Rich Kreiner’s Yearlong Best of the Year: Meanwhile

Posted by on March 13th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

It’s a coin toss whether to begin with the good or the bad of Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile.

On the plus side, there’s that easy, infectious affability to Shiga’s drawings. While he’s got an open, rounded, unforced, inviting sense to his cartooning, his art maintains an idiosyncratic integrity. His figuration is broad and loose, often under-differentiated, but in those instances where his characters expressively connect, it’s like hitting an especially rich pocket of still warm and melty chips in an oversized chocolate-chip cookie. To Shiga’s credit he seems very much to be following his own muse (Bookhunter, anyone? Uh, anyone?). He always seems to be enjoying himself and the work he’s doing and explicitly invites you to do the same.

Meanwhile benefits directly from that style and attitude in that they provide ready access into one of the more conspicuously crafted stories of recent memory. The book is cunningly crafted and fastidiously wrought on a number of levels, some of which are not normally associated with good comics.

Because, on the minus side, Meanwhile is one of those “Create Your Own Story” narratives. You know, those tales with frequent branching paths left to your discretion leading progressively into more and ever more differentiated ways of proceeding through the material (I’ve come to think of them as “Design Your Own Headache Adventure Books”). In Meanwhile, you follow winding, spaghetti-strap lines and stubby little directional nubs through paths traversing pages or portions of pages, forsaking other spaghetti straps and nubs through a maze made of comic panels arranged to tell a story even as they 1) accommodate choice and 2) stymie cheating or peeking ahead. In the course of the book, you will be called upon to ignore the ingrained momentum of left-to-right comics reading or be at peril, to ignore the momentum or right-to-left manga reading or face unhappy consequences, to ignore the natural gravity of top-to-bottom reading or get hopelessly fouled up, any mishap necessitating a tricky, deflating effort to backtrack or, more realistically, begin all over at the start. Again.

Like a maze there are narrative dead ends as well as embedded, endlessly recursive loops (some of which are funny in their own way … assuming you’re in the mood to be amused). There are false leads, duplicated pages, deceptive trails, unrelated paths, isolated sequences and single standalone panels to foil would-be short-cutters as well as any less-than-completely-attentive readers.

No doubt there is quite a bit of uninterrupted fun to be had for those who enjoy taking apart watches with the intent of putting them back together. Now, if you are someone for whom the format and its process do not sound like a good time, well then this book has been expressly made not for you. Did you ever see that “Treehouse of Horror” episode where Homer, trying to fix his toaster, unwittingly creates a time-travel machine that sends him into the past over and over where he continually changes prehistory to his present-day disadvantage, only to eventually be provoked into running amok in the age of dinosaurs, bashing, uprooting, kicking, swatting, biting and cursing everything he sees? That’d be your brain on Meanwhile. Luckily, the pages are sturdy, plastic-coated sheets that are hard to rip to shreds.

But alternatively, if you are someone for whom this sounds like fun, Meanwhile will definitely pay off. A playful, problem-solving mood with a generous sense of relaxed leisure-time liberty helps (only after several frustrating flame-outs spread over several days was my moment of Zen achieved, specifically during a radio broadcast of the late innings of a spring-training baseball game, a contest at that point carried on only by remote pro prospects, would-be hangers-on, long-shot position players and nth stringers … you cannot get more relaxed or leisurely). You’ll need to have confidence that the book “works,” so courage! It is cogent and rationally resolved. I made it through to desired resolution, once, and it makes perfect, zany sense. Of course, I haven’t been able to duplicate that path since, which gives me some doubts I might have gotten mixed up to my advantage … plus I have this nagging sense that I’ve left a dupe of my character running around somewhere in the story’s immediate past – did I mention that Meanwhile has a time machine of its own? So on those grounds perhaps my judgment and review of the book is a little premature, but since there isn’t another game from Florida to be broadcast for a while I’m giving you what I got.

Ultimately, the feeling of satisfaction upon reaching the story’s happy ending reinforces an admiration of Shiga’s diligent craftsmanship. You might also be reimbursed with a hypocritical sense of pride for personal accomplishment after those earlier embarrassing bouts of uprooting, biting and cursing.

Casting around for an appropriate comic as a parallel for the experience of Meanwhile, you might think of Richard McGuire’s justifiably famous short story “Here.” Actually a better analogy comes from film, specifically a thematic cross between Groundhog Day, Memento and Primer watched on your own home recording system where you’re continually hitting the “replay” button instead of “pause.”

Make no mistake: Now that I’m “done” with the book, I am all the more impressed by it. For two reasons, one trivial, one less so. The former comes with a spoiler alert, so skip now to the following paragraph if you think you’ll venture into Meanwhile. When all’s said and done, there’s a divine sequence that’s been leaped back and forth over without ever being landed upon. As an “Easter egg,” it introduces “one of the many places in this world you cannot get to by choosing.” As such it appears as an incredibly clever “extra,” a superfluous, “outside the box” bonus placed there by Shiga because he knew on which side of the box your heart would lie. It’s an otherwise unaccountable gesture, a reassuring satori of resounding comic benevolence.

Still, what I really appreciate, what I’m indebted to Meanwhile for, is the level of commitment it requires. Yeah, yeah, artistic works are soooo much better when you unreservedly give yourself over to them … But here you really do have to submit, to surrender to the experience, to the process. There’s simply no other way to proceed. It’s a unique demand, legitimized by conscientious, applied artistry and painstaking ingenuity, a demand that carries rather unique — dare I say precious? — rewards, especially couched as they are in a “Hey Kids, Comics!” sensibility.  Meanwhile isn’t necessarily going to change the way you read comics, but you might more fully understand why it is that, if you don’t make an effort, you’ll just keep reading vanilla comics.

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One Response to “Rich Kreiner’s Yearlong Best of the Year: Meanwhile

  1. […] Comics Journal has written an extremely comprehensive review of Jason Shiga’s choose-your-own adventure comic, […]