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Bookhunter

Written and illustrated by Jason Shiga
Sparkplug Comics
144 pages, $15
ISBN: 978097427156

 

You don't threaten to burn stolen library books on Special Agent Bay's beat. Page from Bookhunter, ©2007 Jason Shiga.

 

I'll be damned if I can figure out why some major book publisher or other hasn't snapped Jason Shiga up yet. His work is as clever as a They Might Be Giants song and as entertaining as hell, and would seem like a sure thing with the right publisher and marketing department behind him. Sure, you can note that the book world's ignorance is Sparkplug publisher Dylan Williams' good fortune, but even so, few artists' obscurity is as mystifying as that surrounding Jason Shiga. Someone should be selling his books hand over fist to the general public. Why the hell aren't they doing so?

Like many readers, I first discovered his work through the amazing comic book Fleep, a fiendishly complex tale with a deceptively simple premise: An amnesiac awakens in a phone booth completely sealed in on all sides by chunks of concrete, and with only a few coins, a telephone, a phonebook written in an unknown language and a limited amount of oxygen available to him, he must figure out who he is, what he's doing there and how to get out. Fleep was fucking brilliant, and it led me to devour all the Shiga comics I could find, including Double Happiness (an examination of how cultures both unite and divide those within them) and Meanwhile (a choose-your-own-adventure book recast as a flowchart) -- and now Bookhunter, his most entertaining comic yet.

 

Special Agent Bay is on the case. Page from Bookhunter, ©2007 Jason Shiga.

 

Bookhunter is a hardboiled police procedural, starring an investigator from the California library police. Someone has stolen a rare 1838 English Bible from the Oakland Public Library despite meticulous security precautions, and Special Agent Bay must retrace the criminal's steps, solve the mystery and recover the book before it goes up for sale on the black market. What follows is a mixture of careful detective work and thrilling action sequences... starring, as I said, the library police.

As you've probably guessed from the last paragraph, Bookhunter entertains on two levels: On the one hand, it's a crime drama straight out of a 1970s cop show, and a damned good one at that. On the other hand, by transplanting the hard cops and clever criminals from shows like Mannix and Ironside to the world of studious bibiophiles, it also works as an absurdist parody of those very same cop shows. Shiga's tale never stops taking itself seriously, but every twenty pages or so it all but dares you to do so as well, with an aside or a sequence that might pass muster in the world of barrel-chested detectives and depraved criminals on shadowy city streets, but looks utterly ludicrous when the crime involves stolen library books.

 

Oh shit, it's the library police! Page from Bookhunter, ©2007 Jason Shiga.

 

It works because Jason Shiga is one of the best storytellers currently working in the comics medium. His bag of narrative tools is second to none, and he deploys his craft in comics the way Alfred Hitchcock made films, by carefully drafting his juxtapositional trickery in the service of adding flavor and weight to the story rather than wasting it in the panel-to-panel equivalent of showy guitar solos. Shiga's devotion to the tale being told thus allows him to sidestep the biggest failing of cartoon formalists as skilled as himself: the mistaking of means for ends. At no point does Bookhunter ever give you an opportunity to step outside the premise, despite its obvious wackiness. Instead, this book takes you for a ride as entertaining as it is engrossing, a trick that few cartoonists could pull off as well as Shiga.

Seriously, until someone from Random House or Doubleday finally gets wise, the limited distribution of Jason Shiga's books means that only the initiates can enjoy them. Don't get left out; join the secret club today and bask in the awesomeness that is Shiga. Read Bookhunter.

 

This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal sometime between 2006 and 2008.

 

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