Review by Frank Plowright
Meanwhile wasn’t Jason Shiga’s first graphic novel. It was preceded by Double Happiness. That in turn followed several mini-comics.
Themes of isolation and lack of self-confidence running through Shiga’s work also apply here, as the socially awkward Tom arrives in San Francisco from Boston. Although of Chinese descent, Tom’s only language is English, and he’s grateful to the cousin he’d never met before arrival for not only giving him a place to stay, but for also welcoming him into his social circle. Jackson, though, has other connections about which Tom remains ignorant.
The early days in San Francisco are idyllic as Tom blossoms, develops his first relationship with a girl, and comes to feel at home in the city. The double happiness of the title refers to a decorative motif frequently seen as tattoo or pendant, but, as Tom eventually realises, also representing something else entirely.
Shiga supplies a fully realised portrait of the shy and faltering outsider, all the more commendable for the simple style of cartooning he uses. Were this colour, Jackson could easily be a Simpsons cast-off, and the spectacled Tom isn’t that far removed either. The dialogue is well conveyed, highlighting the speech mannerisms of Hokkien Chinese to whom English isn’t a first language, and there are numerous well-observed small character touches that pull this above the thinly disguised autobiographical experiences so common to comics of the 1990s.
What definitively removes Double Happiness from that category occurs in the final third of the book as Tom’s eyes are opened. And it’s a fair tip of the hat to anyone who sees the conclusion coming.
As a character study this may not be quite as accomplished as Shiga’s later Empire State, but it compensates with greater charm and a faster pace, and is worth seeking out today.