Jason Shiga's graphic novel for kids, Meanwhile, is a genius piece of comic wizardry. If you haven't taken a look at it yet, you really should. The best way to describe it is a "choose your own adventure" comic, but it's so cleverly done that it eclipses all of those cheesy stories you read as a kid yourself.
But this post isn't about Meanwhile. It's about Empire State, Shiga's graphic novel for adults, which I picked up solely due to my love for Meanwhile.
Jimmy is a twenty-five year old library assistant living in Oakland. He lives with his mom, signs over all of his paychecks to her, and has aspirations to being a web designer. The bright spot in his life is his best friend Sara. She's forthright, sarcastic, funny, and has dreams of her own. Namely, she wants to be a part of the publishing world in New York City.
Sara decides to follow her dream, haring off to the Big Apple and leaving Jimmy behind. Jimmy, who has harbored a not so secret crush on Sara for ages, writes her a letter describing his feelings and suggesting a rendezvous at the top of the Empire State Building. Without waiting for a reply, he tells his mother he's going to apply for a job at Google and buys a bus ticket to NYC.
The highlight of Empire State for me was the dialogue between Jimmy and Sara. This is a witty book, but it's subtle. Jimmy and Sara talk about how she finds boyfriends on JDate and makes out with the fat ones out of pity, how ridiculous hipsters are, how Jimmy has no idea what all the different words mean when ordering coffee. In order to pick up on all of the nuances of the dialogue, re-reading is necessary, because some things can be missed in the course of a normal conversation between the two.
When Jimmy gets to New York and meets up with Sara, things don't happen as he hoped - but they don't happen as I expected, either. It's all very understated and much quieter than comics normally are. It works.
Empire State alternates between the present (Jimmy's trip to NYC and the meeting that ensues) and the past (Jimmy and Sara's friendship in Oakland and his decision to pursue her when she leaves). Shiga uses blue shades for the present and pinks for the past. It gives the book kind of a dreamy quality. If you don't know this right off the bat, the story can be a bit confusing at first, but perseverance pays off.
Empire State is semi-autobiographical, inspired by a by a cross-country bus trip Shiga himself took from California to New York. The bus trip is actually a very small part of the story (it is pretty funny, though, since it involves a couple of newly-released prison inmates as Jimmy's co-riders). The emphasis is on the relationship - romance? friendship? something else? - between Jimmy and Sara, and the story shines most when both occupy the page together.
Copy borrowed from my local library.