The Puzzling World of Jason Shiga

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It turns out that Jason Shiga is not actually dead, but just living in Oakland, California. This will come as welcome news to comix fans who may have been alarmed at the coda of his 2000 book, "Double Happiness," which explained that he had committed suicide in a mental institution. Shiga has since explained this Puckish bit of misinformation as a marketing ploy which backfired. I'm glad he's still around because his creations, though woefully hard to find, are some of the most fun comicbooks I've read in a long while.

That first book, "Double Happiness" (Shiga Books; 72 pp.; $4.95), self-published through a grant by the invaluable Xeric Foundation begins when Tom, a shy Chinese-American who barely knows how to hold chopsticks, travels from Boston to San Francisco. There he meets a distant cousin immigrant who introduces him to the city's Chinatown. Tom learns to squat on the balls of his feet, wins money at a smoky mah-jongg club, and starts to fall for Li Jian, the cute girl whose karaoke version of "Hey, Jude" is "Hey, Jute." She teaches him to read the fruit merchant's signs that give lower prices in Chinese than in English. (I knew it!)

Written with a mix of phonetic Hokkien dialect and English, Shiga creates a fascinating and little-seen world. In both content and artwork Shiga emulates the style of Lat, a cartoonist with a Charles Shultz-level reputation in South East Asia. Having only started cartooning in 1995, Shiga has an extremely simple, cute and doodley drawing style. But watch out. With the kind of reversal that you later appreciate as a Shiga trademark, two thirds of the way through "Double Happiness" Tom takes an absurdly cruel beating at the hands of some thugs who seem to think he knows something he doesn't. Suddenly the context of everything shifts as Tom discovers all of his new friends belong to an extortion gang. But even this twist has nothing on the bizarre and totally unexpected ending. It is rare that a comic catches me completely off guard but "Double Happiness did it.

The twisty layout of "Meanwhile..."

Radical reversals become literal with the other kind of book that Shiga produces: Choose Your Own Adventure. The first of these, 2001's "The Last Supper," had the user unfold a sheet in different directions depending on what choices he wanted to make, starting with whether to eat a brussel sprout or not. The most remarkable of these books, "Meanwhile...," is a photocopied, hand-constructed wonder. Rather than the usual left to right and top to bottom layout, the panels are connected by a maze of tubes. At some point these tubes lead off the edge of the page to a tab on a different page. You turn to the tab and continue the story until it leads to another tab. Often you choose between multiple tabs, as at the very beginning when the main character decides on a chocolate or vanilla ice cream cone. While vanilla quickly ends with a trip home, chocolate leads to a series of events that may include time-travel, immortality or the death of every human in the universe.

A mathematics major from the University of California at Berkeley, Shiga smartly takes "Meanwhile..." beyond a gimmick by incorporating a theme of multiple universe theory. But even if the design didn't reflect the content, "Meanwhile..." would still be treat to read. More like a toy than a comicbook, it kept me busy for a couple of hours, going back and forth to discover its secrets. Shiga has recently created another CYOA-style book, "Hello, World," which has been cut in half horizontally, allowing the reader to create a story by flipping through either half. It contains a secret code, and if you figure it out, Shiga will refund the $20 price.

Jimmy figures out his location using the Coriolis effect, his watch and a dictionary map in "Fleep"

Shiga's most recent book, "Fleep" (Sparkplug Comic Books; 44 pp.; $5), mixes his love of puzzles with the more straightforward kind of story. A man wakes up inside a phone booth encased in concrete. With no memory of how he got there and slowly losing oxygen, he utilizes scientific principles and the contents of his pockets to discover where he is and how he got there. "By my calculations, the rate of torsion on my pendulum indicates my latitude to be roughly 37 degrees - 49 degrees North," is a typical insight. One setback after another must be overcome with ingenuity. Naturally, as a Jason Shiga book, the man's story proves to be far from predictable. "Fleep" has the kind of ingenious plot that would be worthy of Arthur Conan Doyle.

As a creator of comix that can be at once funny, disturbing, thoughtful, deconstructed and cleverly put together, Jason Shiga deserves wider recognition, and not the kind you get when you commit suicide in a mental institution.

"Double Happiness" and "Fleep" might be found at superior comicbook stores. "Meanwhile..." can be ordered through Jason Shiga's website.

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