Jason Shiga, the cartoonist behind the Eisner and Ignatz Award-winning “Bookhunter,” unveils his twisting and turning all-ages comic “Meanwhile” in March, courtesy of Abrams Books’ Amulet imprint. With tabs at the side of each page directing readers to choose the next step in their adventure, “Meanwhile’s” branching story is far from a quick read – to explore each story option, readers will likely have to cycle through the various paths multiple times, all while trying to avoid wiping out mankind. CBR News spoke with Shiga about his latest project, time travel paradoxes and chocolate ice cream.
“Meanwhile” begins with our young hero Jimmy choosing whether to buy a chocolate or vanilla ice cream cone; choosing vanilla sends Jimmy home after an enjoyable but uneventful afternoon, while picking chocolate sends him on myriad science-fiction adventures.
“I wanted to start the book off with the type of choice that we make every day,” Shiga told CBR. “Once the reader is familiar with how choices in the book are made, I try and graduate to weirder choices like whether to kill every human on the planet or to travel back in time and punch yourself in the face.”
These options come about after Jimmy meets Professor K, a scientist who gives Jimmy (and readers) the chance to play with three inventions: a time machine, a memory transfer helmet, and the Killotron 2000, which eradicates all human life except for the person standing inside it. “The inventions that you get to play with are all very standard science fiction tropes,” Shiga said, “but I try to add a little twist to each one. For example: what happens if you put on the hat but you decide to transfer all the memories from yourself to yourself? The experience of you watching your memories becomes a memory itself. So would those be transferred too?
“If you took the time machine to the past, there would be two of you in the past,” he continued. “How would you correct this problem? Going to the near future wouldn’t fix things, because your double would be there too. Your double would be in the near past too. One idea is that your double can travel to the past, where he branches off into a parallel timeline. But then there would be two of him in that past. But then all he has to do is ask his double to travel to the past on to infinity. It is a reworking of Hilbert’s Grand Hotel.” (The Paradox of the Grand Hotel is a paradox proposed by German mathematician David Hilbert involving a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, all occupied, which can still accommodate more guests by shifting all occupants to the next room or to a mathematically-determined other room according to different situations.)
Given that one device can wipe out an entire planet, it shouldn’t be surprising that several story threads end badly for poor Jimmy. But with the right choices, readers will learn some intriguing things about him. “I don’t want to give too much away,” Shiga said of where careful choices might lead. “I do want to encourage readers to try to make it to the final revelation of the book. It’s pretty difficult but very rewarding when you get there. One friend of mine spent two years trying to reach the end.
“I will give one piece of advice, which is instead of just thinking about the professor’s inventions as solitary objects, think about how you can combine their functions to get what you want.”
The branching nature of “Meanwhile” may remind some readers of similar books of their childhood, the most famous brand of which was Choose Your Own Adventure, which has become synonymous with the genre. “Something that a lot of people forget is that Choose Your Own Adventure books weren’t the only game in town. There were also Which-Way books, Time Machine, Twist-a-Plot and of course my personal favorite were the Fighting Fantasy series,” Shiga noted. “I’ve noticed the first book in many gamebook series deal with time travel, and I suspect it’s because you can think of the gamebook itself as the clearest model for how time travel could work without paradox. One of my goals with ‘Meanwhile’ was to follow in that tradition, but to also make the connection between the gamebook and the universe explicit.”
Branching stories can be more difficult to write than their linear counterparts, and the physical design of “Meanwhile” also plays a role in how the story is perceived. “One of the most challenging parts of creating a branching story is managing the tradeoff between giving the reader lots of choices and restricting the exponential growth that follows from all those choices,” Shiga said. “One problem I had with Choose Your Own Adventure was that the stories were typically very short. Fighting Fantasy had longer narratives, but the tradeoff was that they tended to be more linear. Two books that really combined the best of both strategies was ‘House of Hades’ by Steve Jackson and ‘Escape from Tenopia’ by Edward Packard. Both of them presented a geographic area that the reader could explore in their own way. I almost see those books as being closer to the parks of Fredrick Law Olmstead than to any other authors.”
One thing that undoubtedly plays a role in Shiga’s puzzle-like storytelling is the creator’s background in mathematics. “I have a pretty analytical mind, so I think solving a puzzle is about the most exciting thing a reader can experience,” the artist said. “I try and set up all of my books like interlocking puzzles. There’s typically a central puzzle with little puzzles shooting off of it. I realize it’s a weird way of constructing narrative, but it’s what I’m most natural at.”
A version of “Meanwhile” has previously appeared on Shiga’s web site, but the print version is re-done from scratch, and in color. “I’ve also added 8 pages to the story, including some very sadistic changes,” Shiga said. “As I said before, one friend told me it took him two years to finish the book. And even then it was only because he cheated by peeking at a page where the code was given. So in the new version, I’ve included several pages of duplicate panels with false codes to try and thwart those cheaters.”
As to whether he can offer any hints to readers hoping to find the “good ending,” Shiga kept it simple:
“The one good ending is easy to find. Just choose vanilla.”