Jason Shiga opens this book on a warning : “This is not an ordinary comic !” And indeed, there are very few comics which need a notice for reading them. Reading a comic book is usually rather intuitive : pictures follow each other and the reader create or recreate the narrative thread by linking them together mentally. But in Meanwhile there is no single narrative thread but a whole ball of them, and the author leaves it to the reader to unravel it.
The first page of the story is almost conventional : it features six panels, which are in a clear and easy to follow order, and which open the story with a choice : the hero, Jimmy, is about to order ice-cream. The ice-cream maker asks him if he wants vanilla or chocolate ice-cream, and already the reader understands that Meanwhile is a bit special. To be sure, from this first bifurcation, apparently simple, the author gives us a choice — we are to decide if Jimmy will order a chocolate or a vanilla ice-cream. And depending on our choice, we will follow one of the two threads leaving the page, and end up somewhere in the middle of the book, where the story continues in one direction or the other. And soon, other branches appear. Jimmy goes to a scientist’s to use his restroom, and can choose to test one of three inventions : a time-traveling machine, a “Killotron” which kills everyone who is not inside it, and a third machine which can read the last memories of who it is plugged on. And here are three new choices in front of us, and three new threads which lead us to very different evolutions of the story…
All of this is not without evoking the Choose your own adventure books created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. The idea of a story which would be non-linear and adapt as best as it could to the reader’s choices is not new in literature but hasn’t been explored much in comics. Morlac by Leif Tande comes to mind, as it used this principle of choice within another system : in Morlac, we start off with a single panel and slowly reconstitute a whole page of them, each panel corresponding to the choice of the anonymous character who wanders in a sort of labyrinth. Narrative threads cross and uncross paths, to give way to the most absurd situations, until they (almost all) converge towards the same conclusion, which is in fact a return to the beginning of the book.
Meanwhile differs from this technique by several details. First of all, navigating through its pages is not as simple as with Morlac : when we follow our choices, we continually go ten pages forward, then three backward, then seven forward again, all thanks to an ingenious system of tabs which guides us through the volume. Our reading habits are quickly perturbed, and, paradoxically, this fragmentation allows us to engage in the book’s universe even more. Reading through the page itself is also frequently chaotic : we do have a system of panels, but they rarely follow the occidental way of reading. We start off in a corner, and, tracking the threads, we follow panels down the page, then towards the right, etc. The pages themselves are sometimes sparse, with very few panels ; but most of them are quite cluttered. This is enough to go astray even more, and to titillate us when on the same page several threads cross paths, and we must restrain ourselves not to poke our noses in those other paths yet to be discovered.
Depending on the reader’s choice, Meanwhile‘s story can indeed be very short, run around in circles, or end up with the hero’s brutal death. In fact, the author indicated in an interview that the only way to have a happy ending is to “choose vanilla”. On the cover of his book, Shiga mentions there are 3856 story possibilities ; given that he studied mathematics, we are inclined to believe him. And after finishing the story once, one is tempted to retrace some steps, even if it means cheating a little : what if Jimmy had chosen to open the door instead of sheepishly waiting in front of it ? And what if he had gone backwards in time to stop himself from choosing chocolate ? And what if he had read his own memories ? All of this can happen depending on our choices and the threads we follow, and this gives a very playful side to our experience of the story, even furthered on certain pages where we are asked to “dial” a secret code that we might have found (or not) earlier in the story.
The other big difference with Morlac lies in the fact that Meanwhile provides a real story, so to speak, which can develop into surprising depths if we know how to reach them. All of the clues are on the book’s cover : by following the correct threads, the story progresses and reveals much about Jimmy’s childhood and his arrival in Professor K.’s lab, an arrival that is maybe not so much due to chance… This means that even after numerous readings, Meanwhile keeps on revealing new things and being as fascinating as before. There is even a secret ending that is almost impossible to find by following the rules, and a bonus page somewhere in the book, which only shameless cheaters will find. And it would be quite a shame to cheat by thumbing through the book to find all of its secrets : stumbling over them by accident is much more satisfying, and adds up to the playful aspect of Meanwhile.
It took Jason Shiga ten years to find a publisher for his book ; meanwhile, he put out handcrafted copies while publishing a digital version (in black and white) onhis website, along with various other “interactive comics” of the same kind, like Knock Knock ! which isn’t even mentioned. One can understand a publisher’s reserve to put out books like these, which must be a headache to manufacture. But the inventiveness coming from Meanwhile, and the joy we take from simply leafing through it and unraveling its threads again and again, makes us wish it were the forerunner of a new kind of comics, with a promising future. There are already examples of interactive comics on the web (starting with Shiga’s own website), but with Meanwhile, Jason Shiga stays true to the book’s materiality. Between turning pages after following complex threads on paper with our finger, and jumping from webpage to webpage through frenzied clicking, Shiga seems to cleary favor the first option. Without doubt he has strayed far from the usual definition of a comic book : Meanwhile is an hybrid book, defying all categorization, and we can only wish it inspires numerous followers.
- Before the Choose your own adventure books, there had been several ancestors of the genre in the 1960s (Edward Packard’s books, for instance), as well as Raymond Queneau, with Un conte à votre façon in 1967. The idea is also explored in several of Borges’ short stories, such as Examen de l’œuvre d’Herbert Quain.
- This frequently evokes Chris Ware’s most complex layouts. Another example of this sort of layouts can be found in Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, on page 105 (orhere on his website).
- Interview available onComic Book Resources.
- He has indeed graduated with a major in mathematics, which might explain his taste for complex structures in most of his books. Besides, in the first pages of Meanwhile we can find a paragraph which explains the various calculations and algorithms Shiga has used to conceive his book…