For most of his career, Jason Shiga has been creating comic books that push the limits of the form—not only through the tales they tell, but through the physical shape they take. His illustrated choose-your-own-adventure stories often seem to defy the paper they're printed on, unfolding both literally and figuratively into tales so complex that it's hard to believe they can exist outside of a computer. Indeed, his most mind-bending comics bear many of the familiar hallmarks of video games: tutorials, secret codes, multiple endings and even the ability to "save" your "game."
The first time Shiga blew my mind was with an interactive graphic novel called Hello World. The story is simple enough: You're a little boy sent to the store by his mother with a grocery list of items and a suitcase to carry them home. But the moment you open the cover, it's obvious this is unlike any comic you've ever seen before.
Every page is sliced in half, separating the comic into two parts. The top half is where the story unfolds, while the bottom half displays the contents of your suitcase. The two sides are connected by an intricate system of page-turning: When you see a number inside a square, you flip to a page in the top half of the comic, advancing the story; when you see a number inside a circle, you flip to a page on the bottom, adding and removing items from your suitcase.
That's when you realize that this isn't just a choose-your-own-adventure story: It's a comic with a functional inventory system.
Shiga has been making comics since he was 20 years old and a pure math major studying at UC Berkeley. A life-long fan of Choose Your Own Adventure books and interactive fiction games, Shiga took a class called "Comics as Literature" and decided that it was time to make comics of his own—ones that would let him to craft multiple paths for the reader.
"I think a common frustration for a lot of writers is that they have too many ideas about how a story could go," says Shiga. "One of the cool parts of doing interactive stories is saying, I can do all these ideas! I don't have to choose."
But he didn't just want to play with the structure of the story; he also wanted to play with the structure of the physical paper itself. His earliest comics are like narrative origami, engaging the reader with panels of intricate polygons that literally fold and unfold in different ways, depending on the choices you make. "I've always been drawn to math and puzzles, paper folding and paper geometry, so it seemed like a way to combine all my interests," says Shiga. "I don't know how to describe it. I just think it's super fun."
Shiga's creations are often difficult to describe, and far easier to experience. One of his first minicomics, Jimmy's Lamp, begins as an accordion of paper that you open downward, revealing a single image of young man named Jimmy acquiring a genie's lamp. By unfolding the stack left or right, you can choose to make either selfish or altruistic wishes, leading to four different endings. (Shiga has a tutorial here for a making your own project in the same format.)
Over time, his interactive comics grew more even more complex, including stacks of panels that you read by locking and unlocking different sections with pegs, and others where moveable parts shifted images around in troughs. Although these comics were incredibly clever and unique, each had to be created by hand, turning them into boutique items that were impossible to digitize and difficult to mass-produce. Shiga sometimes created less than a hundred copies of each, limiting their audience to the several dozen readers lucky enough to stumble across his table at a comic book convention.
His experiments reached their apex with a comic called Theater Eroika, which involved a series of five overlapping wheels that would spin together to reveal different sequential images. "That one was so crazy that I only made one copy of it," says Shiga. "I was like, I've reached the pinnacle of complexity. This is just insane. This is too nuts."
Perhaps that's why Shiga's most recent project has taken him in a direction that couldn't be more different from his prior artisanal, analog approach to comics: the web.
He's currently working on a crowd-funded webcomic called Demon, about a malevolent, serial-killing spirit. Although it's a linear story, it still bears many of the hallmarks of Shiga's work, particularly its mysteries and puzzles. Although you don't solve them yourself, reading often feels a bit like watching a Let's Play video. It's also definitely a story intended for mature readers; at one point, a serial killer trapped in a jail cell solves his "locked room" puzzle by fashioning a shiv partially out of his own semen.
The web has provided a lot of things for Shiga that hand-crafted minicomics couldn't: instant feedback, easy access for all readers, and more than $1,800 of monthly support through his Patreon account. But webcomics also appeal to him for the same philosophical reasons as his earlier work. "The DIY self-publishing ethos is part of my soul at this point," says Shiga. "It's been really fun to see how that's transferred over to the web." Although he's found both joy and success in the digital realm, Shiga hasn't totally abandoned his love of papercraft. Lately, he says he's been experimenting with flexagons: paper shapes that can be flexed or folded to reveal different sides.
He sends me one of his latest experiments by mail, an octo-tetraflexagon comic titled The Box. At first glance it's a square, four-panel comic about a man who finds a sealed parcel on the ground. Each time you make a choice, you open the comic along a vertical or horizontal seam, revealing a new, four-panel comic. All in all, The Box has a total of four endings, all contained within a single piece of intricately folded paper. And because it's a cyclic flexagon, when you finish you simply have to fold it one more time, and it'll reset itself back to where it started.
Most amazing of all, this little marvel of papercraft was an original invention by Shiga. Although he'd played around with hexa-hexaflexagons, their gem-like shape didn't really lend itself to comic book panels. He wanted a square canvas to work with instead, "so I made a flexagon of my own creation," says Shiga. "According to Google, the octo-tetraflexagon didn't exist before, so maybe I invented it."
If you want to snag one of Shiga's multi-path printed comics but don't see yourself stopping by a small press comics convention, never fear. Meanwhile, Shiga's most labyrinthine tale to date was released several years ago by a major publisher, and it's a beautiful, brain-melting thing to behold. (There's an iOS version developed by Shiga and Andrew Plotkin if you want to go digital.) Meanwhile stars a little boy named Jimmy—yup, the same character from Jimmy's Lamp—who gets access to three wonderfully dangerous items in a mad scientist's lab: a memory transfer helmet, a doomsday device, and of course, a time machine.
You make choices by following color-coding trails off of each page to protruding tabs that lead you to other pages, for a total of 3,865 different story possibilities. What starts as a simple decision between chocolate and vanilla ice cream becomes a race across time and space involving the end of the world, quantum theory, buried memories and—in some endings, at least—the darkest time travel nightmares this side of Primer.
Eagle-eyed readers might notice something special buried in the pages of Meanwhile: a picture of the protagonist joyfully riding a giant squid. But if it seems impossible to find your way to that ending, that's because it is: There's no absolutely way to reach it through the story. But rather than a trap, Shiga sees this as its own sort of puzzle—or perhaps an invitation to break the rules and hack the game.
"I was inspired by a Choose Your Own Adventure book called UFO 54-50 by Edward Packard. This was a key moment in my childhood. You're trying to find a planet that was a utopia, and flipping through the book, I could see little illustrations of this planet. I exhausted every possible choice to try and get there. At one point I got so frustrated that I said screw it, I'm just going to flip to that page. I remember to this day how the entry started out: 'You made it to the planet. You did not get here by choosing. You thought outside the box.'"
Rather than just starting over from scratch each time the story ends, Shiga also wanted the reader to be able to build on their experiences in Meanwhile—to do new things with the knowledge and experience they acquire."It's really difficult to have save states in a book, whereas in a computer game you can have a character pick up objects or have inventory or change something about the environment," says Shiga.
So he added a twist: secret codes. For example, in order to travel back in time further than seven minutes, you need to learn the correct series of shapes that will unlock the time machine. Once you find the path that teaches you the code, you have to remember it; that's the key that opens up not just the time machine but far more exciting adventures that lead both forwards and backwards in time.
And Shiga's most ambitious comic yet is still on the horizon. Although he's played with similar ideas before with the inventory system in Hello World and the secret codes in Meanwhile, he says his next work will take the idea of "saved games" to an even more exciting place.
After he finishes Demon, he plans to focus on an untitled graphic novel about a young girl visiting her hometown. Shiga describes it as part escape-the-room mystery and part dungeon crawl, alternating between two stories that seem unconnected but ultimately converge. But what really makes it special is his latest innovation, a new page-turning system that will allow the interactive comic to remember items, locations, even conversations.
"When you're reading it, it'll be almost like reading one of those text adventure games from the '80s like Zork, except it'll be a comic," says Shiga. "I'm going to have a maze that moves around as as you're walking through it. You'll be able to pick up items and go places and the story will actually keep track of it where you've been, which characters you've talked to, and even bring up a different character to talk to so you're not repeating things. Oh my gosh. It is going to be crazy."