Review: Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not) by Jason Shiga

Geek Culture

What's so great about New YorkWhat's so great about New York

Empire State by Jason ShigaEmpire State by Jason ShigaJimmy is a geek from Oakland. He works at the library, fiddles around with his website and has never been out of California. His best friend, Sara, can’t stand California and is moving to New York to break into the world of publishing (well, an internship, anyway). But it’s not until after Sara moves away that Jimmy realizes she’s more than just a friend, and he makes a cross-country trip on a Greyhound bus in order to win her heart.

That’s sort of the elevator pitch for Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not), a new comic by Jason Shiga coming out next week. But, being a book from Jason Shiga (the brilliant-and-twisted mind behind Meanwhile), this is no simple Hollywood love story. The title hints at that, but Empire State is a lot of things rolled up into one great package. It’s part coming-of-age story, part love story, part comedy, part geeky reflections on the world. What it isn’t is your traditional rom-com filled with hilarious hi-jinks that ends up with the guy and the girl overcoming outlandish obstacles to discover that they’ve been in love all this time after all.

I'm an adult.I'm an adult.Jimmy is an adult who doesn’t really have any idea how to be a grown-up. His concept of New York is a mishmash of scenes from Sleepless in Seattle and rumors of how an interview at Google is conducted. (Which, by the way, is a hilarious scene when he’s trying to describe it to his mom.) His friendship with Sara moves him along a little bit, but he’s sort of like somebody who hasn’t really lived life and has only approximated it by reading books and watching TV. When she moves to Brooklyn, despite his objections, he feels unmoored.

Eventually, he gathers up the courage to send her a long letter and boards a bus to New York, hoping to meet her on a particular date on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, just like in Sleepless in Seattle. Except that there are two observation decks. No, the movie doesn’t specify which.


What we end up with, instead of that typical romantic comedy plot, is a collection of moments — some happy, some painful — that Shiga captures with his bubbly-eyed people and a keen ear for dialogue. His characters talk over each other and jump from subject to subject and sometimes have nothing much to say at all, just like real people. But they also have some hilarious (and extremely geeky) conversations, like the one that starts with science fiction and ends with a Fermi estimation about … well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself. The drawings are stylized and look a lot like those from Meanwhile, but Shiga manages to convey a lot with few lines. Just check out the characters in the few images here and you can see that although their facial features are very simple, there are very different emotions that come across.

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Another interesting thing in Empire State is the way that Shiga uses color. The book is entirely colored in reds and blues, and as you read you realize that the sections that the colors represent different times in Jimmy’s life. The book switches between all-blue and all-red, with just a few scenes that have both colors. Shiga gives some hints so that you can piece together the chronology, but it’s not immediately obvious when you start reading. The colors also tie into the mood of each section, which is a nice but subtle way to affect the reader.

I really enjoyed Empire State. It doesn’t have the jaw-dropping experimentation with the comics medium that Meanwhile had, but it still manages to be a very geeky book. I like the fact that it doesn’t feel like there are extraneous references crammed in just to be clever. Instead, it feels natural, as if Jimmy is a real geek with particular interests and this is what his life would be like. I also think the book captures that feeling of growing up and taking on responsibilities — that time when you start to understand that you are an adult whether you’re ready or not. There’s one scene in particular that really hit me and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry; without spoiling too much, I’ll just say that it has to do with Jimmy’s realization that maybe he better keep his day job.

I should note that the book is probably about a PG-13 level: a few swear words here and there and conversations about making out but nothing really explicit.

Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not) is funny, sweet, geeky and affecting, and definitely worth a read. It will be available next week — preorder your copy from Abrams or Amazon — and retails for $17.95.

All images provided by Abrams ComicArts and used with permission. Disclosure: Abrams provided an advance copy for review purposes.

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