Jimmy works at the Oakland library. Jimmy’s best friend is Sara, who has decided to move to Williamsburg in New York City to try to break into publishing. Jimmy, who’s barely been out of his house, decides that this is the perfect opportunity to declare his love to Sara by taking a Greyhound to New York and meeting her on the top of the Empire State Building. Things don’t go nearly as planned.
Such is the story behind Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not) a screamingly funny (and screamingly awkward) graphic novel from Eisner winner Jason Shiga (Meanwhile) recently released by Abrams Comicarts. We called up Shiga to find out the very strange true story behind this tale, what he really thinks of NYC, and how his artistic style for this was inspired by Tom Cruise. No, really.
Newsarama: Jason, this book was apparently inspired by a real trip you took. I’m curious about the origins of the story.
Jason Shiga: Sure, of course! I actually wrote the book a couple years ago, and it was inspired by this cross-country road trip that I took when I was in my 20s. And I basically took a bus from the Bay Area all the way to New York. It took about five days, and I had a lot of fun adventures along the way, and I thought it would make for an interesting comic book.
You could say the book is partially autobiographical, because I had a friend who was living in New York at the time, and I thought it would be romantic if I took a bus cross-country and told her that I liked her. But when I got to New York, I found out she had a boyfriend, so I came back.
It was kind of a disaster, because the first day I was on the bus, I basically got separated from all my belongings. The bus dropped off in Salt Lake City, and I began to wander around, and the bus actually took off without me.
I had to sleep behind a Dumpster at the convention center, and slowly make my way East with the money I had in my pocket. Luckily, I also had my Greyhound tickets in my pocket.
By the time I got to New York, I was a mess. I hadn’t bathed in five days, I was really gross. And I met a child molester on the bus…hello?
Nrama: …sorry, that was…a stunned silence. I…I kind of never want to ride a bus again.
Shiga: It’s kind of what I imagined Hell to be like. Actually, I met two child molesters. There was one guy sitting across the aisle from me, and we were talking, and I asked “Where are you headed?” and he went, “Anywhere but here! I gotta get away from Salt Lake City! I’ve been falsely accused of having sex with a minor!”
At that moment, the guy sitting in front of us turned around and went, “Yeah, I’ve been there…”
Nrama: That’s in the book, but a little less dark…whoo. Lord.
Okay, getting over my trauma. One thing I found interesting about the book visually is the use of negative space on every page, which makes the scenes in the city with the double-page splashes that much more memorable.
Shiga: The negative space really came in handy during the editing of the comic. It’s one of the most difficult parts of doing a comic – in text, if you don’t like a sentence or paragraph you can just pull it right out. The panels are tough to fit together, and if you stick something out, you have to put something back in its place.
The great thing about working on this book is that there’s so much negative space that I could pull out panels and redraw the pages, and it didn’t look too weird.
I used computers in the process of making the book by drawing the characters and backdrops separately, then combined them in Photoshop for the pencils. I printed those out, blew them up on a photocopier, and then inked them.
That helped me get away with a lot of tricks in the book – I could draw a background once, and then reuse it, or use 50 or so different facial expressions and gestures I drew with the characters throughout the book
I was inspired by Mission: Impossible III when I noticed Tom Cruise had about five different facial expressions, and he’s turned this into an entire career. So I thought, “Why not do that, but have 50 expressions? It’s that much more!”
Nrama: And you use color throughout the book to indicate different locations and times…
Shiga: I worked with a colorist, John Pham, who does an amazing comic called Sublife. As far as I am concerned, he is the best colorist when it comes to two-color comics. I was originally going to color it myself, but when I found out I could use two colors, John was at the top of my list, and he’s responsible for a lot of the visual cues in the book.
You’re right – there’s these different timelines. The book goes back and forth between the present and the past. I originally did a black-and-white comic of this, and it was very confusing. Readers had no idea when they were. The colors help with that, in addition to just being beautiful.
Nrama: The book’s sort of an anti-romantic comedy – it’s more about the journey than the destination.
Shiga: I’m actually a huge fan of romantic comedies – you might have been able to pick that up from reading the book. I love, love, love romantic comedies, and when I talked about this with my friends, I kind of justify it by comparing it to watching different productions of the same Shakespeare play. Even though the story’s always the same it’s different actors interpreting these roles.With Empire State, I wanted to go through all the romantic comedy tropes, and imagine what would happen if you actually tried to do those things in reality. For example, what would happen if you actually tried to meet someone at the Empire State Building at a certain time and a certain place without a cell phone, like Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle?
I wonder what would happen if you stood outside someone’s bedroom window holding a boom box playing at full blast. Would that just get you arrested?
Nrama: I imagine John Cusack and Cameron Crowe have gotten a lot of people arrested in the last 20 years. There might be grounds for a civil suit.
It also reminds me of what you see in some of Judd Apatow’s comedies, where they do a situation you see over and over in movies, but try to have it play out like in real life.
Shiga: True story: I was at APE years ago, and sitting next to Gene Luen Yang, and the production designer for The 40-Year-Old Virgin was scouting for comics to put in Steve Carrel’s character’s bedroom, and he wanted to use Gene’s American Born Chinese. And Gene asks, “What’s this about?” and he hears the title, and Gene’s like, “No.”
Nrama: I’d like to talk about the characters a bit. Jimmy’s a nice guy, but he’s just painfully sheltered – the bit where he shows off his web page shows that he just has no knowledge of what he could be doing, and he’s made something simple that much harder for himself.
Shiga: (laughs) Yeah, that’s another cliché – not necessarily a romantic comedy cliché, but something like Napoleon Dynamite, where the character has a hidden talent he busts out. I feel there is a lot of me in Jimmy. I read a review of this where the reviewer complained that the main character was too pathetic, and I was like, “But he’s saying I’m pathetic!”
Nrama: Well, Jimmy does have some growth by the end.
Shiga: There’s so many stories about going to a big city and succeeding, but I think a lot of growing up is realizing…you’re not that good at the things you think you’re good at. (laughs) And there’s the whole thing of making a life for yourself.
I started the story at the point where Jimmy’s dreams are so compromised that he wants to be a designer – he doesn’t even want to be an artist at this point! That’s another cliché I wanted to play against.
Nrama: Hey, Jimmy’s got a pretty cool job! Libraries are cool!
Shiga: (laughs) I worked in a library for 10 years and aside from being a cartoonist, it’s the best job I’ve ever had.
Nrama: Do you see yourself revisiting these characters in the future?
Shiga: Probably not – at least not in the near future. I’m currently working on a giant Sci-Fi epic, and I calculate it will be about 700 pages and take up the next four to five years of my life. So I think it’ll be a while if/when I return to these characters.
Nrama: What can you tell us about this Science fiction story?
Shiga: I’ve penciled 150 pages so far, so I’m about a fifth of the way through the process. But like I said, it’ll be a while. (laughs)
Nrama: What made you want to do an SF story?
Shiga: I’m a huge fan of the genre, but my favorite stuff is like the Arthur C. Clarke stuff, very hard SF, outer-space-oriented with lots of orbital calculations. I read one Clarke short story where he claimed he had to do three pages of orbital calculations before he could even start writing the story!
Weirdly enough, I’ve never really read many satisfying outer-space SF comics. I wanted to try my hand at making a really scientifically-based SF comic.
Nrama: Is there anything else you’re working on?
Shiga: That’s the main one. After that, I want to do another humor comic, but…I’m like someone in a 12-step program, I can’t think that far ahead.
Nrama: Could you see Empire State being adapted into a movie?
Shiga: Probably not. It’s hard to say. There’s been a lot of really good comic book adaptations in the last five or 10 years. But I think each work is sort of perfect for its own medium. As much as I like Watchmen or Sin City, I don’t necessarily know that the movies are better than their source material. I like to think that comics are perfect as they are.
Nrama: And what are your thoughts on New York City?
Shiga: Unlike Jimmy, I loooove New York! I have a blast every time I go there. I love how easy it is to get around, I have tons of friends who live there, it’s so great to see the sights and people I haven’t seen in forever.
The one thing I can’t take is the climate. I was born and raised in the Bay Area, so I’m a wimp for anything above 80 or below 60 degrees. The last time I went to New York was right after I finished drawing Empire State, where I’d been using a lot of photo references.
I hadn’t been to New York in a while, and had never been to Prospect Park, where the climax of the book takes place. So when I went to Prospect Park, it was like walking into one of my own paintings – “There’s that bridge I drew! There’s that tree!”
Then I had the idea to climb this tree, because I’d drawn it but never seen it in real life, and I figured I’d be up in it and then it’d be this strange, mind-bending experience. So I started to climb up the tree, and then my pants ripped.
Nrama: Truth is stranger than fiction.
Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not) is in comic shops and bookstores now.All images Text and illustrations © 2011 by Jason Shiga Visit Newsarama on FACEBOOK and TWITTER and tell us what you think!