Meanwhile is Big but not Boundless
by Mark Sample — George Mason University
February 22, 2012 – 00:00
Crammed with nearly 4,000 possible storylines, Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile (2010) is a cartoonish yet algorithmically complex graphic novel, pushing the limits of what comics can do with the printed form of the book. A Choose Your Own Adventure book on steriods, Meanwhile features an elaborate series of maze-like paths and tabbed pages to help the reader guide the protagonist Jimmy through his adventures with time travel and doomsday devices. In 2011, the legendary interactive fiction author Andrew Plotkin released (with Shiga’s help) a digital version of Meanwhile. It’s available as an iOS app for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. The Meanwhile app includes the entire contents of Shiga’s graphic novel, but instead of tabbed pages, the reader uses the touchscreen interface to navigate through Jimmy’s story.
As a kind of extreme, logical conclusion to the evolution of the codex, Meanwhile presents an edge case for digital comics. Reading the two texts side-by-side raises a number of questions. If Meanwhile can be successfully adapted to the digital form, why not other comics? If the Meanwhile app can make extensive use of the affordances of digital technology—such as what Scott McCloud calls the infinite canvas—why not other comics? And what aspects of the book does a digital rendering of Meanwhile reveal and obscure (in much the same way the two-dimensional Mercator Projection reveals and obscures—not to mention distorts—aspects of the globe)?
Finally, if we step back from the specific case of Meanwhile, what lessons can other creators and scholars of both print and digital comics learn? There are questions of interactivity and ergodic play, of space and pacing, of distance and nearness, of zooming and the z-axis, of cognitive ease and legibility, and many more. And as we pursue these questions, how can we keep in check our nostalgia and biases, approaching digital comics with open yet critical eye?