Cartoonist Jason Shiga Multiplies Math with Murder in Demon

Comics Features Jason Shiga
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Cartoonist Jason Shiga Multiplies Math with Murder in <i>Demon</I>

If you didn’t dig arithmetic in grade school (and presumably don’t enjoy crunching numbers now), hearing that cartoonist Jason Shiga’s comics stem directly from his math training might give the wrong impression. But don’t be mislead. Shiga lays out Gordian-Knotted plots with an NBD attitude, exemplified in early works like Meanwhile, a YA choose-your-own-adventure story for those who want to see every possible path.

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Shiga’s webcomic Demon is being released in print via First Second through four volumes, the second of which released last month. It is decidedly not aimed at all ages, full of horrific murders and red ink. All of Shiga’s work, however, springs from the same nimble mind and manages to combine rigorous organization with a breezy, insouciant attitude. Demon speeds along a good 15 miles over the limit with the tale of a man, Jimmy, who attempts suicide through multiple means only to wake up unharmed. The book anticipates the clever reader’s quibbles and queries before crushing them under its wheels. It’s disarmingly fun.

Shiga’s already at work on his next Rubik’s Cube of a book (The Box), and he’s been busy in Angoulème, France, as an artist in residence, but he put up with a lot of emailed questions from this math dummy and provided some insights about his various interests and how they fit together.
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Paste: So you studied math at Berkeley, right? How did you end up in the relatively disreputable (and low-paid) field of comics? Did you decide you hated math? Graduated at a time when it was hard to get a job? Quarter-life crisis?

Jason Shiga: I’ve always enjoyed math and puzzles and I still do. I don’t see science and art as opposites. On the contrary, my favorite authors and artists, like MC Escher, usually had some sort of math or science background.

Paste: I see you describe yourself in your Twitter bio as a magician. Like an actual magician (the kind who does card tricks, not like Dumbledore or whatever)? Expand! And do you like those dumb Now You See Me movies, as a combination of genre (heist) and magic?

Shiga: I like inventing highly mathematical card tricks. I’ve got one where someone riffles a deck twice then starts counting off cards from the top. After analyzing a set of turned cards, I have a way of predicting the color of the next card. I haven’t seen Now You See Me but the premise seems pretty interesting. I wish they’d gone with casting actual magicians though.

Paste: Who’s your favorite magician?

Shiga: Persi Diaconis.

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Demon Vol. 2 Interior Art by Jason Shiga

Paste: When did you figure out that you really liked math?

Shiga: It’s something I’ve always enjoyed. But I think the first book that got me really interested was a Raymond Smullyan book called Alice in Puzzleland.

Paste: Smullyan’s first career was stage magic, looping us back around. What do you see as the connections between math and magic?

Shiga: There’s a fairly large genre of mathematical magic that I enjoy. But aside from that, maybe it’s the idea of finding surprise in the mundane, whether it’s proving something beautiful but unexpected out of some very obvious axioms, or performing some minor miracle with a deck of cards.

Paste: Have you ever competed in a puzzle event?

Shiga: Oakland Math Olympics, 1986. I was in the problem-solving division.

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Demon Vol. 2 Interior Art by Jason Shiga

Paste: Did you major in math just because you enjoyed doing it?

Shiga: Yes. It’s also probably the easiest of all the university majors. There are no papers, no labs. You don’t really have to remember too much, either. All the definitions and theorems just follow from whatever it is you’re trying to do. People are always shocked when they hear that the South Park creators majored in mathematics, but to me that’s the slacker major.

Paste: Are you the mathiest comics creator out there?

Shiga: I think that crown might go to xkcd or Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Paste: What did you think your career would be?

Shiga: Honestly, I wasn’t even thinking that far ahead. It’s just a subject that I enjoyed.

Paste: Did you take art classes in school?

Shiga: No. I probably should have, though. I always feel that art is my weakest point as a cartoonist. And it’s the part that’s most easily identifiable when you look through someone’s book. If I was a D&D character, I’d say I’d have very uneven stats.

Paste: Re: D&D—so, like high intelligence, low dexterity?

Shiga: Something like that. I’d maybe call it rigor instead of intelligence. And I guess none of these qualities is intrinsic to a person. We can always learn to draw or develop our intelligence.

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Demon Vol. 2 Interior Art by Jason Shiga

Paste: Did you grow up drawing? Making comics?

Shiga: Like a lot of kids, I loved drawing and making up stories, but I got a late start with comics. Part of it is I just never had a superhero phase as a kid, though I feel these days there’s so much more available, a budding cartoonist can completely bypass that set on influences. I got interested in comics when I was in college and took an extra credit course called “Comics as Literature.” Once I made my own comic, I was pretty much hooked.

Paste: What did you read in that class?

Shiga: Our first two books were Maus and Understanding Comics. Pretty great, huh?

Paste: Even though Demon started off as a webcomic, it seems fairly handmade. Is that accurate? And, if so, why?

Shiga: Yes. Demon is penciled and inked and lettered the old fashioned way (on paper). I used Photoshop to color it, but who doesn’t these days. I see webcomics as a method of distribution, not an art style. So they can range from very computery looking comics like Diesel Sweeties to very handmade looking strips like Skin Horse.

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Demon Vol. 2 Interior Art by Jason Shiga

Paste: Why do you prefer drawing comics on paper?

Shiga: I don’t have anything against digital art. But for me right now the computer technology doesn’t seem to match what I can do with paper and ink, especially when you figure in cost. I’d rather just draw on cheap copy paper and have the extra $2,000. That said, I suspect the technology will surpass paper within a decade or so.

Paste: One of the things that Demon makes me think of (other than Groundhog Day, which I saw you’ve mentioned as an influence) is programming, in that there are a lot of trial and error as Jimmy tries to figure out how this thing works. Do you have any experience with writing code?

Shiga: A little bit. And when I did, I definitely fell into the trial and error camp, which I know is considered bad practice. For example, I’d get to a spot where I wasn’t not sure if I needed to round some variable up or down. I could think about if for 10 seconds and figure it out. But usually I just tried rounding up and then ran the program to see if it worked.

Paste: How do you feel about this constant tinkering that seems to be part of our lives these days? Like when you get yet another notification to install an iTunes update, do you curse at your computer and ignore it, or do you eagerly install it to see what the new features are?

Shiga: Remind Me Later.

Paste: How much time do you spend on the drawing of your books versus the planning?

Shiga: It’s about half and half. It can be a little discouraging when I’ve worked a year on a project and don’t have anything to show for it except reams of mathematical scribblings and 20 flowcharts.

Paste: Obviously, you have a pretty analytical brain. How does that affect the ways in which you approach daily life? How do you think it affects the art you make?

Shiga: I think one of the curses of having that sort of personality is it’s hard for me to let some things rest. For example, as a kid because no one could tell me how cable cars turned around corners—an adult would just say, “I dunno. Some set of gears and pulleys.” And it would drive me bonkers. With my stories, I almost never do any hand-wavy explanations. I try and think through every logical possibility and consequence.

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Demon Vol. 2 Interior Art by Jason Shiga

Paste: And how does it affect your moral philosophy, which seems to be utilitarian (maybe even more so than nihilistic)?

Shiga: I wouldn’t shove a fat man in front of a runaway trolley. I don’t even know if I could kill baby Hitler. Maybe I’d give his dad a condom or something. That said, I don’t think utilitarianism is incomparable with nihilism.

Paste: Is the comics medium—with its balance of words and pictures that can conceivably tell the reader different things—particularly appealing to an analytical mind?

Shiga: Yes. But I’d like to think comics are appealing to all sorts of people. For me, one of the great strengths of comics is that it can take you right into the worldview of another person in a way that almost no other medium can. I think Art Spiegelman said we think in comics, and if that’s true, then a good personal graphic novel is about as close as you can get to reading someone’s thoughts.

Paste: How old is your son these days?

Shiga: He recently turned four.

Paste: Do you read comics with him?

Shiga: We’re reading Barnaby Bear, Peanuts, Ben Hatke’s Little Robot, Petit Poilu, Polo and Nancy.

Paste: Do you find most other works of art—which can be less complex in their plotting or planning—boring? Or does your brain need time to rest and you can just chill out in front of a James Turrell or a Rothko?

Shiga: I feel there’s actually a ton of analytical work under the hood of the even the most mainstream Hollywood romcom. Something like Maid in Manhattan is a very lean piece of machinery. The only types of narrative I can’t get into are more stream-of-consciousness memoirs like On The Road, even though I know it’s a classic.

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Demon Vol. 2 Interior Art by Jason Shiga

Paste: You clearly have a soft spot for genre work. Do you think that’s because it’s inherently satisfying and/or because it tends to consist of a formula that’s pleasurable, both when it sticks to what it’s supposed to do and (even more so) when it departs from conventions?

Shiga: Yes. All those things. I’m not sure if this is right, but I feel genre is about emotional power chords, not tropes. I need the final girl to survive, not because I’m a stickler for the formula but because it’s emotionally satisfying. Once you start framing genre like this, you can reclassify all sorts of stuff. For me Star Wars is as much a western as it is sci-fi, even though there’s no horses.

Paste: What’s your opinion of David Foster Wallace (also mathy, also complex in his plotting, also with an appreciation of genre)?

Shiga: I haven’t read his fiction but I loved his math book, Everything and More. It was one of the best of that series (Great Discoveries) and it was an amazing series. The book on Godel by Rebecca Goldstein was a particular standout.

Paste: Are you still in France right now? I read that you were going to do the Angoulème residency. And, if so, do you think you’re coming back to America? What’s it like over there? Is it as fucked up as it seems to be here? Or are you a little insulated from the insanity due to all the delicious bread and butter and wine?

Shiga: I’m honestly a little worried about my cholesterol. I’m basically going through duck and butter like it was tap water. I am coming back to the states this summer (assuming the nation hasn’t been covered by a giant glass dome). I make fun, but I guess I should say France has got its own isolationist candidates. In a few months we’ll see if Brexit and Trump are part of a larger worldwide trend.

Paste: Duck and butter sounds like a pretty good coping mechanism.

Shiga: The butter is hella good here.

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