The fourth and final volume of Jason Shiga’s “Demon” came out at the beginning of this November from First Second, after a 2017 that saw “Demon” garner an Eisner win for “Best Graphic Album-Reprint,” and its creator enjoy an artist residency in France at Angoulême.
Earlier this year, Shiga talked about “Demon” with Multiversity’s Leo Johnson when First Second released volume 2 in February. That interview is a great introduction to Shiga’s totally bonkers story about an actuary who can’t quite seem to take his own life… so instead schemes to outwit the law, death, and nihilistic hedonism itself. If somehow you haven’t checked it out yet, “Demon” is offbeat, hilarious, gloriously crude, and surprisingly touching. With volume 4 completing the extended thrill-ride, it’s a great time to check in with Jason Shiga about the story’s drama, themes, mathematics, and wild, massive ending.
This interview is edited for length and readability from a full conversation with Jason Shiga that will air on the Comics Syllabus podcast on November 21st. Jason Shiga met up with me on the UC Berkeley campus, where he studied Mathematics as an undergraduate before beginning his cartooning career.
Bolded SPOILER ALERT warnings will signal when the conversation veers deeper and deeper into spoiler territory for the volumes of “Demon.” Be forewarned.
Also, “Demon” is NOT a BOOK FOR KIDS! Content warning for the subjects we touch on in this interview that are not-for-kids.
Jason Shiga: …It’s funny, it’s actually here on [the Berkeley] campus that I was first introduced to comics. I was taking a DeCal class, and I remember it was called, “Comics as Literature,” and I got to read a bunch of great books. I remember “Understanding Comics” and “Maus” were the first two comics I read.
So you hadn’t read comics before that class?
JS: Yeah, I completely skipped over the superhero phase that a lot of cartoonists my age have. But I read a bunch of great comics and for a final project we made a comic, and that was my first comic. and I got hooked after that. I was super into animation, when I was a teenager. My dream was to be a Disney animator.
Here’s a funny tidbit: the cartoonist Adrian Tomine was in that same class! He might have been a couple years older than me. But I remember thinking, if this nerd can do it, why can’t I do it? [Laughter.]
After I finished the final project for that class, the local comic book store, Comic Relief, had a bunch of mini-comics on the shelf. So I was like, oh, maybe I can make a photocopy of this and they can put it on their shelf. So I asked them about it, and I didn’t know anything about it, just xeroxed pages, stapled them together in the upper left hand corner. I was like, “here you go.” [Laughter]. They were like, try again. So I went back and made it look like an actual book. I didn’t have a cover; I didn’t know where to get cardstock. I took some manila folders, and very carefully cut it into the shape of an 11×17 piece of paper, and the fourth one jammed the copier. So I brought the three that I made to Comic Relief, and they bought all three!
Wow! Your first sale! Did you know you’d be an Eisner winner at that time? [Laughter.]
JS: But yeah, no, I was hooked pretty much immediately. After this manila folder comic I’ve been telling you about, I made my first interactive comic, and I was always super interested in math and puzzles, so I wanted to incorporate all that into this orgami-shaped comic that folded in different directions, and so that was my second comic.
And so, you got a Xeric Grant in the mid-2000s, and then somewhere in here you were part of a gathering with Derek Kirk Kim and Gene Yang, a group that would get together to talk art, goof around.
JS: Yeah, Derek Kirk Kim hosted an art night at his house, so I’d go over there every Tuesday and draw with him and Gene Yang and Lark Pien and Jesse Hamm. And it’s kind of cool, a kind of who’s who of cartoonists today.Continued below
But you were bringing something pretty different, right? Were you at that time bringing in the puzzle comics and the choose-your-own-adventure things?
JS: Yeah yeah, I was working on “Meanwhile” back then. But looking back– I’m going to sound falsely modest– but looking back on my comics from that time, it’s shocking that they’d even want to be friends with me. [Laughter] They were just so crude and poorly drawn. I still kind of think I’m kind of the worst artist of the group. But yeah, there weren’t any comic schools back in those days. That was my comics school. Jesse Hamm, especially, was kind of a natural, getting drawing tips from him.
Yeah, still to this day he’s giving tips on his Patreon and Twitter.
JS: Yeah, he has an amazing Twitter account where he gives really good drawing advice.
Yes! And then jumping way ahead, you just spent a year with other artists in France?
JS: I just returned from a yearlong residency in Angoulême. They invited me and my wife and my kid to live in this magical comics town called Angoulême, which is considered the comics capital of France. They set me up with a studio and apartment. The studio was called the “Maison des Auteurs,” and there were about thirty cartoonists there. And yeah, it was fantastic. They were about half French, half international. Got to meet cartoonists from all over the world: Japan, South Korea, Mexico, India…
That’s amazing. So now, we’ve just seen the fourth volume of “Demon” released from First Second. You’ve been sitting with this story for a good four, five years.
Yeah, I started the project seven years ago, before my kid was even born. Initially, before it was picked up by First Second, it was a mini-comic and a webcomic. I was kind of late to the game on webcomics. I’ve been kind of a skeptic, just a poo-poo-er of webcomics for the longest time. Now I’ve totally drunk the Koolaid. For me, the mini-comics were what I envisioned as the format of “Demon.” But kind of as an afterthought, I started throwing pages online on my website, and it found a huge audience. It was incredible. And I must’ve gotten who-even-knows how many more times the number of readers I got online as I got distributing these mini-comics in the mail. I guess any teenager can tell you that. (Laughter.)
I thought “Demon” worked really well as a serialized story. Great for webcomics, on the edge of your seat. You also made great cliffhangers in these mini’s, and it also works really well in the First Second four volumes. You leave readers hungry for what’s next.
Yeah, it very nicely breaks up into four volumes. There’s these really nice natural stopping points.
[SPOILER ALERT #1: Details from the v1 and v2 of “Demon” (First Second) are spoiled in the proceeding portion of the conversation.]
So this is the cover of the first issue of the mini-comic, and it has the slogan, “He has no limits,” which is very much the setup of the story, right?
JS: Yeah. Well, I guess it’s kind of a pun.
Right! Say more about that…
JS: Because you don’t know if the ‘he” in the sentence is referring to the main character or to me!
[Laughs] How far will Jason Shiga go?
JS: How completely depraved and disgusting will this comic book get is the question you wonder as you turn every page.
So the very first issue, there’s no illusions from the beginning. There’s like, dark suicides from the beginning, repeatedly, and soon we encounter the shank made out of semen. (Spoiler alert). So that’s into the first volume.
I’ll tell you about the shank made out of semen. You probably think I’m some sort of sick, perverted, demented individual. But I can tell you, the semen shank was based on the real-life news story. It was ripped from the headlines. There was a prisoner in Japan who made a semen knife. He started from a page in the phone book that he ripped off surreptitiously.Continued below
…He wanted to kill someone else. So I guess he lacquered it with his own semen. Over the course of several months. Until he had hardened it into a shank. And he killed some other inmate with it.
Wow. Real life!
JS: Ripped from the headlines.
A lot of your book is like puzzles, right? Like, you’re putting Jimmy in a corner, trying to corner this character, who seems to have no limits. How do you puzzle-solve your way out of that? So it does seem very… this is a doubly appropriate word– organic that he would wind up resorting to the resources he has available when he’s a hairy, ugly naked prisoner.
JS: No, yeah, I’m super into McGyver, I love the idea of having limited resources, but this incredible intelligence, and then basically using what you have to escape from some kind of hairy situation.
I’m curious too if you can talk a little about this image. It’s kind of, its the beginning of two or end of one, and it’s the culmination of this puzzle of, what exactly is going on in that first issue.
JS: Yeah, so this, you can probably tell I read a lot of “Family Circus” as a kid. But the idea is, there is a mystery through the first half of the first volume that the main character is trying to solve. And I wanted the solution to that mystery to be as visual as possible. So um I think at its core, comics is a visual medium, and I wanted to represent the solution in this one image.
This is like a very dark Jeffy. So you imagined this map before telling this narrative?
JS: Yeah. So a lot of my stories, I kind of write them backwards. And it looks like I’m smarter than I am, if I write backwards, because when they get to the premise, which was my first part that I came up with, it’s like, oh, Jason Shiga’s so clever, how he can tie in all these disparate elements into one thing? But no. I didn’t tie it in. I just went backwards.
You went backwards. But that’s what all great mystery writers or puzzle makers…
JS: Yeah. Agatha Christie always wrote backwards.
And so, when you planned this page, this is in your head. Did you draw this before actually drawing that first issue? Or did you actually go sequentially, but you just kind of knew this is where were you were headed.
JS: When I was drawing I went sequentially, but I always had something like this in the back of my head.
That leads me to think, did you have the whole story mapped out in your mind before beginning, up to including how it ultimately culminates.
Yeah, I had the whole thing planned out before I drew my first panel. It was seven hundred and twenty pages. But I make it sound easier than it actually was. I mean, I had a lot of missteps and giant story arcs that got cut, blind alleys. But better to work all that stuff out in the writing and thumb-nailing, than as you’re inking issue number three or whatever.
[SPOILER ALERT #2: Hereafter, spoilers for v4, the end of “Demon.” If you haven’t read it yet, grab it from First Second and finish it before proceeding to this part of the chat.]
I’d love to get to the contents of v3 and v4. In the image below, we get the many duplicates of Sweet Pea and Jimmy. As much as the story is a series of logical puzzles, there has to be a motivating heart. And to me, Sweet Pea represents that. Was there a side of this story, now that we’ve read it completed, that has a kind of sentimental philosophy about what makes all this struggle meaningful, what makes life meaningful?
JS: Yes! That’s the theme of the whole book! Which is just… what is it that makes life worth living? What it is that gives meaning to life? What’s the point of existence? You know, is it… just to have sex with camels?Continued below
Wait, so you aren’t endorsing that? That wasn’t the purpose of that camel sex scene? [Laughter]
JS: But yeah, it’s the old proverb about the man who wept because he had no lands left to conquer. Or the more modern incarnation of Richard Gere having sex with a gerbil because after having sex with Cindy Crawford there’s nowhere else to go. [Laughter]
But especially as I approach middle age, you know, I just think of all the existence, all the days I have left in my life, all these hours and years I have to go, before I’m finally.. free… [Laughter] Just makes you wonder what the purpose of life is. I like to think I offer some, some answer, or some solution to life’s ultimate puzzles. [Laughter]
Find it in Demon! Volume 4!
Available now from First Second!
But I think you can sympathize with Jimmy to some degree as just a puzzle solver. He’s so driven to get his comeuppance, or figure out his way out… that’s what makes him intriguing or relatable as a character. Do you think Jimmy is someone we’re supposed to root for, sympathize with?
Yeah. Well, only during the camel sex thing. That’s the point where readers might see some of themselves, actually. [Laughter]
But yeah, I want the reader to be rooting for Jimmy by the end of the book. And, you know, he has his own moral arc throughout the story. So I hope, by the end, readers will have come around on him. He does something of a face turn.
Touching on this image (above). First of all, the more the story builds towards its climax, the more that these little things that are fun at the beginning just become, like, again, like explosively awesome, wild, you know? What are you thinking about as you’re drawing a page like this? Do you plan this? Did you thumbnail all the individual fights going on here?
Yeah, I just wanted to throw in as much carnage and bloodshed into one image as I could. Killoffer was an obvious influence. Maybe people see that in this image. But yeah, I just wanted to take things to its logical conclusion. But, you know, also try to satisfy my readers’ bloodlust. [Laughter.]
Maybe most fun for those readers is the culminating, complex strategic tower attack that’s at the climax of the story. How did you map all this out?
JS: So for my honeymoon, my wife and I went to Japan, and we took a trip to Osaka Castle. And when I was there, I was like, “oh, this would be a great place to set the climax of ‘Demon’!” There was a great print of a artists’ interpretation of the siege on Osaka Castle. I think this is obviously very influenced by that Japanese print with the isometric perspective. And yeah, even the subject matter, it’s literally a siege on Osaka Castle.
And there’s some back-of-envelope math you had to do, you know? Calculations of “how many” and “how” and all that goes on in this scene?
JS: Right, how many dead bodies would you have to pile up to climb over the inner wall of Osaka Castle.
It’s great fun. Four volumes of “Demon,” if folks have read this far, have been an entire crazy journey. You really had to pay that off, and you did.
JS: Yeah, I don’t know. I like to think I delivered the goods, and that it all comes to an exciting conclusion. I guess that’s for readers to decide.
Well, the Ignatz, the Eisner, and the many readers who’ve enjoyed this series have already chimed in. So thanks for “Demon,” thanks for this journey.