Nearly a decade ago, my wife and I attended the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco and happened across the booth of a polite, unassuming young man named Jason Shiga. We purchased a couple of intriguing books from him, one of which was called Meanwhile — an amazingly complex graphic novel reminiscent of the classic Choose Your Own Adventure book series. With black and white photocopied pages and jutting tabs neatly cut by hand, the amount of physical labor that clearly went into creating each copy of Meanwhile was dwarfed only by the mental effort it must have taken to plan out the numerous narrative paths readers can follow. It was no surprise to learn that Shiga holds a mathematics degree and utilized a specialized computer algorithm to plan the story flow. Mindboggling, to say the least!
Thankfully, someone at Amulet Books recognized Shiga’s brilliance and the general public can now enjoy the brain-bending experience that is Meanwhile. Completely remade with redrawn, colorized artwork and sturdy plastic pages, the new iteration of Meanwhile is a delight. Though the intended audience may be juveniles, adults will also find themselves drawn in by the book’s unique approach to visual layout and storytelling, not to mention its cerebral subject matter.
The story focuses on Jimmy, a young boy who doesn’t realize making a choice between chocolate and vanilla ice cream will lead him on wildly different adventures involving such heady topics as time travel, mind reading, and the annihilation of every living create. As the storylines progress, readers can make choices that affect how the narrative unfolds. According to Shiga’s calculations (and given his mathematical chops, I’m not going to doubt him), there is a whopping total of 3,856 story possibilities. The plot progresses from panel-to-panel in an atypical manner, going in just about every possible direction across the pages. However, as daunting as this sounds, following along isn’t necessarily difficult thanks to color-coded lines that lead between panels and across page tabs so as to guide readers where to turn next.
One thought that struck me as I was reading Meanwhile is that it is one of the best examples of a physical book that would not work as well in an electronic format. While I’m sure some clever programmer (or maybe even Shiga himself) could whip up an ingenious touch screen-based version of Meanwhile, the visceral joy of sliding your finger along the colored lines and turning the pages to see where the path leads next would be difficult to replicate via software. The book is as much a physical plaything as it is a comic.
Unfortunately, as super-powered as Shiga’s brain may be, his artistic ability is not quite up to the same standard as his planning and layout skills. Shiga’s drawings are certainly cute and have their appeal, but when considering the ridiculously intricate flow chart that comprises the story possibilities, it’s more than a little disappointing that the visuals aren’t anywhere near as robust as the structure they reside in. If Shiga had focused solely on the flow of Meanwhile and left the visuals to the likes of John Pham or Chris Ware, the book could have been an absolute masterpiece. As it is, it’s still a fantastic effort and one whose originality is not going to be replicated any time soon.