Jason Shiga is one of the most interesting stylists in comics. His artwork looks like absolutely nobody else’s. Shiga’s stooped-back characters are drawn as kind of ramshackle collections of geometric shapes on the page–a set of rather neurotic young people who seem lost in their place in the universe. It’s a great symbolic representation of his characters’ places in their respective lives.
The protagonist in this book, Jimmy, a librarian from Oakland, California, feels trapped in the drabness and lack of action that he feels exists in his life. He is trapped by his inaction, stuck inside his over-analytical skin, and emotionally unable to commit to his love for his best friend, Sara.
When Sara abruptly decided to move to New York, Jimmy almost appears ready to burst at the seams. His back stoops more, his buggy eyes bug out even further, and he appears thoroughly lost in a geometric world that doesn’t match his inner being. Naturally the geographical divide between Jimmy and Sara becomes too much for our protagonist to bear, which triggers a whole set of unexpected and interesting actions.
It’s surprising how much life Shiga brings to his odd characters, and that liveliness is a wonderful illustration of the nearly infinite palette available to comics artists. Shiga’s characters look so odd–similar to, but stranger than, characters on The Simpsons–that it becomes easy to feel distance from them when you first start to read this book. However, it’s a remarkable and powerful tribute to Shiga as an artist how the reader can’t help but feel sympathy for Jimmy and his quixotic pursuits.
By presenting his character in odd geometric shapes rather than a specific style, Shiga makes Jimmy a person whom all readers can relate to. He could represent any of us, with our emotions right below the surface and full of confusion. Jimmy represents a certain time in many young people’s lives–times when we’re unfocused and uncertain; times when we’re ready to make strange, pointless leaps of faith as a way to overcome the confusion we feel each day.
Jimmy goes through a physical and emotional journey throughout Empire State; in the end, he finally seems ready to face his life. As he says towards the conclusion of this graphic novel, “I’ve got the rest of my life to get through.” Reading those words, we realize that Jimmy has finally decided to embrace his adult life. He’s grown and changed in this book, and I really enjoyed watching his physical and emotional journeys.