Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not)

I’ve always adored Jason Shiga‘s puzzle comics, most recently Meanwhile…, but I wasn’t as big a fan of his more straightforward story comics (Double Happiness and Bookhunter). Until now. Empire State manages to take a genre I found annoying and played out — the young man finding himself through failed romance — and make it freshly successful.

Jimmy and Sara were best friends (and fellow misanthropes) in Oakland, but Sara’s moved to New York for a publishing internship. Jimmy decides he wants to be more than friends, so to make the big romantic gesture, he takes a bus cross-country, only to find that her life has moved on.

There’s a lot the reader brings to this material. Is Jimmy a wonderful dreamer, or a shy kid clinging to what he knows because he’s scared of the real world, or someone who’ll easily lie to a loved one to make a scheme work? Is Sara a nice girl who’s pursuing her own dreams, or a manipulative user who’s trading up, or someone seeking change externally instead of dealing with herself, or just someone who’s outgrown him? Their frequent conversations tell us their attitudes, but not who they really are.

Shiga’s art style takes a little getting used to, with its doughy, blobby characters, but they’re more accomplished than ever, and the backgrounds impressive in establishing the sense of distinct place necessary for this bi-coastal story. He’s aided by color-coding (colors by John Pham) — the past is red, the present blue. The only pages that combine both are an odd interstitial lesson on how to cover a library book in Mylar and a later encounter I’m still puzzling over. Shiga’s layouts are creatively unusual as well. He rarely uses the full page; instead, panels are sized as needed for moment and mood, and they seem to crawl across the page, with the white space as punctuation.

After finishing the book, I’m left with the feeling of Jimmy as a kid, even though he’s 25, dreaming of an adult life as though it was something that would be granted to him or something he would suddenly have after crossing an unknown threshold. He reminded me of a lot of people I’ve known, wishing for that magic item — a house, a spouse, a pet, whatever — that would let them know for sure that they were grown up. They don’t realize that it’s not a point, it’s a process, and they’ll learn, often painfully, that life is different from the movies. Jimmy’s story crystallized that struggle for me.

Plus, it’s a really nice Valentine to New York as a place, grungy and nasty as it is, where lives change. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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