circa 1986 (BELOW THE ROOT comes to mind). Other folks are probably going to think of the original ZELDA, particularly when it comes to navigating the hero’s village. Did you have any specific video games in mind when you made the book?
JS: It’s very perceptive of you to mention ZELDA because that’s probably the biggest influence on the book. One aspect of the original LEGEND OF ZELDA that I always admired was how much of the map you could explore from the get go. After leaving the tavern in LEVIATHAN, I really wanted to give readers the feeling that they could just go exploring in any direction. Of the modern games, DARK SOULS was a huge influence on the book as well. As was done in DARK SOULS, I wanted a double narrative of sorts worked into LEVIATHAN. The surface narrative would be the one about the player wandering around the village trying to complete her quest. Underneath would be the story of the village told through books, furniture and random snippets of dialogue.
BB: And the dialogue really reflects that. Now, in MEANWHILE you hid a Squid on a two-page spread that you literally can’t reach unless you cheat and start flipping through the pages. So when I was reading LEVIATHAN with my son I remembered that. It may have helped us figure out the trick to the book. Unlike other pick-a-path titles for kids, yours freely acknowledge that kids are going to cheat. Your books grant this kind of freedom from the underlying morality expected of children so often with these books. Without giving anything away in LEVIATHAN, can you talk a little bit about making books that take advantage of kids’ natural tendencies to bend or break the rules a book sets up?
JS: For me, the main disadvantage of the gamebook form is that choices are presented to the reader. In LEVIATHAN, I wanted to make space for readers to use their imagination rather than choose from a menu of items. So I started by introducing the convention that a number in a box means you turn to that page. Then once readers are used to that, I introduce a new convention that if the box is empty, you can use your imagination to think of what number should go in the box. Then, I try to discourage cheating by banishing the reader to a desert island surrounded by a lost woods style maze (again the ZELDA influence) if they put in the wrong number. But like you said, secretly I actually want readers to “cheat”!
BB: Just to piggyback on that a little, I’m also a fan of your VERY adult series DEMON. And like these books it’s all about finding solutions to problems that (to quote LEVIATHAN) think outside the box. Is this going to be a staple of other books in the ADVENTUREGAME COMICS series?
JS: I don’t want to give too much away but… Yes!
BB: Do we know at this point how many other ADVENTUREGAME COMICS there might be?
JS: 3 for sure. After LEVIATHAN, I’m doing one set in the afterlife. The 3rd will be set in feudal Japan.
BB: Oo! Okay, final question, and this applies to your adult work as well, but what are you working on next?
JS: After ADVENTUREGAME COMICS, I’ve got a 600 page interactive comic I’d like to finish. It will utilize tabs like MEANWHILE but will have 3 spines so that sets of pages can move independently of each other allowing pages that aren’t being read to act as a sort of memory storage for the pages that are being read.
BB: THREE spines? I can’t even imagine how that could work. But if anyone can work it out, it’s gonna be you.
Thanks to Jason, most assuredly, but thank you too to Mary Marolla and the folks at Abrams Books for arranging all of this. Leviathan, the first book in the Adventuregame Comics series, is on shelves September 13th so be sure to look for it then!
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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