By Jenny Walty
An enthralling graphic novel, Double Happiness was published with a prestigious Xeric Foundation grant for self-published comic artists, and hit the shelves in the summer of 2000. Through realistic details, emotionally charged landscapes, and his iconic, Simpsonesque style, Jason Shiga tells the story of Tom, a Chinese American who discovers new possibilities of self and makes a choice about where he belongs.
Jason Shiga at work. Photo by Yihai Lai.
The book opens with Tom sitting alone at a bus stop, having just arrived in San Francisco. His cousin Wee Boon, or Jackson as his friends call him arrives to meet him and invites Tom to stay with him. They shake hands (a close up frame) and a connection is made. Jackson becomes Toms guide to Chinatown and his first experiences in a Chinese community. Although he feels out of place, he finds reasons to want to belong, namely a crush on Jacksons friend Ji Lian. As he learns the lingo (a combination of Hokkien, Cantonese and Malay) and customs (pager-decoding) of his new surroundings, he becomes part of a network of connections and responsibilities without realizing how far they go, until its too late.
Unraveling connections are seen in many of Shigas narratives, especially in the comic strip Bus Stop, published weekly in the San Francisco Examiner. The narrators quest to find his mother connects him to the other characters in quirky and surreal ways. In one weeks strip, the narrator realizes he is listening to the same Wu Tang Clan album on his walkman as the girl sitting next to him at the bus stop. When she turns her tape over, he presses play on his own copy at the same time and they bob their heads together until their walkmans slowly fall out of synch. Reality unravels the connection.
In Double Happiness, the reality that unravels the connection between Tom and Jackson is the latters mafia ties in Chinatown. Before Tom learns the truth about Jacksons occupation, the free meals and rent-free apartment that his cousin enjoys seem like acts of kindness, reinforcing a sense of fraternity he wanted to be part of. The Chinese character for double happiness, which Tom sees everywhere, seems innocent until wearing it as a pendant gets him beaten up when he wanders into the neighborhood of a rival gang. When everything finally connects, he is forced to choose. Offered the opportunity to belong, he has to refuse because of the responsibilities and consequences it brings.
Jason Shiga can solve a Rubiks Cube puzzle in just a few minutes. Photo by Yihai Lai.
AsianWeek: Why did you decide to apply for the Xeric for Double Happiness, as opposed to one of your choose your own adventure comics?
Jason Shiga: Right now, Im trying to alternate my projects by doing one narrative comic, and then doing one Choose-Your-Own-Adventure type comic. Also, Im trying to be more ambitious with each increasing project. So the narrative comics are getting longer. And the CYOA comics are getting more outlandish. The CYOA books require so much individual care and time, its almost impossible to reproduce them on a large scale. Each individual copy of Meanwhile, for example, takes about 20 minutes to construct. This means that in order to produce 21 copies, it would take seven continuous hours of labor!
AW: You printed 2,500 copies of Double Happiness. What did you learn through the process of publishing on a larger scale?
JS: I didnt like it. Its difficult getting my comic to the printer at just the right time, so that after the books are printed (it takes about 2-6 weeks to print depending on the time of year) they can get it to the distributors at the precise moment that my orders for the book come in. Even though it ought to be the number of orders I get that determines the print run. It was like working out a four dimensional game theory matrix. I learned that I want to get a publisher.
AW: Youve said Double Happiness is your most autobiographical work; are there scenes or characters taken from your life?
JS: I think its difficult for a lot of Asian American kids growing up because they feel like they dont really belong in either world. They always feel different and left out of both the Asian community and the American community. Part of my reason for making Double Happiness was to let these kids know that they arent alone. They should be proud to have two cultures. I know this is true because Im one of those kids! A lot of my own feelings and experiences were put into the main character, Tom. For example, when Tom goes to have tea, he feels left out when all his friends start talking in Chinese and he cant understand. Well, thats what happened to me, and thats how I felt.
AW: What was it like where you grew up?
JS: I grew up in Oakland in the same house you came to visit me at last weekend. It was a nice neighborhood to grow up in. There were a bunch of kids on the block to play with, and wed get into all sorts of adventures because theres a creek just two blocks away. Also, at the time, MB Mall was thriving. But, actually, some of my fondest memories were spent in my room making things out of cardboard and gaffers tape.
AW: What does your mom think of you writing comic books?
JS: My mom is very proud of me.
AW: What was it like in Singapore?
JS: I spent a semester in Singapore studying mathematics. I had heard that Singapore ranked number one in mathematics worldwide. But it turned out that the statistic applied to ten-year-olds. By grade seven, those Singaporeans are all washed out. Anyhow, its a very hot country. I was sweating continuously for the first month I was there.
AW: You said Lat was a big influence for Double Happiness. What about Lats style do you most admire?
JS: It turns out that the most popular cartoonist in Singapore is named Lat. He is very much a celebrity, perhaps equivalent to Charlie Brown in the States. Even though his comics have a Malaysian flavor, the underlying themes are universal. Themes like unrequited love or growing up or having your best friend move away. The art is so detailed, and he captures the funny little things that people do in every day life. When I read his books, it just takes me away to another world. My favorite comics by him are the Kampung Boy, Town Boy, the Mat Som trilogy.
AW: Lat is a fairly political cartoonist. What do you think about political commentary in comic books?
JS: I think, as with most things, it depends on the person making the comic. Barefoot Gen is a very powerful commentary on the need for humanity in times of war. On the other hand, whats up with Doonsberry?
AW: Some reviewers of Double Happiness didnt appreciate the ending. Do you feel that the violence at the end is an integral part of the plot?
JS: I wanted Double Happiness to have a dramatic ending, but perhaps I went a little too far. I think a lot of people felt the ending to be morally confusing. On the other hand, I think that when violence is portrayed accurately, it should be morally confusing. In most comic books and movies violence is used to solve problems. But thats not a responsible portrayal.
AW: Is violence part of your comic style?
JS: Violence is part of my comic style, but mostly for humorous purposes.
AW: Why do you claim suicide in the back of Double Happiness?
JS: It was a marketing ploy. I thought that if I were dead, sales of my book would skyrocket. Look what it did for Rent or Il Postino, for example. Anyways, I made up a little story about how the author of Double Happiness died and included it with the book. Unfortunately, the plan backfired. Readers who thought I was dead made their checks out to Shigabooks instead of Jason Shiga when ordering books. I had a difficult time cashing these checks.
AW: Is Tom the same character as the narrator of Bus Stop?
JS: No. The reason they look similar is because theyre basically the same character design, even though they are different characters. I like to think of my character designs like movie stars. This way, in different books the same actor gets to play a different role. Its like how Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan play different characters in different movies, even though they are the same actors. This star system was most notably utilized by the Japanese cartoonist Osamu Tezuka.
Also, I was too lazy to come up with a new character design.
Check out www.shigabooks.com for more exciting comics by Shiga. Asianweeks favorites include The Last Supper and Doorknob Bob. For mail order, send requests with check or cash to Jason Shiga, 680 Santa Ray Ave., Oakland CA 94610. Make your checks out to Jason Shiga (not Shigabooks).