I had the great experience of interviewing Jason Shiga, creator of Meanwhile and the new interactive comic Adventuregame Comics: Leviathan. You can hear our full conversation on Comic Book Herald’s “Creannotators,” on the podcast.
But since some people prefer the ancient art of “reading,” we’ve also transcribed the interview below, talking with Jason about making the graphic novel. The transcription has been slightly edited for clarity. Read and enjoy!
CBH: Hello, and welcome to Comic Book Herald’s Creannotators. I’m Dave Buesing, founder and editor-in-chief of comicbookherald.com. For today’s interview, I’m very excited to be talking to Jason Shiga, the creator of comics like Meanwhile…, Demon, Fleep, Bookhunter, Empire State, and now Adventuregame Comics: Leviathan, coming out from Abrams Comics Arts. Adventuregame is an interactive graphic novel. It’s part story, part maze, part game, in which you go on a quest in a small coastal town to uncover a mystical wand and ultimately defeat a great Leviathan. It’s super fun. It’s a blast. If you’ve experienced Meanwhile… before, it’s going to be in that vein. Jason, thanks so much for joining. How long has Adventuregame Comics been in the works for you?
Shiga: I’ve been doing interactive comics for about twenty-five years now, if you can believe it. My very first comic that I made when I got started was when I was just a teenager. They were interactive. I always loved the idea of the readers being able to make choices that determine how the story unfolds and leads to all these different endings, and so in a sense, it’s been in the works for twenty-five years. But, my career has taken some detours along the way, but from the very get-go, I’ve been doing interactive comics. Now, my first interactive comics were just mini-comics–and I wish I had some to show you–but they usually involved the reader unfolding the comics in interesting ways or opening them up. I made a few that were in the shape of flexagons and I guess one of my earlier ones was a comic that had rotating cardboard wheels that would have windows in them and as you rotated them, they would reveal panels behind the first disc.
CBH: That’s so cool.
Shiga: It’s all very complicated. But it wasn’t until around 2008 that I actually had one of these interactive experiments published and that was Meanwhile… through Abrams.
CBH: Gotcha. So it’s been in your DNA for a long time and you had Meanwhile… come out. For folks who haven’t experienced Meanwhile… it’s highly recommended. It’s incredibly unique, certainly in the graphic novel space, in the sense of how involved and complex the pick your path component of that is. The thing that I love the most about Meanwhile…–and I actually came to it this year for the first time–but it’s the fact that you can lose and will lose consistently and the idea of comic book stories that are winnable or losable I think is incredibly fun. That’s something you’re carrying over here to Adventuregame, so in between Meanwhile… and these comics, you’ve done a whole host of things including Demon, which is a long running, ongoing series, which I suppose was more “traditional” comic style that came out through First Second. It’s a very mature story, first off, about a individual who is a demon who can possess other people’s bodies when they die. What made you want to come back to the interactive space at this particular juncture?
Shiga: So, I took, like you mentioned, a little break from doing interactive comics, but throughout my career, I’ve always tried to alternate between one interactive project and then one more straightforward narrative. So, Demon, even though it’s just one project, it was a massive project. Over six-hundred pages, so it’s, in a way, a ten year break from interactive comics for me. Just working on this massive tome. But, even in my mini-comics days, I always tried to alternate between the interactive and the straightforward narratives.
CBH: Sure. That makes sense. So, I had a moment playing Adventuregame–I’ve got my copy right over here–it’s super fun. I love it, people should check it out. But I had a moment where I laughed out loud–a few–but one in delight where I was playing the story and I went to catch the ferry and the guy was like “we only run at dusk,” and it was so reminiscent of a billion videogames I’ve played, where you can only do certain challenges during day or night. Like, certainly I had Zelda flashbacks. I think that’s probably the big one for me that was a touchpoint. If this book feels very much like a side-scrolling videogame, I’m sure there’s a lot of intentionality. What were some of your own inspirations and videogames that you wanted to emulate?
Shiga: It’s funny that you mention Zelda because that was the biggest influence on this book!
Shiga: So there’s the day/night cycle from Ocarina of Time–I’m sure you remember that.
Shiga: But I also worked in a little bit of Lost Woods into the book as well.
CBH: Yeah, with the ocean.
Shiga: Yeah! There’s a part where you get stranded on a desert island and you have to navigate your way back to the mainland.
CBH: Yeah, now do you love The Lost Woods or do you hate The Lost Woods? Or do you hate and then appreciate it?
Shiga: I love mazes. I love puzzles. The Lost Woods isn’t quite a puzzle in Zelda. It’s more of a gate/combination lock that you can’t really get past unless you have some information–I mean, it’s possible that you could get lucky and just happen to pick the right set of cardinal directions–to get through, but chances are, you get lost. But yeah, I always thought that was a clever way of gating out certain sections of the game and I can’t speak highly enough of the Zelda series, especially the very first one, The Legend of Zelda.
CBH: Yeah. Sure.
Shiga: And here in the book when you’re wandering through the town, you might notice that I intentionally designed it to look like a SuperNES style adventure game. Like–oh, what’s the second one?–what was the second one for the NES?
CBH: Oh, I don’t know the NES. I had a copy when I was like, eight, but it was completely impossible to me. So I hated it for years until I got to sixty-four and Ocarina of Time was my speed.
(Transcriber note: It was The Adventure of Link)
Shiga: But, yeah, I’m glad you picked up on the Zelda influence.
CBH: Yeah, it’s super fun! You have conversations with individuals, you can pick up information that may or may not be critical to your journey, and you walk out in the town and you’re given map and the choice of “turn to this page if you want to go this direction, turn to that page if you want to go another direction.” I won’t spoil all the interplay, but the day/night thing definitely made me laugh because you can kind of get in these cycles of “oh shoot, I have to go back to the hotel. I have to go to sleep. I have to change the time,” it’s very reminiscent of some of these videogames, which is really fun because it’s stuff you don’t see in comics a lot. Or at least I haven’t. So, with Adventuregame, I thought that stuff was really fun. In terms of the book play, there’s a few items in here that I had not seen you do before. We just talked about a couple. Some are that you have an option to go to a page with no number. You have to fill in the number based on information you’ve accumulated. Was that the piece you were most excited to add or was there something you enjoyed more than that?
Shiga: Yeah, well, that was super fun because I guess for me, I love the original Fighting Fantasy game books, the original “choose your own adventure” book series, but I guess one of my issues that I have with all of those books is in almost all of those books, the choices that you make are presented to you. You rarely get to use your imagination to try to actively think of a solution to a problem or an idea and then apply that. There’s usually a menu list. But, in this book, I wanted to give the readers a chance to actually use their imaginations a little. So there’s a few points in the book where the box that usually contains the page number is blank and the reader has to think about all the clues and everything they’ve encountered in the story and fill in the number themselves. And you know, I try to ramp it up a little so the first two times that you’re presented with that blank box is more elementary puzzles, but then the last one–I don’t know if you solved the last one–but it’s a real mind bender. You have to really think outside the box to get that last one.
CBH: Yes, the last one definitely tripped me. It definitely puzzled me. It’s a very satisfying experience with some of the other ones because it’s that videogame thing where you’re like “okay, I had this conversation with somebody and they mentioned this detail” and you’re thinking in the back of your head “maybe I’ll need that later, maybe not” so then it’s very satisfying when you get to a point like “oh! I know the answer to that! I actually know where to go” because otherwise, obviously you’ve got to circle around and the book allows you to do that. I thought it was interesting in Adventuregames that one of the more memorable aspects of Meanwhile… that you mentioned was that you can lose and the book can end repeatedly before you necessarily feel like you’ve accomplished it all or that you’ve seen all that you’ve wanted to, in Adventuregame, that’s harder because it’s got more of a cyclical, circular nature to it that allows you to continue trying thining a younger reader set, maybe just more accomplishments for the older reader set. What was the planning there?
Shiga: You know, I honestly didn’t think about it too much. I guess I should talk a little about one of my favorite series in the game book medium, and I don’t know if you ever saw this, but there was a series called Time Machine.
Shiga: So it was different from the “choose your own adventure” series because no matter what choices you made, you would never get any of these bad endings where you would die. It always pushed you back to the main path, so that series in particular I loved as a child. I mentioned mazes earlier, but there’s a maze author named Greg Bright who did a whole book of mazes that were very influential to me, and a lot of them had no dead ends. They only had a beginning, a middle, an end, and just this massive tangle of passageways in between. But I kind of like the idea–for this book anyways because of the way it was laid out–of a very minimal number of endings.
CBH: Yeah, I do like that. I enjoy that too. So, per your recommendations, I picked up some of the OG “choose your own adventures.”
CBH: Yeah, I saw you reference these in a post you did on your Twitter account, so I picked up You Are A Shark and Inside UFO 54-40 before this from my library. I had never done these before and coming to them now in conjunction with these comics was so fun. It was so fun to go and play these. I’m a billion percent–I have three young kids–doing You Are A Shark with my oldest. That’s going to be a blast. But, yes, the one thing those books do is they end all the time. There’s a million–or at least the ones that I’ve done–different endings, some of which are happy, some of which are–like, there was one I got in You Are A Shark, where you can pick to be a simple land animal, I think it was, and basically I wound up in a really depressing zoo. It was the saddest, most depressing thing ever. I put the book down after, like “this is terrible!” But it was really fun. So I have to thank you for recommending those books, but I can see the inspiration. It’s amazing that you’ve brought that to comics.
Shiga: My favorite ending in that book is at one point you get to be a mosquito and then you fly towards some little girl who’s sleeping and she just smacks you!
CBH: She swats you! It’s wild! It’s so funny. It’s kind of dark and morbid for a “kid’s” book, but it’s reality. Okay, so that’s amazing. So, what do you think it is about the style, the interactive graphic novel, that has translated so well to comics for you? Because there’s these books–they’re prose and illustrations–what do you think it is about the comics medium that has made that so successful for you?
Shiga: Again, as much as I love these early game books, there’s something that I wanted to do with comics that I felt was missing with those game books, which was that comics is a visual medium. I wanted to present everything visually, so I wanted to present the idea of choice visibly. So you’ll notice in all of my interactive comics that choices are usually represented by a trail or a line literally branching and the readers can actually see right in front of them the universe splitting into two parts. And for me, comics is just the perfect medium to visually represent the idea of choices and choice making, the multiverse, and for me, it’s just a match made in heaven.
CBH: Yeah, it definitely shows. The enthusiasm is infectious with these types of books. One question I have about Adventuregame is, so the first series is called Adventuregame Comics: Leviathan, and the quest ultimately is that you’re trying to acquire this tool of power and there’s this great sea monster out there. We don’t quite get there yet, but you referenced in the build to this that there’s also the philosopher Hobbs Leviathan, and I think there is some textual evidence here of life being “nasty, brutish, and short,” that’s the bit I always remember. Why that particular philosophical connection in terms of integrating it into this work?
Shiga: I remember coming across that idea as a teenager and he just had a more mathematical approach to political philosophy that I liked and I think the book–not to toot my own horn–I think it’s fun. But I want it to be a little bit more. I want to introduce kids to a little introduction to political philosophy, and I try to sneak in a little deeper meaning into my books. Hobbs has probably fallen a little out of fashion these days, you know, with people like Russo and Locke. Our founding documents are probably a little more Lockeian, but to me, Hobbs was always my guy.
CBH: Sure, sure. Okay. So you got in there. Very good. With Adventuregame Comics and, I suppose Meanwhile… or really any of the interactive graphic novels, it seems that one of the challenges would be–I mean, obviously the design of it–but when you compare it to your more “traditional” comic storytelling, it’s hard to build this thing and have it be a story and have characters that we get attached to and invested in. How do you try to navigate that when you’re designing an interactive novel to merge both worlds so that it’s a game but it’s also a story we care about? How do you pull that off?
Shiga: I have to be honest, it’s tricky. Particularly in Leviathan, I wanted there to be a map right out of the gate. I wanted you to be able to walk out of that tavern and have a whole world spread out before you like in the best Zelda games, but I guess the downside of that is that it’s hard to get a narrative–a beginning, middle, and end–because if everything is presented to you right in the beginning, what’s to stop the reader from walking over to the ending right away? So, I had to build in some parts of the map that weren’t accessible at first, that were kind of gated off, and little steps along the way so that you couldn’t access those gates unless you got to other gates. Once I had the rough structure of that, I basically built myself a flow chart to keep all the story elements in my head. Or at least on a piece of paper. And the flow chart was different from the flow chart I made for Meanwhile… because, I mean, you’ve read the book. There’s so many choices that it would literally look like a tangle of spaghetti if I were to map every single node in this book. So, in the flow chart, the nodes weren’t actually pages, they were story elements. Anyways, I sound like a crazy guy trying to describe this. This is all just to say it was tricky, but with a lot of comic books in general, a lot of it is just planning. I had to do maybe three or four months of planning before I could just get started with the drawing. But I mean, I’ve been doing this for a while, so I’m pretty good at the planning part of things.
CBH: Sure, sure. Yeah, you have a sense of where you’re going and how you want to pull it off. I was reading a Comics Journal interview from a few years back and at the end of it, you teased a very ambitious project called The Box.
CBH: Is that still a thing in development?
Shiga: It’s still a thing! It’s still a thing in development! Oh, you know what? I’m going to show you a little bit!
CBH: Awesome! Yeah.
Shiga: I made myself a little prototype, but this is kind of what I’ve been working on on the side for the past five, six years.
Shiga: So, I’m sort of slowly chipping away at it, but this whole time I’ve been working on a six-hundred page interactive comic.
Shiga: The shape of it is a little unusual because instead of one spine like a regular book, this one has three spines. It opens up like this. Once you have it like this, then you can open each page like this.
Shiga: And, it’s like Meanwhile… there’s these tabs that can take you from one page to another. This side also has tabs that can take you from one page to another in this section of the book, and this is the really exciting part, there’s actually parts in the book where you can actually cross over from one set of pages into the other set of pages.
CBH: And now you’re on, like, a mirror dimension?
Shiga: And now you’ve got another adventure. This adventure, these pages that you’re not reading you can use to basically store little bits of memory. You can have little puzzles and brain teasers in here in this one. And when you’re walking around, there’s a little map that changes as you’re walking around. So anyways!
CBH: This is so cool.
Shiga: This is what I’ve been working on for the past six years. Kind of in between projects like Demon and Leviathan. Hopefully this will be coming soon!
CBH: Heck yeah! That’s amazing! That’s super exciting. Okay, I’m glad I caught that in an interview. I’m glad I asked because that was very cool to see. I’m looking forward to that.
Shiga: Well thanks!
CBH: Yeah. Amazing! Alright, so we got all the work going on here. I’m curious. A couple pieces of inspiration, number one, I guess even in terms of your own writing style, are you a fan of Death Note? By chance?
Shiga: I am such a huge Death Note fan! I mentioned before, I’m super into puzzles and games and mazes, you know, all these text adventure games from the 80s, and oh my gosh, Death Note is just right in my wheel house. For those of you listening who haven’t read it, let me just give you a short pitch, it’s–I don’t want to spoil too much–but the premise is there’s this teenager who finds a book which has an interesting property, which is whatever name he writes in the book, that person will die. Anyways, so it’s the simplest premise you can imagine, but this is one of my favorite things when authors do it, but they take just a very simple premise and explore every single nook and cranny and possibility and combination, and just wring every little drop of puzzle making and consequence out of this one premise. And I guess the form of the book is basically just a twenty volume chess match between this teenager who finds the book and this other genius who’s trying to find the teenager, and I mean, every volume they’re just trying to outwit each other. It’s wonderful!
CBH: Yeah. I was catching up on Demon and I saw a lot of similar elements in terms of–like you just said–of taking “okay, here’s the concept. How many directions can we take that? What are all the things that we can do with that?” But then also just, like you said, taking that puzzle making and that equation solving of “if x happens, then y, but if y happens, then z” and just those conversations that they have between Light and L throughout Death Note, especially in the early volumes. Just exploring every nook and cranny of a decision. I definitely see a lot of that in your work as well! Which can be incredibly entertaining. Like it’s the commitment of really diving in. There’s no half measure. It’s really fun.
Shiga: Oh, I can’t recommend it enough.
CBH: Yeah. Yeah. Another reference point that I’m curious about, have you read You Are Deadpool?
CBH: Okay. No pressure, but I think you might find it kind of fun. It’s a five issue series that Al Ewing wrote for Marvel a few years back, and it’s a “choose your own adventure” miniseries but it’s got elements of roleplaying and die rolling in it. So a lot of your direction, like the panels that you go to and the pages that you turn to, are based on what you rolled on the die. And also, I think you bring certain weapons with you and you do battle, so certain D&D elements like “if you roll higher than a 4, you win this battle!” and then you turn to this page, but if you rolled lower, you turn to this page. So it’s got a level of randomness incorporated into it a la die-based roleplaying games. That was another reference point where I was like, oh these are similar levels of fun. I think you might get a kick out of that one too.
Shiga: Okay. I’ll check that out! Definitely! It’s called You Are Deadpool?
CBH: It’s called You Are Deadpool. It’s like five issues. If you read the first issue, you’ll get it. It came out–I want to say–in 2016, 2017? Something like that.
Shiga: Okay. I’ll definitely check that out.
CBH: Okay. Cool. Alright, so let’s see. What else do we want to talk about? Oh! What’s the plan of cadence for Adventuregame Comics? This is volume one, so what’s the cadence for possible future releases?
Shiga: So there’s going to be a new one coming out every year. So Leviathan’s the first one. The second one is called The Beyond. I’m just kind of wrapping that one up right now and The Beyond…I’m sorry, I haven’t really come up with a good elevator pitch for it yet because I’m still drawing it. But it’s set mostly in the afterlife.
CBH: Oh! Okay.
Shiga: And you kind of find yourself in this purgatory and there’s these portals that you’re trying to figure out how they work, and the third one, the title is still to be determined, but the third one is going to be set in feudal Japan.
Shiga: And I guess the idea is that you can play the book as a ninja or a samurai. You encounter the same obstacles, but depending on what skills you chose at the very beginning, that’ll determine how you deal with those obstacles.
CBH: That’s fun. That’s cool. So these will all branch off in different story directions, right? Each Adventuregame is going to be a different setting and premise?
Shiga: Yes. Exactly.
CBH: Very cool.
Shiga: Again, my big influences were those early game books like the Fighting Fantasy series, the old “choose your own adventure” series.
CBH: Yeah, and they all do that too in terms of it’s a whole new thing. You’re trapped in a temple, picking to be an animal, or you’re trapped in a UFO, trying to escape. Right? Different premise each time. Cool. Awesome. So this has been really good. What else do you have coming up? Is there any other stuff you want to make sure people know about or places to find you?
Shiga: Yeah, just Leviathan is coming out around mid August. I think August 13th, 14th, but you can pre-order it on Amazon, but if you want to wait to support your local bookstore, you can do that too. And yeah, I’m going to say it’s a lot of fun.
CBH: Yeah. Yeah, no it really is. It’s a very, very good time. I love this style of book. But I do have to recommend as well, your non-interactive stuff is quite good too, so people should check out Demon, Bookhunter, Empire State, these other works as well. Like I said, I’ve been catching up on Demon this past week and it is so captivating. It is so depraved at times, like I can’t believe it went there! But I also can’t put it down, so I’ve been having a blast with that one.
Shiga: Oh yeah. I should tell the kids listening, if you’re a nine-year-old kid who loved Leviathan, do not read Demon.
CBH: No. No.
Shiga: Do not check it out. Do not check out my previous series.
CBH: No. Absolutely not. It is definitely adults only. I love the–I think the second volume–opens with a thanks to your wife, and it says “thank you to my wife, who is still mad about this being dedicated to her in the first place.” Which is understandable.
Jason, this has been a blast. I’ve been loving the work. We’re definitely going to be promoting Adventuregame Comics. People can find the links here in the show notes and all that stuff, but otherwise, thanks for your time this morning. I appreciate you talking.
Shiga: Alright! Thank you so much!