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Empire State Blues: Jason Shiga

Love makes us do crazy things. For writer/artist Jason Shiga, it inspired a cross-country bus trip to meet up with the girl he’d lost his heart, a trip that inspired the hilariously funny and charming Empire State, now out. It’s a look at the down side of love, but it’s also heartwarming in its own way, a slight departure for the radically creative talent behind Meanwhile. Here’s what Shiga had to say about the book.

You mention in the afterword to Empire State that the book is based on a real Greyhound trip you took. How true to life is this story?
I'd say most of the situations were true, but I changed the details. For example, I really did sit between two ex convicts on the bus. In the book, it was for carrying a 12-inch blade. But in reality they were both accused of child molestation. A lot of the trip I had to leave out just because it didn't relate to the story. For example, I got stranded in Salt Lake City with no money and had to sleep behind a dumpster at the Mormon Convention Center. Then I met Chris Ware in Chicago, then I made a bunch of money at SPX and had to hide it all in my shoes, then I got back on the bus and accidentally dropped my bag on another convict's head.
Was this a tough book for you to write and draw, given how personal the story is?
It's probably the most difficult book I've worked on, both artistically and in terms of writing. It's very different from every project I've worked on previously. At a point, I just had to say I want to be honest about everything. I want to capture life in Oakland for everything that it is. I was born and raised here. Oakland is my home. It's like paradise to me. But sometimes it is soul-crushingly depressing. I wanted to capture all sides.
Has the real Sara seen the book? 
Sara is based on a few different people. I haven't sent any of them a copy yet. To be honest, I'm a bit nervous to hear what they will think or even if they'll recognize themselves in the character.
Now that the book has been out a bit, what has reaction to it been? Do your fans see it as a departure from your previous work?
I've been getting a lot of good reactions to the book. I was worried people wouldn't relate to the main character or might find him too pathetic. But people have been telling me they really identify with him.
I love the blue and red color patterns throughout the book. How did that come about?
That was a very happy accident. When Abrams told me they could afford to print in 2 colors, it immediately occurred to me that we could use colors to distinguish between the different timelines. I have to give most of the credit to John Pham, whom I see as the best two-color colorist in comics today.
Was this a difficult book to draw and stylize in terms of the artistic process you used to achieve the look you wanted?
I used an unusual method to create this book. I drew characters and the backgrounds separately and assembled them in Photoshop as if they were animation cells. It took a while to get used to, but it turned out to be an incredibly easy way to work. I feel I lose a little momentum when I switch between characters or subject matter. This way I was able to draw out the book very quickly.
Over the years and throughout your work, you’ve crafted a distinctive style. Who were your influences?
I've always liked Life in Hell and Peanuts as a kid. Nowadays, I like long, novelistic stories and manga seems to be one of the few places where authors are taking that challenge seriously. My current favorite cartoonist is Kazuo Umezu.
What are you working on next?
I'm currently working on a 700-page sci-fi epic. The first half takes place now and the second half takes place 250 years in the future.