Morality Is A Social Constuct: Jason Shiga Conjures His ‘Demon’
Demon, the webcomic about a nihilistic body-jumping killer from the twisted, brilliant mind of Jason Shiga, recently wrapped up its 720-page, five-days-a-week schedule with an announcement: First Second will publishing the complete work in four voumes rolling out this year. To accompany the reveal of the cover to volume two, ComicsAlliance sat down with Shiga to talk about panel layouts, morality, and planning ahead.
ComicsAlliance: Demon is a story that deals with some pretty heady moral issues, but it's also got a consistent humorous tone. What's your water cooler pitch for the story? How do you describe the story to people that are interested?
Jason Shiga: Before I get to the moral implications, I usually just start off describing the premise of the story: An actuary checks himself into a filthy motel room in Oakland and hangs himself from a ceiling fan, but immediately wakes up in bed a few feet away without a scratch on his body. Using only his mathematics training, he eventually figures out what's going on and becomes the most powerful man in the world.
CA: The comic's been running as a webcomic for years, updating a page at a time digitally, so how do you manage the pacing? You're publishing a print edition of the whole run with First Second, and you've put out self-published volumes earlier, so how did you conceive of the pacing of the work? Page-by-page, a full issue, or more off-the-cuff?
JS: I tried to design it with the pacing of a serialized pamphlet in mind. You probably noticed that each issue ends with a shamelessly gratuitous cliffhanger. I was initially worried how it would translate to webcomics and eventually the graphic novel form. In the end I feel they work even better reading them in larger yet still discrete chunks. First Second is breaking up the entire run into four volumes, and to me they almost work as a perfect little quadrilogy, like the Rambo series.
CA: And speaking of pacing, let's talk about your layouts. Demon's got a really fascinating use of the page; panels slide down negative space, occasionally isolated, occasionally structured in more traditional grids. How do you go about planning these out?
JS: There's no real formula to my layouts, but in general larger panels are meant to represent longer stretches of time. I'm not sure how in-the-weeds you want me to get, but I feel at its core the medium of comics is about turning space into time. The stuff inside the panels are the illustrations, but to me the negative space or gutters between the panels are the comics.
CA: One of the things that I would always use to sell people on Demon when I would talk about it was the progress bar running across the top of each page. It was always reassuring to know that you had a sense of how long the comic would run, and made the time jumps and body-hopping twists mean something different in the context of a larger work. Did that restrict you from messing around on certain jokes, or did you allow yourself some time in your overall plan? Basically, how much of Demon was planned from the start when you give yourself these (public) restrictions?
JS: I had the whole story penciled (all 720 pages) before I inked a single page. I tend to do my writing backwards, last scene first, and then the sequence of scenes I need to get there again in reverse order. I know it's not the best way to do characterization, but when you read Demon you'll understand why I had to write it that way.
I did end up improvising, expanding on certain ideas and cutting other ones here and there; the webcomic ended up being 15 pages longer than the penciled version. But the bones of the story were all largely laid out months before the webcomic debuted.
CA: There's a twisted sense of morality at the core of Demon, so what does good and evil mean to you?
JS: Well, I'm more of a nihilist, as you may have guessed from reading Demon. I don't have a very strong sense of right and wrong or justice. Since having a kid, it's become clear that morality is all just a social construct, like money, or states.
When my three-year-old asks me why he has to share his toy, I'd always say, "Because sharing is caring." But recently he's started asking me about the value of caring. I couldn't lie to him any longer, and told him that he could parlay the appearance of being a caring person into friendship, influence and eventually power.
CA: We're seeing a lot more recognition for webcomic artists as more mainstream publishing houses and tools have become available, from Kickstarter to your deal with First Second. Where do you see the relationship with online comics and print comics going?
JS: It's all very exciting, and I feel really honored to have been a part of it. Just a generation ago, to self publish you needed about $5,000 to get your first issue printed. And a generation before that, self publishing wasn't even a realistic option. These days, literally anyone with a pen some paper can make a webcomic! And you might not even need the pen and paper.
The revolution isn't just on the creator side, but on the reader's side too. Whenever I talk with a youngster who likes reading comics, I always like to ask them what titles they're into. It's never "Building Stories" or "Kramer's Ergot," but rather a list of pirated manga or webcomics that I've never heard of. It makes sense; when I was 17, I didn't have $60 to spend on a books either.
CA: I always ask artists what their influences are, but it's always more fun to hear what inspires them outside their home medium. What non-comics have inspired your sensibilities?
JS: Outside of comics, the biggest influences on Demon were the movie Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray, the TV show Quantum Leap, and the novel Memoirs of an Invisible Man, by HF Saint.
CA: So, what's next for you after Demon? You've made a webcomic about an immortal, somewhat-amoral body-hopper that ran for years, you've done the most complex Choose-Your-Own-Adventure comic I've ever seen in Meanwhile. What's your next project?
JS: I'm going to try and top myself with an even more complex Choose-Your-Own-Adventure comic called The Box. Meanwhile was 75 pages, and took me a year just to plan out. The Box will be over 500 pages and be able to store memory.
Demon Volume 1 goes on sale in October, with Volume 2 to follow in February 2017. Check out more preview pages below: