Thursday, April 6, 2017

:01: Jason Shiga's Demon, Volumes 1 & 2

I say it with every review I do of a Jason Shiga comic, because it bears repeating: Shiga's background is in pure mathematics, and so his comics often read as a series of locked-room puzzles, coding problems or other sorts of math-related conflicts, all punctuated by a jet-black sense of humor. Most of his other comics have had at least one twist involving a shocking act of violence, or multiple acts of violence over the span of the book, but Demon is sort of Shiga's version of Stephen King's It: a book that has every violent and disgusting action setpiece Shiga could conceive, each more over-the-top than the next, but each working in a rigidly-applied set of principles based on the book's initial premise. It's like It in the sense that King considered that to be a novel that had every scary thing he could think of in there.

The premise is this: the long-suffering Jimmy Yee (a protagonist of the same name appears in many other Shiga books, and it's not too much of a stretch to paint him as a simple Shiga stand-in) tries to kill himself by hanging himself in a hotel room for unknown reasons. Next thing he knows, he wakes up in what seems to be the same hotel room, alive (to his great consternation). In the beginning, Shiga really takes his time in establishing the presence in as brutal a fashion as possible. We see Jimmy try to shoot himself, bleed out in a tub and jump in front of a truck, but he keeps coming back. Volume one, which features the first five chapters of the story, features Jimmy trying to work out what happen and introduces Hunter, the man who will become his nemesis. What Jimmy realized is that he was a "demon": when the body he was in died, he simply possessed the nearest person, until they were killed, and so on. That sets Jimmy down a gruesome, amoral path where he experiments with the limits of his abilities by ruthlessly killing random people.

At the end of volume one, he is pursued by government operative Hunter in order to offer Jimmy a job as an agent, which Jimmy has no interest in. Hunter insists that Jimmy's going to work for him whether he likes it or not, leading to the first of many incredibly strange cat-and-mouse games between the two. This one involves a bleeding-out Jimmy being put in a jail cell next to a death-row inmate. Hunter thinks he has Jimmy pinned, since he took away anything that the inmate could kill himself with...except a square of toilet paper. This is the most hilarious and disgusting segment in the book, as Jimmy tries to reason his way out of the situation until he finally determines that he could turn the the toilet paper into a shiv if he dipped it in enough semen enough times. The situation inspires the immortal line, "Looks like he slit his throat with a cum knife, sir."

The second volume features chapters six through twelve, and adds a needed complication to the plot (otherwise Jimmy would have just disappeared at the end of volume one). That complication was the existence of his daughter, who not only is alive (Jimmy thought she was dead), she's a demon like her dad. That leads to a book-long series of conflicts between Jimmy and Hunter. When it looks like Hunter finally has the upper hand, Jimmy uses calculus and a photographic memory to turn the tables, seemingly once and for all. The second volume ends almost a hundred years after the story began, but this would in fact just reset the chess board between Jimmy and Hunter.

This is one of the rare instances where I've decided to skimp on story details, because in true blockbuster fashion, it's the details in how Jimmy and Hunter engage in their battle of wits that makes the story so much fun. This is a book about strategy and lateral thinking as much as it is about anything else. It's about trying to limit your opponent's moves as much as possible and forcing them into a single move, and then deviating from the expected with a devastating or surprising move that catches your opponent off guard. It's about turning your opponent's strengths into weaknesses. It's about finding out what your opponent holds dear and exploiting it. It's about ethics, and in particular, the circumstances under which murder is acceptable from a utilitarian point of view. Hunter wants to use Jimmy to wipe out all of America's enemies and create utopia. Jimmy isn't interested in being anyone's slave and kills out of what he views is necessity. The reality is that both of them are nihilists of the worst kind, unable to appreciate the value of a single life because of their willingness to discard it for their needs. They are the same person who are simply in opposition to each other, with Jimmy's weakness being his daughter and Hunter's weakness a simple-minded utopianism.

Shiga has refined his line in a manner similar to John Porcellino and Matt Feazell in that it's deceptively simple and beautiful. There's an effortlessness on each page where his drawings are lively but in total service to the story; his lumpy character design that often features odd facial characteristics is almost 8-bit video game blank at times, but his understanding of things like gesture and body language give the characters a sense of presence. In terms of storytelling, Shiga has few peers. His panel design is all part of his method in slowly unfolding an action set piece, switching from a tight grid to a page full of jumbled panels as things seem to spin out of control, and then back to order. Shiga flips the page around for aerial views--not to make the scene more spectacular, but as an illustration to fully understand the stakes involved. There's an almost mechanistic quality in reading these books, in the sense that once you start, it's much harder to stop reading than it is to continue. That's a testament to Shiga's total control over the page, including the use of rose and pink spot color and the extensive but unobtrusive use of grey scale. The design of the books is on the boring side, especially compared to the original minicomics. I also though splitting it into four volumes was questionable, but it actually proved to read relatively well in that format. Hopefully, there will be some kind of deluxe format available in the future.

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