mathematician is trapped in a phone booth for 48
hours and has only two pens, 40 feet of dental floss and
two coins of unknown currency to aid his escape. This is the subject
of Jason Shiga’s comic book, FLEEP. For many, including
me, the characters and stories of the average comic book are as
predictable as clockwork. The superhero somehow doesn’t fit
into his or her defined social role, but exceeds expectations in
some way and defends society against his or her evil counterparts.
And there must be a brightly colored or easily recognizable costume.
It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye with a ray
a mathematician by training, started creating comic books in his
early 20s. To date, 13 of his idiosyncratic books have been published.
He currently works in a library in Oakland, Calif., and self-publishes
his comic books in his spare time.
Although most of the famous comic-book characters have distinct
differences—some can breath fire, some have wings, others
have X-ray vision—the stories all seem to be the same. But
a comic book doesn’t necessarily have to tell the typical
“good guy versus the green or the hairy or oozing bad guy”
In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud gives a very broad
definition of the comic book: “Juxtaposed static and other
images in deliberate sequence.” He claims that there is “…something
lurking in comics, something that has never been done.” The
importance of this definition is not what it says, but what it doesn’t
say. In opening up the definition to include more than just the
good versus the bad, it opens up a form of art that has the potential
to be a combination of fine art, literature and truth all in one.
If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then a comic book has the potential
to be worth infinitely more than the stereotypical plots. According
to my favorite mathematician/comic book artist, Shiga, it is worth
860,000 more words than a novel and 532,000 words more than a piece
of fine art.
Flight Comics, located inside the Salt Lake City Main Branch
Library, hosts a selection of mainstream and underground comis.
the Bayeux Tapestry to Garfield to Felix the Cat
Some say that the medium
of comics didn’t begin until the invention of printing. Printing
certainly got the ball rolling faster, but the idea of using a sequence
of pictures to tell a story happened centuries before the advent
of the printing press.
There are countless examples of sequential art before printing:
pictorial pre-Columbian manuscripts found by Cortez, the Bayeux
Tapestry depicting the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and Egyptian
hieroglyphics, to name a few. However, with the advent of printing,
the medium became more widely recognized with artists like William
Hogarth, who used what’s known as a “picture-story”
to express his social concerns and Rodolphe Toffer, who in the mid-1800s
used the art form more satirically. American comics began in 1895
with the weekly publication of the comic strip “The Yellow
Starting with the popularity of the Sunday comics section, Americans
began their relationship with comic books, moving from the introduction
of our favorite heroes and villains to the modern, postmodern and
post-postmodern underground comic books we have today.
In the 1960s, superheroes evolved into the ordinary everyday man
with ordinary everyday conflicts. Underground comic books started
expressing these conflicts and discontent with American society.
This brought about a revived sense of sophistication in the work
and portrayed beliefs and attitudes that mainstream comic-book artists
Both mainstream and underground American comic-book artists started
using the formal methods as the Japanese and the Europeans had used.
The recently released film “American Splendor” portrays
the underground movement. The brilliant piece follows the life of
file clerk/comic book writer Harvey Pekar, who claims that “Ordinary
life is pretty complex stuff.”
work includes strips like this and several full-length works,
like Double Happiness.
Underground Movement Continues
underground comic-book artwork has become more expressive and the
story lines have evolved with intricacies that could rival any Oprah
reading list book, hands down. The modern underground comic-book/graphic-novel
medium may in fact be the most underrated literary movement in recent
U.S. history. It is within this form that the most experimental
and exciting work is being done in comic books today.
The unifying theme for most underground comic books is that of pushing
the envelope. The content, although varied, usually explores territories
that are generally overlooked by the mainstream comic book community,
be it sex, drugs, homosexuality, violence, politics or any combination
of controversial subjects. They go after the subject matter that
conventional comic books wouldn’t dare to touch with a 10-foot
The RED Interview
not superheroes, what makes a good underground comic book? I sat
down with comic-book artist Jason Shiga, recipient of the Xeric
Grant, the Eisner Award and most recently the Ignatz Award, to discuss
the movement, his work and current trends.
RED: What makes a good comic book?
Shiga: What would make any story or film a good piece of storytelling?
Interesting characters, a compelling story. More fundamentally,
how it speaks to you as a person, how it makes you feel. Comics
are different from both novels and films—the cartoonist is
the sole creator, whereas in film many people collaborate and even
in a novel, the author has to collaborate with the reader to create
images. But in a comic, there is an auteur theory. That’s
what makes comics unique.
RED: What is it about conventional comic books that are less relatable
than the underground? What makes them better than an episodic comic
Shiga: First of all, I’d say maybe a typical underground comic
might not be better than a typical superhero comic, but if the field
is overrun by one genre, then it cuts down on the number of people
that can enjoy that genre. For example, if 90 percent of the movies
that were ever made were dinosaur movies, that would be horrible
because maybe you’re the type of person that doesn’t
like dinosaur movies. If you do, that’s great for you, but
maybe the majority of people don’t like dinosaur movies.
Similarly, I think there is an audience for superhero comics. But
if you’re not a teenage boy who’s a closet case, you
might enjoy other types of stories. The medium of comics is the
only medium that is super-dominated by one genre. I’d say
diversity is an important goal to strive for in the medium.
I was in Japan two years ago and they had comics about everything.
I could go to a comic book store and they had comics about hotel
management, gay male-romance stories, archeology and mah-jongg.
It was just great to have all this diversity. Even though I like
comics about mathematicians trapped in phone booths, if 90 percent
of the comics written were about that, I wouldn’t be satisfied.
excerpt from independent comic artist Jason Shiga's FLEEP.
How do you come up with an idea for one of your comics?
Shiga: Well, first, I usually have some idea. It could be an interesting
image that I doodled. I might build a comic around that. It could
be a character or a story element. It’s different for every
comic book. But once I have the idea, I try to rough out a story
I imagine my process is a lot like writing a book. I’ll have
two or three good ideas and try to combine them in an interesting
way. Aside from that, I pencil it out, I go over it with brush and
then I photocopy it and that’s it.
I would like to stress that there is no correct method. I know some
people that go straight to inks that don’t even use pencil.
And I know some people that use five different stages of pencil.
I know people who write one page and then draw it and then write
the second page. Some people I know don’t even draw it at
all—they cut and paste vectors from Adobe Illustrator. You
can use your imagination.
if you were to learn how to draw comics the Marvel way, they would
tell you that there is a correct method. They would tell you that
you need to gather a team of artists. One person is going to write
the story, someone else is going to pencil it, another person is
going to ink it and another still is going to color it. It’s
basically like the Ford assembly line process of making comics.
There are some good stories that have come out of that process,
but it’s certainly not for me.
RED: Who are some of your favorite comic book artists?
Shiga: Well, I don’t want to come off like a snob. I’d
like to recommend some titles that people will actually have a chance
at finding. I’ve always enjoyed the comics of the Malaysian
comic artist Lat, whose autobiographical strips from the 1970s were
a great influence on me. [Laughs] Good luck finding some of those.
I loved Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud and Maus by Art Spiegleman.
They were the first comic books that I read. Those should be required
reading. And I have to say “Peanuts” by Charles Schulz.
I think that Charles Schulz is the greatest cartoonist that has
ever lived. You should add a list of titles to check out at the
end of your article and then your readers should go find them all
and read them.
RED: Good suggestion. I’ll do that. What are some of the defining
characteristics of your comic books?
Shiga: I would say most of them have some sort of mathematical element
to them. I studied math at university, so I try to incorporate it
into the stories or into the form of the comics when I get a chance.
RED: What are your frustrations about being an underground comic-book
Shiga: I’m frustrated that there isn’t a huge market
for them in the United States like there is in Japan, for example.
It wouldn’t be so frustrating if I actually believed that
people didn’t want to read alternative or underground comics,
except I know that people do. I’m sure that they would like
it if it was available to them. For example, I know in my heart
that there are thousands of people in the country who would have
enjoyed reading FLEEP, but those thousands of people are in places
that don’t have any cool underground comics in their neighborhood
comic book stores.
As it turns out, the distributor only ordered 500 of them, so that’s
I know some of the best underground comic-book artists have to work
at hospitals as file clerks because there isn’t a market for
their comics, so they toil their lives away and draw their comics
as a hobby when they should be doing that as their career.
Even though I find this frustrating, I believe that this will change
soon because with the advent of mini-comics and zines and alternative
distribution methods, the next generation of comic book readers
is becoming more aware of alternative types of comics.
Comics can be a valid medium of expression, just like any other
medium of expression. I’m very optimistic about the future
because people will want that. Supply follows demand.
RED: Do you have any advice for people who might want to start making
their own comic books?
Shiga: If any of the readers want to start making comics I would
encourage them to start with making mini-comics because they are
easy to make. You can go to any copy store. All you need is a pen,
some paper and about a dollar. You can create a comic in a day and
then donate it to the Salt Lake City Public Library. Other people
can read it. It’s great and everyone should do it.