Remember those choose your own adventure novels? Remember how exciting the concept was but then whenever you chose “wrong” you would die? Maybe I was too young to enjoy those books when I read them or maybe I didn’t read the good ones but I found them to be kind of disappointing. Well this review covers a choose your own adventure comic book. The first I’ve ever heard of. And doom does indeed await you in all but one story path. But the interesting thing is that most choices lead you deeper into the delightful moebius strip that is Jason Shiga’s MEANWHILE. Shiga is a Berkeley graduate with a degree in pure mathematics. He has created numerous puzzles and mazes for magazines and has also written dozens of comic books. Jason brings his unique knowledge to the creation of one of the most innovative works in the comics medium. Here’s how the book works.
Most books read from panel-to-panel, left-to-right, top-to-bottom. MEANWHILE, published by Amulet books is a completely different machine. It reads in a non-linear fashion. Your reading sequence is determined by “piping” which goes from one panel to the next. So on one page you might go from a panel at the bottom right to a panel in the middle of the page following the direction of the piping (click here for a video demonstration of the “pipe” mechanism in MEANWHILE). Now in certain cases a pipe will lead off the page and onto a tab jutting out from another page. In that scenario you must open the book at the indicated tab and continue following the direction of the piping on the new page. Throughout the book you will be reading the story by jumping around any given page and you’ll bounce back and forth from page to page. It’s an impressively inventive story telling method and a brilliant demonstration of the comics medium’s strength. Though it seemed a bit unwieldy at first, I found myself enjoying the jaunty process especially that it is integrated into the story (more on that later).
The story line itself begins in a charmingly simple manner. You play the role of Jimmy, a small boy who wants to order ice cream. You get to choose vanilla or chocolate. Each choice sets off a different adventure. It might necessitate a few restarts but soon you will encounter Professor K a scientist and inventor. The Professor has three inventions that he will allow you to play with. A time machine, a memory transfer helmet, and the killitron 2000. Careful though, the inventions can be very dangerous. So dangerous that you have limited use of them unless you have secret codes. These codes can be found on special code pages. You could flip through the book until you find the right page and then guess which one is right. But the challenge is to choose the correct combination of story paths which will lead you to the right codes and ultimately to a perfectly happy ending to the story. Be warned that if you make a mistake you could put the entire universe in peril! I’m sure you can start to envision how this book becomes a tangled puzzle begging to be unwound and solved. So far I’ve spent about 4 hours reading this little book – it has a total of 74 story pages – and I’ve unlocked what appears to be a significant portion of the puzzle/story. But something tells me that I’ve barely scratched the surface. So for $15.95 US it’s a great value!
Now, is the story any good? Yes! It is brilliant! The book does not ignore the need for an interesting story in favor of an innovative delivery method. Shiga uses the story setting along with the unusual format to make some rather interesting statements about the nature of reality. As you may know, in a quantum universe nothing is ever this or that until it has been observed. One interpretation of quantum mechanics posits that when something is observed the universe branches out so that the unobserved possibilities are actuality in another universe. In MEANWHILE Jimmy is confronted with all these odd phenomena and Professor K guides him. However, Shiga is doubly clever in that he demonstrates these quantum principles by utilizing the strange format of the story. The reader must observe/choose a path which splits the story off and reveals a new story reality. It makes for a slick analogy of the the many-worlds hypothesis. Most impressive however is that all of this is done in an elegant cartooning style and a sense of humor. There are big reveals along the way, cliffhangers and plot twists. Reading this book is never difficult or tedious. It is always fun!
It’s no wonder that the Marshall Mcluhan of comics, Scott McCloud praises this book. Shiga, like McCloud has a deep understanding of the comics medium and its potential. MEANWHILE is an abundantly intelligent labor of love. From the paper stock to the typography to the content, it is a product of extraordinary quality. Get this book for you, for your kids, donate one to the library and school, give one to your mother, the milkman, your banker. Be smart. BUY. THIS. BOOK!
10 out of 10