I took Jason Shiga’s hardback graphic novel opus Meanwhile with me on a short vacation to a cabin stuck in the narrows between a river and a highway. I’m no connoisseur of the comics, but I’m always attracted to works that experiment with their form, no matter what that form may be. I started to think about Meanwhile before I cracked it. I began to frame the experience before I’d had it. It seemed to me a complex work that through its physical make-up hopefully had something important to say about the fragmented and confusing nature of our lives and reality. I hadn’t yet opened it but I knew it was a tabbed experience: a choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) comic wherein your choices lead you off the page to panels on other pages, back and forth, forever1 (or until you reach one of the many endings).
In fact before I left on the trip I opened my notebook and wrote, as a possible sentence for a possible piece I might write about Meanwhile, “I wanted to be able to say about it, This is what it feels like to be alive.” For me the branching paths began well before the first page, where our wide-eyed and inquisitive squat-boy protagonist chooses (with your help, dear chooser) which flavor of ice cream to eat that day, sending him off on a frequently fatal romp through a crazy scientist’s fantastical inventory.
It’s too much to ask that Meanwhile show me what it feels like to be alive in any profound way. It’s absolutely not fair to begin engagement with any work of art with that expectation. But if I’m not at least hoping a little bit for that with every new book I open, every movie I stand in line to see, every TV show I illegally download2, then why am I doing any of this? Don’t we crave meaning from our media? I haven’t believed the Bible is the Word of God for some time now, but that doesn’t preclude me from looking for that word on every folio I find.
Close enough to Word of God is Word of Gene–Gene Yang, one of our current masters of the comics medium. He operates across the genres of autobiography, magical realism, historical fiction, coming-of-age tale, fanfiction3, superhero reimagining, and probably others, all with a hell of a lot of punch and poignancy. So when Gene, in one of those glossy mutual back-scratching back-of-book blurbs authors do for friends and people who might reciprocate, says of Meanwhile,
If humankind ever finds itself at the brink of its own destruction and I am given the task to fill a small, space-bound time capsule with a collection of ten graphic novels that would present to alien eyes the best that the cartoonists of Earth had to offer the universe, Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile would surely be among my picks.
When Gene says this I may not entirely believe him but I believe that he might believe him, and that matters to me.
So, here I am. Continuing to avoid talking about Meanwhile itself. Because I didn’t even finish it. Surely you can’t do a solid critique of a work without at least running your eyes across every page, to say nothing of completing it–whatever that means–but if any comic can be used as a starting point for exploring beyond itself, it’s Meanwhile.
Watch me avoid for as long as I can.
I’ve long loved the idea of CYOA, and I’ve even written about my experiences with it before. Games are one of the most popular forms of art ever invented, and increasingly they dominate our leisure time. As a wannabe fiction writer, I have to grapple with this. What can simple words on a page arranged in order have to say to a culture saturated with well-designed reward systems and feedback loops? How can the form of games, probably the form of my generation if ever there was one, inform literature?
Meanwhile and other CYOA is one answer to this. Branching narrative, reader choice, and save-states of sorts4 all show up here. We want options. We want control. These texts give them to us (somewhat). But despite its sophistication5, Meanwhile stumbles in the exact same ways that the CYOA of my youth did: you have to go through the same boring shit over and over after you die or get to an ending. Or else you “cheat” and flip back to the last branching choice and experience the story from there. This works to avoid the tedium of re-reading, but it short-circuits my memory of what exactly has gone on before; what I’ve seen vs. what I know about but haven’t yet seen, in this thread.
It’s disjointed in a frustrating way instead of in the theoretically possibly culture-and-lifestyle-excavating revelatory way. It doesn’t feel remixed, just chopped. Besides, it’s harder to keep your finger in the last branching point with Meanwhile than it was with old CYOAs, since it branches so often and is visually infested with these snaking tubes that point the way to the next panel. I often had to go back to the beginning or near it and meticulously retread my steps.
Art-wise Meanwhile’s both cute and savory, all flat colors and shapes mined for humor and energy. Absorbing more of the art wasn’t a big incentive for me to continue, though. I simply didn’t care that much about the story on offer.
I can appreciate difficulty. Tomes as thick as pre-internet phonebooks make my fingertips sweat and my eyes flex and stretch, anticipating hours of flipping. But nothing in the first third-to-half of Meanwhile indicated to me that really doing the work to mine the thing for what it has to offer would yield me much more than a diverting story about a kid and mad science. It’s probably a fine story. But in a life with too much choice, and too much worthy work to be done, we have to recognize when we’re wasting our time.
Like its title suggests, Meanwhile is completely optional; something that’s happening somewhere other than where you are.
Note to CenturyLink: this is a lie, an instance of which in the right context can evoke a humorous response in the audience. I know we only have three notices left before you boot us, but we still haven’t figured out which pesky neighboroonie is hacking into our web and allegedly doing whatever you’ve accused us of in the past.
I guess if you get paid for it it loses the shameful name, but essentially he’s done Avatar the Last Airbender fanfic.
Meanwhile contains passwords that the reader must remember in order to progress.
Actual text from the actual copyright page:
Meanwhile began as a series of seven increasingly complex flowcharts. Because of asymmetries in the branching, a special notation had to be invented for the final three charts. Once the outline of the story was structured, a computer algorithm was written to determine the most efficient method to transfer it to book form. However, the problem proved to be NP-complete. With the use of a V-opt heuristic algorithm running for 12 hours on an SGI machine, the solution was finally cracked in spring of 2000. It was another six months before layouts were finished, again with the aide of homebrew computer algorithms. After a year of prep work, production began on the book, which was completed one year later.
At first I thought this was overblown and funny, then I realized it was serious. Then I got serious. Then I tried to read Meanwhile and came to the conclusion that Jason Shiga focused on all the wrong details. Note to Jason Shiga: I get it, man. It’s easy to get lost in the mines with zero productive veins in sight, especially when it comes to idiosyncratically narrow stuff that you get passionate about and want to use as a tool to connect with others. Libraries are littered with swing-and-a-misses. “Best Of” lists, too.
Image: ©Jason Shiga