By Rhys Tarling
Empire State A Love Story (Or Not) is a low-key graphic novel that covers a few themes.
It’s about leaving the safety of home behind to take a shot at happiness. It’s about reaching for a specific idea of happiness that is based on works of idealised fiction – ideas of happiness that were nurtured in the non-threatening environment of a sleepy hometown (say, Oakland, California) that allowed for a predictable routine.
Most pertinent of all, it’s about being told to sit by the window seat to “See the view of New York from here!” only to be greeted by swaths of formless clouds.
Our protagonist, Jimmy, is a stereotypical 20 something geek boy who works at the Oakland library and is comfortably numb within his mundane routine. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t know the difference between a latte and an espresso, and is content with this. But his worldly and sophisticated best friend Sara is quite done with Oakland and leaves to find a life (an apartment in Brooklyn and a publishing internship). Dreading a future without Sara, Jimmy follows her to New York, where they are both in for some surprises.
It’s a straightforward story told in a not-straightforward fashion. This comic book, written and drawn by Jason Shiga, has only two colour palettes – cyan and magenta. Cold-as-a-winter-morning cyan represents the present and the-colour-of-a-sunset-in-Summer magenta represents the past. It’s thematically apt that Shiga uses colours that are total opposites as this is a fragmented story composed of opposite scenarios – life with Sara, and life without Sara.
Shiga has lain the foundation for a conventional plot – Boy meets girl. Boy chases girl. Both ultimately mature and end up together.
Shiga lays this foundation only to hilariously, mercilessly eviscerate it. It isn’t for the mere purpose of subversion, however – Jimmy’s arc here is that he just has to grow up. And that means the death of certain childish notions.
But the story is not all about the universe’s indifference to Jimmy’s hopes – there’s some delight to be had in leaving home. Such as when Jimmy arrives in New York City, his excitement at the newness of it all – especially in a sea of permanently angry or disinterested faces– is palpable and poignant. He’s out of his element in the wearied concrete jungle – goofy-looking even – but never, in any other moment in the story, did he appear to be so happy to be alive. As Jimmy says to Sara before she leaves, “I just don’t think New York is as awesome as you think.”
But for Jimmy, New York is more awesome than he ever imagined.
Empire State A Love Story (Or Not) is an empathetic portrayal of growing up just a little later than everybody else. It’s a lovingly rendered, brutally honest semi-autobiographical snapshot of the whirlwind of delight and heartbreak that engulfs a person when they’re away from home.