- Craig Graziano
Most love stories don't end with a snowball to the face. Then again, this is no love story.
Empire State, by Jason Shiga, actually starts in the Golden State: Oakland, California. Jimmy works in a library and runs his own Web site. He finds inner peace through repairing books and geeking out over sci-fi movies. As he leaves work one day, we meet his friend Sara, who greets him...with an unprovoked punch in the arm.
Sara's sarcastic and unsatisfied world view is a million miles from Jimmy's acceptance of his uncomplicated life. Still, they both find some comfort and security in each other's presence. Unfortunately for Jimmy, Sara has a yearning to leave Oakland and enter New York City's publishing industry. When she receives an internship, the call is too powerful to resist.
Jimmy is left behind for the big city, but he decides a few months later to pursue Sara and hopefully meet her on the Empire State Building's observation deck and profess his....what? Love? Eternal friendship? Jimmy doesn't quite have it figured out yet. He also doesn't know about Sara's boyfriend. Jimmy's a romantic at heart, but he has no experience to put his talents to use.
Shiga's characters are drawn to near geometric perfection with a tendency to be slightly askew. Their eyes are all quite circular and Jimmy's hair looks so solid that it might be a helmet, but everyone would be composed of right angles if they didn't slouch so much. As for the color palette, the author adeptly jumps around the narrative's timeline by switching his panels from red to blue. That decision is never spelled out for the reader, and its subtlety is charming.
Time is an important theme in the book. While Sara moves to the fast-paced world of New York City, Jimmy appears to be perpetually stuck in the nineties. The fact that this story takes place in the present makes this all the more pathetic. When he receives a profanity-laden response to an earnest question, he squeals with delight, "Just like in Goodfellas!" Though a Web designer, Jimmy's range of technical expertise is stuck back when it was considered cool to have a MIDI file of Hey Jude playing on one's Web page. Still, Jimmy's constant optimism when faced with unfortunate situations only endeared me to him more.
It's hard to think that such a straightforward narrative is a departure in style for Shiga. His first book, Meanwhile, is a Choose Your Own Adventure-like exploration of a mad scientist's lab. The book has almost 4,000 possible outcomes. Instead of reading the pages left-to-right and top-to-bottom, you follow intricate pipes. The pipes lead to tabs on other pages throughout the book.
Before you know it, you are spiraling back and forth, trying to fix the mistakes you made while playing with a time machine, a memory transferer, and a doomsday device. Empire State is like watching a movie, and Meanwhile is like solving a word problem--and both are hilarious.
I would say that Empire State's best feature is that it left me wanting more. Rather than overstaying its welcome, the book gave me an emotional attachment to the characters and then moved on. I was left wondering what would happen to Jimmy and Sara, and that occurs with friends and acquaintances in life all the time. You might hear from them again, you might not. For a realistic graphic novel fix, put Empire State near the top of your list.