Empire Park

Posted by on December 2nd, 2009 at 4:11 PM

What is up with this thing where Jason Shiga hasn’t won ten Nobel Prizes just for existing?  That guy is rad.  He’s rightly praised as the (largely uncontested) king of choose-your-own-adventure comics and other twisty, logistically tricky formats no other cartoonist would attempt without a team of Euclidean topologists, but Shiga’s about more than just using his Berkeley degree in pure mathematics to diagram the potential futures of Spongebob Squarepants.  He’s also got heart.  Or, rather, he gets heart, and then he rips it out and holds it aloft, beating and spurting.


You can get a sense of Shiga’s bloodthirsty side in his branching-narrative comics, which tend to end horribly in one inventive way after another; the most extreme, Knock Knock, has over 100 narrative paths, all but one of which end in death.  Several of his comics involve the protagonist wiping out large swaths of humanity–including, in one case, the entire population of the earth.

But dude knows how to deliver a tender emotional disemboweling too.  So it is in his most recent graphic novella, Empire Park, currently self-published but with wider distribution in the works.  Shiga’s quietest story to date, Empire Park is a romantic comedy, except for the romance.  The bulk of the narrative lays out, in wrenching detail, exactly why a big, sweeping romantic gesture out of the blue works a lot better in movies (specifically, An Affair to Remember, or Sleepless in Seattle if you must) than in real life.  Nothing happens that’s spectacularly awful.  It’s worse than that; everything that goes wrong is gruesomely mundane.  At least a big failure would matter.

Shiga can get away with a lot of cruelty because his art is so guileless.  His characters have squat bodies, big Family Circus-like heads, and mouths that open as wide as a Muppet’s.  His lines are loose and scribbly.  But don’t let the veneer of outsider art fool you; Shiga knows exactly how much he can get away with.  Because the art projects innocence, the intelligence of the characters and sophistication of the narrative takes  the reader by surprise.  By the time you’ve caught on, he’s got you.  And at this point in his career, he’s a master of his own style.  Check out that sweet apricot-sunset cover at the top of this post.

Empire Park is a straightforward narrative, not a branching experiment like many of Shiga’s comics.  But never fear: his choose-your-own-adventure magnum opus, Meanwhile, gets its pro publishing debut in the spring, in a shiny new full-color edition from Amulet Publishing.  Currently he’s working on what may be, in the current comics economy, his weirdest format experiment yet: a monthly comic book.  Really.

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