Thursday, February 19, 2009

my first interview (!) with jason shiga

this is the cover and a page spread from the self-published version of Meanwhile
you can click on the images for a close-up

Jason Shiga is a cartoonist living in Oakland, California, a graduate of UC Berkeley and rubic cube guru. Jason's alternative comics might tell a story through a linear narrative, be a choose-your-own-adventure comic or a puzzle comic that makes your brain do loop-d-loops. Sometimes Jason offers little prizes for folks who can solve his brain boggling puzzles. I have seen dedicated fans crawling back to Jason for hints and clues. Jason's comics are always fresh and full of adventure, you can see his work here:
In this interview Jason and I talk about publishing, working freelance, and what led him to creating  nontraditional comics.

Q: how long ago did you become a full time artist?

A: August 2008.

Q: what happened in your art career that allowed you to feel comfortable quitting your day job?

A: I got a book deal with Abrams. The advance was more than what I made at conventions, freelance for newspapers, my gigs for Nickelodeon and French translations of my works put together. So basically I made more in one day than in the previous ten years as a cartoonist. The day after I returned home from New York, I gave my two weeks notice and have been working on comics full time ever since.

Q: when and how did you self publish your first comic?

A: I made my first comic for a class in college called, "The Graphic Novel as Literature". I thought it would just be an easy 4 units but it turned out, I really liked the comics I read and once I started making my own, I wanted to continue. Adrian Tomine was also in this class and I remember thinking, "If this nerd can do it, why not me?"

Q: when did you get your first comic published by a publisher? how did that deal get put together?

A: My first comic published by a publisher was Fleep. The publisher Dylan is my longest friend and mentor in comics. If I recall correctly, I didn't even submit Fleep. I think Dylan just called me up one day and told me he was starting a publishing company and that he'd like to publish Fleep. Of course I said yes!

Q: do you ever have publishers wanting you to make serious changes in your stories or in your aesthetic? ever have to change things because of printing limitations?

A: Dylan's never asked me to move a single pixel. With the stuff i do for Nickelodeon, the piece is more collaborative. It usually goes through two or three separate rounds of revision before it sees print. Sometimes I feel like the editor is almost the co-author for my Nickelodeon pieces.

I don't think printing limitations ever stopped me from creating a comic. Even if I dream up some crazy impossible project with moving parts on celluloid that slide around in a trough, I can still make at least one of it. Nobody says I have to mass produce everything.

Q: tell me about a rejection from publishers...

A: I was pretty lucky with my first book, Fleep in that I didn't even have to go through a submissions process. When I finished Bookhunter, I wanted it to be a Sparkplug book but Dylan encouraged me to try and go for some bigger publishers. I think I submitted to six different publishers. At first I just submitted to my first choice and then waited 3 months for them to get back to me and submitted to my second choice and waited like 6 months for them to get back to me. Then I submitted to 4 different publishers at once. I included a note in the
submission package letting them know it was a simultaneous submission. After being rejected by everyone, I came crawling back to Sparkplug. 
As for "Meanwhile..." I've basically been trying to get that published for almost ten years. The tricky thing with "Meanwhile..." is that every page has tabbes cut into them so producing the book would be extremely expensive. For a while Highwater was going to print it at a loss but then they went out of business. Sometimes I just felt like giving up. And it's so difficult to produce by hand. It takes about 20 minutes to cut and assemble each copy. Anyway about two months after handing it to my agent, he got me a book deal with Abrams.

Q: tell me about working with nickelodeon magazine...

A: The comics section at Nickelodeon Magazine is run by Chris Duffy who is very alternative comics friendly as you may be able to tell by their selection of comics. I think Chris orginially picked up my comic at a convention. Then he looked me up in a phone book and called me. I've been working with them for about 7 years now. Typically, Chris will send me an email asking if I'd be interested in a particular assignment. Then we sort of hammer out the details in a very collaborative process. Nickelodeon Magazine has some of the highest page rates in the industry from what I hear and thanks to Chris, they've essentially been subsidizing the alternative comics community.

Q: tell me about your most exciting publishing deal and how that came about.

A: I'm really happy about "Meanwhile..." being picked up by Abrams but for me the most exiting moment in my career is when Sparkplug published Fleep. It's one thing to be making comics on your own. But when someone is ready to risk their money and time to try and put your work out into the world, it's a very special feeling. And being able to hold that finished book in your hands is indescribably awesome.

Q: how did you get your comic translated into french?

A: I just got an email from a French publisher who expressed interest in translating Bookhunter. And I agreed!

Q: how do your publishers pay you, meaning do you get one check as an advance or do they pay you quarterly or how does that work? do you get royalties?

A: With Abrams, I get an advance split into thirds. One upon signing the contract, one upon delivering the manuscript and one third when the piece is printed. The way an advance works is that you're basically paid the royalties in advance so even if the book doesn't sell well you still get to keep the advance. If the book earns more than the advance, you get paid the difference.

Q: any favorite tools or materials to work with?

A: I do everything with a Windsor Newton 222 brushes on copy paper. For panel borders I use a thicker felt tip pen. And for lettering I use a micron 08.

Q: Can you mention any special resources that have helped you get your work out there?

A: The Bay Area comics community, Dylan Williams. Basically my friends who I can show my comics to and ask for suggestions. At Art Night, I can go and ask other cartoonists about brushes or paper and use their brush pens to see if I like them. If I had to do that all on my own, it would take forever!

Q: Do you think attending the Alternative Press Expo regularly as a vender has helped people discover your work?

A: I think so. But maybe there's someone in Florida reading this and thinking, "I must attend APE every year so that people can discover my work. Otherwise, my comics will never become discovered." Except for the kid in Florida, it would be an undo hardship for her. So to her I would say, it's really not necessary but it's fun to check out and visit another city.

Q: how do you structure your work day to find a balance between working too much and working too little?

A: I try to treat it as a regular job. It's always tempting to work more and put in 12 hour days. But I've found it's not good for your body. It's important to be healthy. You only have one body.

Q: you have a BS in math from berkeley, how does your math background influence your artwork?

A: I don't know that it directly influences my comics. But I do try to think through a premise pretty rigorously before I start drawing it. I think I'm a pretty analytical person and it always bothers me when authors don't fully explore every corner of a premise. For example I saw a science fiction show recently where there are malicious cyborgs that look like humans in every respect and people weren't sure who to trust. But when the cyborgs had sex, their spine glowed red. Everyone who watching the show with me was like, "Ooooh! Isn't that sexy?" but I was thinking, "What happens when they masturbate? And can't they just get everyone aboard the spaceship to masturbate in front of a doctor and determine who the cyborgs are?" I think this mode of thinking is something that comes naturally to children. For example if you tell a kid about the afterlife then maybe he'll ask if cavemen go to heaven.

Q: what inspires your puzzle books? They're so totally unique in the world of comics. where do those ideas come from?

A: They are mostly inspired by the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series. But because they are comics, I wanted to present the choices visually. Every interactive comic I've made has a different choosing mechanism. Sometimes, they literally unfold certain flaps or you have to follow the panels around like a maze. I had one idea where the panels were printed on a circular wheel that could rotate a short distance to reveal windows in the wheel so you could see panels on the wheel behind it. The whole thing had 5 layers of wheels but it kept jamming. So far, I think the layout in "Meanwhile..." works the best.

Q: list a few of your favorite inspirations from pop culture...

A: Choose Your Own Adventure books, the interactive fiction of Adam Cadre, The Simpsons, puzzle books by Raymond Smullyan, early Disney and Warner Brother's animation, Lat, Quantum Leap, The Lost Room, various sci-fi authors like Asimoc and Arthur C Clarke, Cornell Woolrich, Memoirs of an Invisible Man and legos.

this is a page from Jason's newly remodeled Meanwhile which will be published by Scholastic Books soon.

this is a spread from Book Hunter, a action thriller involving the library police
you can click on these pictures for close-ups

1 comment:

  1. I'm a big fan of Shiga's comics, anyone curious about nontraditional superhero stuff should check out his work. a few libraries have his books, especially in the bay area!