Jason Shiga's BOOKHUNTER in the library last year, and really enjoyed it, so it was good to see that his newest book got the deluxe release treatment from a major publisher.
The 80-page full colour hardcover MEANWHILE is the book in question, and its conceptual hook is summarized by the blurb on the cover "Pick Any Path. 3,856 Story Possibilities." Yes, it's a "Choose Your Own Adventure" style story, but in a unique comic book form, with the panel progressions being led through the page by various "tubes" that split off depending on your choices, and the transitions through pages being accomplished by a clever series of tabs on the edge of the book. Despite the complexity of the work, the system is very intuitive for the most part, reading quite naturally after a few pages (in fact, after my first go-round with the book for about a half-hour, I picked up another comic and it took me a few pages before I could stop looking for tubes to lead me to the next panel or page. I thought for a second that the damn thing had broken by brain).
To read my digression about CYOA books, continue below. To skip it, click here
Now, to backtrack a bit on a personal level to the "Choose Your Own Adventure" thing, I see from the prestigious internets that said series of books debuted in 1979. I'd have been about nine at the time, and I recall being quite taken with the concept early on, reading several of the books. The concept really just captivated me for a while, probably less to do with the quality of the writing than the structure. I recall that after a few books I wound up trying to deconstruct one of them, creating a primitive flow-chart tracing all the page references to see exactly how it worked, where the loops were and if I was managing to read every combination. Perhaps not surprisingly, after I had done that the books had lost all their mystique, and I quickly moved on to something else. Encyclopedia Brown or The Great Brain or Danny Dunn or something, I don't recall exactly what order those things come into my life.
Shiga manages his odd format very well, managing to play around with it in some ways that manage to surprise in delightful ways. Of course, given my history with this type of story (aren't you glad you didn't choose to skip that part?), after I'd read about a dozen of those 3,856 stories I was taken with an urge to do some deconstruction, which proved quite a bit harder than with the "go to page 75" format of the old books. The format makes it inevitable that as you read you'll see something intriguing in a panel that's from a path not taken, and while it would be possible to get there by starting over and making different choices, sometimes it's even more intriguing to discover how to trace the tubes backwards in time. And sometimes that might lead you to find out that there are things hidden in plain sight.
As for the story, young Jimmy has to choose chocolate or vanilla ice cream, and depending on which he prefers might end up encountering a scientist with three different devices: a time machine, a Killitron 2000 and a mind-reading SQUID. Hi-jinks ensue. Sometimes. Other times it all ends in tears.
The one thing that remains consistent is that it's a great little book (well, I did find one combination that had some structural flaws, but the other 3,855 seem solid). If you like Scott McCloud (in particular this or this) you should definitely give it a try, and you can see some other interactive comics by Shiga over here (some adapted for the web, some just descriptions of the low-run self-published print versions or abandoned experiments. Check out the photo of the author with a 5-foot-square print version of MEANWHILE from 2004).
Oh, some unfinished business down below. Ignore it...
A fatal error. You die. Try again.