Jason Shiga on Mysteries, Angoulême, and Demon

Jason Shiga on Mysteries, Angoulême, and Demon

Halfway into a pleasant Oakland morning I met up up with Jason Shiga in his family home. At a nearby cafe, we talked about his recently completed comic Demon, his approaching yearlong residency in Angoulême, France, and a variety of other topics over breakfast.

 

Comics Beat: Right now, when people think of Jason Shiga they think Demon, unless they’re kids. Demon recently wrapped up, about April?

Jason Shiga: Yeah, that sounds about right.

CB: And it’s being published by First Second in four volumes?

JS: Yup!

CB: When I started reading Demon back around when it started and when I recently finished it something that I found very exciting was the consistency of the panel structure, in which the need to fill the page with illustration seems not to be a priority. What’s important to you when you approach laying out a page?

JS: So I approach it from a very utilitarian point of view. The number one priority is readability. I want my readers to be able to figure out what’s going on and what order to read the panels. I’d say that is more important than aesthetics, what looks pretty. What’s it – form follows function?

Once I’ve got the rough layout I can fiddle with it a little bit. I guess the overall philosophy with my layouts is that bigger panels represent a larger amount of time. I don’t think it’s that different from your average Marvel or DC comic, I think they abide by those same rules.

CB: I’ve never heard that specifically put into words, but it clicked as soon as you said it. It makes sense to me. That’s interesting to me because as a reader I enjoy being challenged by a layout – not in a way that’s difficult to read necessarily. I didn’t specifically get that from Demon, but it challenged me to read slow and make sure I wasn’t missing things.

CB: So I have my timeline right, from page one upload to page 760 was about two years or so, yeah?

JS: Yeah, just about two years.

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CB: How long was Demon kicking around in your head? Where did it all start?

JS: Before I uploaded the first page, I had the entire thing penciled out and that took about three years. From there I was basically inking, coloring, and uploading as I went along. Every once in a while I’d make little corrections to the pencils, I think I rewrote the last chapter…two times. But yeah, pretty much the whole thing was more or less penciled by the time I posted the first page.

CB: To me, that sounds pretty unique as far as webcomics go. In my experience, most webcomics don’t have a significant chunk, let alone all of the story in such a complete state when started.

JS: Well, if I had done it that way, there’d be no effin’ way I would’ve been able to update 7 days a week. Theoretically I could do it that way but I don’t know, I like to spoil my readers a little bit. I don’t want to update once or three times a week. I’m sure like you I grew up with daily strips and I like the idea of a serial you can come back to every day to read something and think: “Oh, what’s going to happen next? I’ll wait ‘til tomorrow.” So that was important to me too.

CB: So you spent a total of five years on this project?

JS: Yes.

CB: Well, alright.

JS: So I can see why most web cartoonists don’t do it that way because I can see if you’re to do it that way, you’d have these gaps in your website where you’d be penciling something for three years and your site wouldn’t get updated at all.

CB: Yeah, back-to-back series that way must be really tough, keeping readers between a three-year nothin’.

[Both laugh]

CB: But you worked on Demon in conjunction with your other projects? I’m trying to put a timeline together.

JS: I don’t know how in the weeds you want to get with this, but as you probably know, after you submit something to a publisher, there’s about a year between the submission and when it hits the shelf. Usually within the year, I’ll spend it working on my next project, probably penciling it, maybe inking it. So by the time the first project hits the shelves, I’ll have a new one to submit.

While I was waiting for Meanwhile to show up on shelves, I was working on Empire State. While I was waiting for that to hit the shelves, I was working on Demon. So that’s the rough timeline I think.

CB: What was the reason for Demon going the webcomics route instead of going to publishers directly like Meanwhile and Empire State?

JS: I actually submitted Demon to my publisher Abrams who did Meanwhile and Empire State, but I also had, along with the submission, I crazy of list of demands. This is what’s called hubris. I’m not going to go through all of them, but some of them were: they had to print it in issues.

CB: [Laughs] I don’t know if Abrams has ever done that before!

JS: I don’t know if anyone does that anymore! I’d say most comics publishers don’t even do that.

But yeah, they had to be in issues. Also, the issues had to be irregular page numbers. Some issues were 60 pages long, some issues were four pages long. There was one issue that was all black, there wasn’t a single image in the whole thing.

CB: Very conceptual.

[Both laugh]

JS: Other demands were that it had to be two colors and I wouldn’t budge on any content changes. The cum-farting, the sperm-knife, the camel sex –  I wouldn’t budge on any of them. Those are just a sample of the whole list of demands that I gave to Abrams.

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CB: And these were preemptive demands? Not in response to any of their feedback?

JS: Oh, no, this was along with the submission.

CB: [Laughs] Oh, good!

JS: So understandably, they passed. At that point I was a little upset and indignant but in retrospect their response was perfectly reasonable.

CB: You did kind of stack the deck not in your favor.

JS: Yeah, it stung a little, but I remember thinking “I got my start doing minis and self-publishing, I’m gonna get back into it!” I was going to publish Demon in those series of issues. I bought a risograph machine and started printing up my own issues and even though for the longest time I was a webcomics skeptic, it was what all the kids were doing those days and I thought I should dip my toe in it and started uploading pages in conjunction with the issues.

There was some really good bits of timing when I started. The website Patreon hit a few months before I launched the website so I got on that really, early on and it was super successful. By the end, it was up to $2,000 a month.

CB: Wow, that’s really excellent.

JS: Yeah, it was fantastic.

CB: That’s a livable wage.

JS: And, here’s the kicker; the Patreon and webcomic were successful enough to get some nibbles from some other publishers who wanted to publish it with all the camel sex, cum knives, and everything. In the end I went with First Second.

CB: Well, the folks there are wonderful people, it’s a great little office.

JS: Yeah I gotta hand it to them, they have a lot of guts to be the publisher of Zita: The Space Girl and Demon at the same time.

CB: First Second never fails to surprise me with their lineup. They’ll dig in for YA and kid-oriented work but they’ll turn around and put out The Divine with the Hankua twins and Boaz Lavie. I think First Second is a good space for Demon.

JS: [Laughs] We’ll see! I have my fingers crossed.

CB: First Second doesn’t really do issues, so how did the four-book model come about?

JS: So the plan is that they’re splitting it up the full story up into four volumes and my idea was – and they really pulled it off – is that I want it to almost look like a manga series. Kind of like the way Scott Pilgrim was designed to look like a manga series, but early, pre-Tezuka manga.

We’re doing it with two-color printing, in black and red like a lot of early manga. They’re splitting it up into these really gorgeous paperback volumes. No french flaps, just regular cover and really nice paper.

CB: What about that era and style of comics printing excites you?

JS: I think it comes down to comics as pop culture versus comics as art. I’m definitely on the pop culture side of things – in Japan it was TV before TV. It’s hard to put a finger on why I love it so much but it’s just the accessibility of it, the portability of it, also being affordable is a huge thing. How old are you?

CB: I’m 26.

JS: So if you talk to kids 10 years younger than you who are super into comics and ask them what they’re reading, they’ll rattle off a whole bunch of webcomics and maybe some manga series. It makes sense, when I was a teenager I didn’t have 60 bucks to spend on a comic series. But yeah, to me being accessible is an important stage of a piece of art. You might disagree, but I think – and there’s a lot of exceptions – the best and also my favorite works of art pass through that pop culture stage in their life. I’m hoping Demon will pass through that phase as well.

CB: What’s one of your examples of that?

JS: I guess classic ones are Charles Dickens or Mark Twain, you know they were popular in their time but are considered classics now.

CB: So you want Demon to be read in schools five years from now?

JS: Yes.

[Both laugh]

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JS: But yeah, if we’re talking about comics, manga’s the big example of pop culture that, in my opinion, rises to the level of art in the case of Tezuka or Kazuo Umezu, he’s probably my favorite mangaka. Anyways, that’s how I feel about that.

CB: I like how Tezuka’s work is making back into the US, like the Vertical’s printing of Black Jack.

JS: Yeah, write about what you know.

CB: Oh yeah, he was a surgeon before he did comics!

JS: Talk about a career change.

CB: For real. Shifting back, something I really enjoyed about Demon was how your sort of set in a potential future but it didn’t really look or act all that different than our current world. There weren’t flying cars but instead just taller buildings. What drove that design choice?

JS: So I’m in the minority on this. I’m thinking we might’ve reached our technological peak. I know people have been saying that every year for the past thousand years and I’m sure there was some medieval guy who saw some trebuchet and said “we’ve reached out technological peak, this is it!” I think this really is it, at least if it isn’t it, I think there’s been technological stagnations like in ancient China during a 500-year period where all technological progress sort of leveled off.

When I read science fiction from the 60’s about the year 2000, I’d say the biggest mistake people make is assume that the growth curves are going to be continuous all the way into the future. In 1960, they had gone from the Wright Brothers inventing the airplane 50 years previous to landing on the Moon. So of course to them they’re thinking in another 50 years in 2010, we’re going to sending rocket ships to Jupiter or manned missions to Europa. I think the natural curve of technology is to shoot up then level off.

I think after the introduction of computers and communications in the 60’s, everything sort of leveled off.

CB: Are you referring to things becoming iterative instead of innovative?

JS: Yeah, a lot of things like that. I remember I was watching some Star Trek movie or episode where at one point someone had a spoon but it was like a future spoon. But the thing about the spoon is that’s been the same for 1000 years, there aren’t improvements we can make on the spoon. Or a door! Star Trek doors open vertically but it’s kind of the perfect form already. I think doors are gonna look the same in 1000 years. I can’t imagine a design improvement on the door or the spoon or the table or the chair.

CB: Funnily enough, I’ve seen a neat one specifically for the spoon. It’s definitely an iteration that serves a very specific purpose. It’s an attachable handle designed for people with Parkinson’s where it compensates for the shaking to allow easier use of the spoon. Progress is progress no matter how small?

JS: No, I think building sizes are going to get taller, computers and communications will continue to get faster for a while before they level off.

CB: Cocaine will get purer.

JS: [Laughs] Yup, cocaine will get purer. But yeah, for the most part this is it.

CB: If that’s the case, it’s not so bad technology-wise, just gotta make it accessible.

JS: Yeah.

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CB: In preparation for this interview, I polled a couple friends who had introduced me to Demon to see if they had any specific questions for you and the one they settled on was what satisfies you out of writing mysteries or mysterious stories? Both Demon and Meanwhile had that going on and it seems like your next work The Box will as well.

JS: Well, it’s one of my favorite genres for starters. I’m going to try to get a little cosmic here for a second; I’m going to say “life is a mystery.”

[Both laugh]

JS: The world is a mystery. I don’t know, the process of learning about the world, discovering how things work is the greatest mystery of all. You know, I have a 3-year-old named Kazuo and he’s starting to ask me questions about…why it’s nighttime in France but it’s daytime here or why does a big boat float on the water while a little stone will sink? All these mysteries of life that as an adult we sort of put in a box that some scientist will figure out.

CB: We don’t need to know how it works, it just does.

JS: Yeah. There’s this thing I called the “why tunnel” where Kazuo will ask a questions and when I give him an answer, he’ll say “why?” and then keep asking. One thing I wanted to do, before I was a parent, I made a vow to never say “because I said so.” If Kazuo asks me a question, I’m always going to give him my best answer, my best and most honest answer. So he started asking all these Why questions so I knew the big one was coming up; “why is the sky blue?”

So I researched it. It’s an interesting answer about light being diffracted but I knew if I just told him that shorter wavelengths of light were scattered or not scattered as much as much as longer wavelengths I know his immediate follow-up question would be “why?” So I had to research that and already – two questions in – you’re getting into quantum mechanics. Anyways I kept researching it as thoroughly as possible, branching out all the possible Whys he could ask, going deep down, going into the most complex and contemporary physics. And I was just waiting for “why is the sky blue?” to unleash this storm of information and give him the most thorough response.

So we were at the kitchen and he got that twinkle in his eye. “Oh, it’s coming” I thought and he goes “Daddy, why is this cup blue?” And I told him that there’s pigment on the cup and the pigment is blue. “Daddy, why is pigment blue?” I don’t know! I have no idea why pigment is blue!

[Both laugh]

JS: So back to Demon and mysteries, I guess these days I’m super into the scientific method which is essentially a way of asking questions in an answerable way. Asking Why questions in a way that can be tested or at least answered more or less definitively. I don’t know what it is about the human brain but when you have a mystery or a question and you see a really satisfying explanation it’s great. It’s like our brains have a mystery-shaped hole in it that you can plug right into and it’s really satisfying.

CB: Did you have a specific question when you were working on Demon that you wanted to answer?

JS: Well I guess the big theme of the book is the meaning of life or what is it that adds value to your life and I think for most of us when we’re younger, it’s about survival of a sort. You want to make money, you want to meet somebody, you want to make friends but then you become middle aged and you have all those things. You have a stable job, you’re married, you have friends, you have a house and then you start going through some sort of existential crisis and wonder “what’s the point of it all?” That would be the theme of Demon and my answer, in case you don’t want to read the book.

Maybe I’m a bit of a nihilist, but surprise. Why should there be any meaning to anything? If you’re religious, I suppose you would think everything has to mean something, but for those of us who aren’t we’re just a bunch of atoms floating around in this universe that’s gonna explode or implode or go through a heat death – who knows? Whatever happens, it’s all gonna be gone one day. I’ve heard it argued that the meaning of life is to try to be a good person and do good deeds but that’s horse shit.

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CB: How so?

JS: I think if that makes you happy, sure go for it but I’d say the worst villains were in history weren’t nihilists, they were super moralistic and judgmental people. Anyways that’s sort of what I going for with the end of Demon, I guess we should give some sort of spoiler warning now.

One of my favorite, favorite movies about the meaning of life is Groundhog Day which from the first 30 pages of Demon seems pretty obvious, but one thing about that movie that never sat right with me was the very end where Bill Murray starts doing good deeds and breaks the karmic cycle and continues on with his life.

CB: You didn’t want a happy ending?

JS: Well, why? It doesn’t make any sense! I heard in the original script there was some sort of gypsy curse making him live the same day over again until he found true love or something bogus. That would’ve made more sense. I’m glad they dropped that plot point and I wish they’d gone further and dropped the ending where he decides to become a good person. I guess one thing I was going for with the ending of Demon was that, just from a narrative point of view it’s fun to see characters change, see Jimmy attempt to become kinda of a “better person” but in doing so he fucks over humanity. He triggers the apocalypse 8 and dooms all of humankind. That’s more in-line with my thinking.

CB: Let no selfless deed go unpunished?

JS: [Laughs] Anyways I’m not trying to talk you out of being a good person and doing good deeds but just so you know, you’re not doing a lot.

CB: [Laughs]

JS: Whatever makes you happy at least. Either have a kid or go to the zoo and watch a bunch of monkeys fighting and you’ll realize the human race is completely doomed.

CB: Do you think we’re more or less doomed than the solar system we exist in?

JS: I want to give you an honest answer to this question. Getting back to mysteries, there’s one that I can’t imagine science ever solving which is the mystery of consciousness. Why do we have consciousness? Why do we have awareness? I’m pretty sure the solar system doesn’t have awareness, it’s just a bunch of atoms but somehow when the atoms are collected into this structure we call a brain, it produces our experience of the world – memories, perceptions, the color red. Who knows what the heck that is.

CB: Is your use of the flasticle in Demon a way of trying to talk about that mystery?

JS: Yeah, so the flasticle is basically my idea of a completely materialist explanation for the soul. Obviously that wasn’t meant to be taken seriously as a scientific hypothesis that I’m floating out there.

CB: Oh sure, I found it an enjoyable device to think about this stuff.

CB: To shift gears pretty substantially, how did the Angoulême residency come to be?

JS: Oh man I wish I had a more exciting story for you but I just applied for it and got it.

CB: What drove you to apply and what excites you about it?

JS: I’m trying to think of a way of saying this without coming off as super snobby. I always liked to travel. I’ve been to Angoulême twice and I loved it – three of my books have been translated into French. France has such a comics-rich culture so I’ve always enjoyed my time there and I’ve liked all the people I’ve met there, they’ve been very welcoming of myself and a lot of cartoonists I know.

With the residency, it’s just gone above and beyond. They’re setting me up with an apartment, a studio, a school for Kazuo. You probably don’t know this but preschool in the US is hella expensive – at least $1000 a month, but in France it’s free, it’s a public service there. I’ve felt super welcomed by the culture and people there so far. It would also be a great opportunity for Kazuo, who’s three, to pick up another language since it’s much easier to do at that age.

CB: You and your family will be there for a year?

JS: Yes, we’ll be there for a full year. It’s a gift that I want to give him; the opportunity to be bilingual. My wife was bilingual when she was growing up and I noticed picking up new languages is super easy for her. Even if Kazuo doesn’t keep up with his French, just having that level in his mind unlocked is good.

CB: Are you bilingual?

JS: No, I’m monolingual. Just having that achievement unlocked for him will be a great gift I can give him and it’s something I wish I had myself.

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Angoulême, France

CB: You’ve lived in Oakland you whole life?

JS: Yes.

CB: How has being Asian American influenced your life and your work? A question I like to pose is the delineation between the subconscious and active choices towards representation by a creator in their work. For instance, Jimmy in Demon is Asian but it’s not overtly discussed more than once or twice.

JS: This is one of my big things. Well you’ve likely heard the controversy with the casting of Ghost In The Shell or the casting of Doctor Strange.

CB: I have.

JS: Those two are funny because I think they came out the same day or week?

CB: If I recall correctly, it was two days back-to-back.

JS: It was very memorable because there was a cluster of them. If you think about it, it’s not just those two isolated incidents, it’s sort of the whole pervasiveness of it that makes it a problem. I honestly feel that if there were a healthy dose of Asian roles and Asian actors – big Hollywood blockbusters and featured Asian people as the lead, no one would care about Scarlett Johansson starring in Ghost In The Shell. It’s just the consistency of it that’s the real bummer.

I feel kind of whatever, it’s Hollywood. They’ve got their own system and it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot one person can do. They’ve got a few things working against them; there’s a lot of money involved, people are super gun-shy when it comes to trying new things, a lot of the executives and directors are white. It seems like for that to change, there’s at least five separate problems that need to be solved.

But! For comics, especially independent comics, I feel that all you have to do is have an Asian American main character. I feel like there’s a lot of Asian Americans working in comics and right there, you’ve got most of the problem solved. You’re not dealing with some huge system. If you’re a single creator it’s something you can do, a choice you can make to make your main character Asian. It’s free to do, you don’t have to worry that Scarlett Johansson is going to bring in more box office money.

And yet! I feel that even when everything is working in our favor. You’ve got an indie title, you’ve got an Asian American creator; still I feel like half the time an Asian creator will choose a white character by default.

CB: There’s a whole mess of societal unlearning needed there first.

JS: I used to do that too when I first started out as a cartoonist. You read comics, you read superheroes or watch James Bond or whatever – that stuff gets in your head.

CB: Yeah, over time we’re socialized to see white as default.

JS: Yeah, so later on when I want to write a detective story I think “of course he has to be white!” If he’s Asian, there has to be a point for them being Asian.

CB: You’d have to be making a statement with it or something like that.

JS: I’m trying to think about a moment when I realized that white characters didn’t have to be default. When you’re young and want to make it in the comics industry, you think that no one would want to read about an Asian main character; you want to be successful or whatever. I guess at one point I just though “F it.”

I remember when I was a kid being super excited whenever I’d see an Asian person on TV. I remember Pat Morita got his own cop show (Ohara) once and I burst into the kitchen going “Mommy there’s an Asian guy on TV and he’s the star of his own show, what’s going on?!” I remember how special that was to me growing and thought it’d be great for kids today to be able to read how to make a knife out of semen and thinking that one day too, they’d be able to do that.

[Both laugh]

CB: Hey, be the chance you want to see in the world. It’s something I’ve been more cognizant of recently, but it’s a little weirder because I’m mixed.

JS: Oh yeah, I feel like it’s especially tricky for mixed creators because you’ll always be asked how legitimate you are. People will be “Choose! Choose a side! Your character must either be white or Asian!”

I don’t know if you saw X-Men: First Class, there’s Mystique in a movie where she can pass for human when she’s actually a mutant. I remember talking to my wife about it, asking if she identified with Mystique in the movie. When I asked her I expected, in this analogy I was creating, that Asians were the mutants and humans were the white people, but the way my wife saw it was reversed – she grew up in San Francisco and wanted to fit in with the Asian people but she was always questioned by people whether she was truly Asian or not.

CB: That’s tough but I get it.

JS: I always thought about it from the other way.

CB: I wonder about that kind of thing with other mixed folks. I spent a long time attempting to interface with exclusively “white culture” and the sea change that allowed me to not do that came much later.

Back to your work. You’ve lived in Oakland all your life and Demon takes place in Oakland, what is the spirit and voice of this city that you wanted to include?

JS: I was born and raised here, it’s my home. You know, John Waters has Baltimore and I’ve got Oakland. I think every single one of my comics that I’ve made has been set here in Oakland, it’s just the city I know best.

CB: Well alright. While in Angoulême you’ll be working on your new comic The Box.

JS: Yes!

CB: To set this question up, here’s an analogy: whenever I start working on something I give myself a “lego box” of pieces that I can form into whatever I’m working on. What do you consider the foundational pieces you’re excited to investigate, break apart, and build up for The Box? I’m curious as to what you’ve planned out for the process of making it.

JS: So there’s a few things I’m trying to do with The Box but before I get into that I should describe it! The Box is going to be another interactive comic, similar to Meanwhile except about seven times as long (about 500 pages) and the special thing about is that instead of one spine with a series of pages, it’s gonna have three spines, tabs, and two sets of pages – the tabs of which will be facing each other. The reader will be able to traverse the third spin where the tabs meet each other but also go within the pages of the other spines. It’ll be able to store memory, similar to one of my other interactive comics experiments called Hello World. Yeah, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do but has always been seen as super uncommercial and maybe even unprintable.

It’s going to be my most ambitious project to date and there’s a few goals I have for this book. One of them is that I want to revisit Fleep. When I first wrote Fleep, I wrote it as an interactive comic but I just didn’t have the nerve or skill to pull it off as I wanted so it just became a very straight-forward story. I want to try revisiting that idea except make it truly interactive with an inventory system, memory – just make it almost like a video game.

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Meanwhile by Jason Shiga

CB: Something I’m not clear on is how the memory storage is achieved.

JS: So when you’re reading panels in one set of pages, the other set of pages that you’re not reading will be able to store that memory. Same thing for storing inventory, states, and things like that.

I guess the other half is that it’s going to be a little more character driven. Contained within the sprawling maze hopefully it’ll end up being kind of like a city you can explore, wander around, and get lost in every little nook and cranny. There are two stories being told and at the end you discover their relationship to each other. That’s the idea.

CB: With the inventory management and memory storage – at what point is that a challenge for yourself or an interest in what a book can achieve? Why try to create a system of memory in a book – what interests you there?

JS: So there are a few ways to record memory without doing it automatically. For instance, in Meanwhile, there’s a system of codes. When you remember or write down the codes and then input them in later, you’re basically telling the book that you’ve already been to certain parts. I’m never super happy with those types of mechanics; I feel that they should be done automatically even though I know there’s a long tradition of doing it that way. I just wanted to make something more akin to a game or computer. Like you said, there’s the challenge of figuring out that mechanic as well.

CB: Well I’m completely tapped! The first of four volumes of Demon hits shelves in the fall?

JS: Yup and a new volume every four months.

CB: Thank you so much Jason, I appreciate you taking the time.

JS: Alright, thank you.

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Jason Shiga is a cartoonist living in Oakland, CA where he was born and raise (though he will be in a yearlong residency in Angoulême, France). He is best known for his comics MeanwhileEmpire State, and Demon. His next work is called The Box and very well may be unprintable – we’ll find out.

If you want to read Demon online as originally posted, you have until August. After then, only the first chapter will remain online for free as the whole comic will be released in print from First Second.

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