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February 16, 2008

Bookhunter by Jason Shiga
Posted by Avram Grumer at 11:21 PM * 40 comments

Imagine an action-packed police procedural, full of technical details like CSI, but all about bookbinding and library catalogs. Since this is Making Light, probably half of you just leaned forward and said “Tell me more!” OK, here goes:

The kettle stitch...Jason Shiga’s Bookhunter is very (very!) loosely based on a real book theft, but turned into an action movie. Special Agent Bay of the Library Police tracks down missing library books. Small-time perps just steal or deface books, but sometimes Bay faces more complicated cases, such as when a valuable pre-1500 bible once owned by John Quincy Adams is not just stolen from a library, but replaced with a high-quality forgery.

Fortunately, Bay has the resources of a major police organization behind him, as well as sharp eyes, a good head for detail, and little to no regard for the personal safety of himself or the people around him.

Shiga writes deeply nerdy comics. I don’t mean that they’re saturated with SF pop culture references — I mean that they’re thick with nerdy technical detail. Fleep, for example, is a short story about an amnesiac who finds himself inexplicably entombed within a phone booth surrounded by concrete, and promptly MacGuyvers a Foucault pendulum out of the booth’s light fixture so as to narrow down his possible locations. That kind of nerdy.

Bookhunter is nerdy like that, too, with details of printing, bookbinding, safecracking, and phone phreaking all part of the plot. It’s set in 1973, so all the tech neepery involves card catalogs, check-out slips, microfilm, and 75-baud modems. And there are crazy shoot-outs, reckless automobile driving, and a climatic fight scene in a library with actual library equipment used as weapons.

I’ve only two caveats in recommending this comics: First, be warned that Shiga’s artwork is crude, especially if you’re used to the polished work that comes out of the big comics companies. His figures have just the bare amount of detail necessary to distinguish them from each other and convey simple emotions. He’s a couple of steps above Randall Munroe.

Second, it may be hard to find. Amazon has a page for it, reselling for some other bookstores, but charges the ridiculous price of fifty goddamn dollars for a book with a $15 cover price. You can order his books from Shiga himself, but expect shipping times of six to eight months. I got mine at Cosmic Comics, and I’ve seen it at Jim Hanley’s Universe, but not everybody lives in NYC with its many fine comic shops. Or you can read it online, if your eyes are young and strong.

Update: Or, as Hob points out in comments, you can order it from the publisher.

(Panel from Bookhunter ©2007 Jason Shiga.)
Comments on Bookhunter by Jason Shiga:
#1 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 12:43 AM:

That looks deeply cool.

#2 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 12:47 AM:

An online version of this came up in an Open Thread: Comment 22 by Michael Roberts. Not as good as having an physical object, but something.
Here's the actual link.

#3 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 12:50 AM:

Like I said, you can read it online if your eyes are young and strong. I'd never have been able to get through all of the online version. It's too small and low-contrast. (The panel I included above is a scan from the book, with sharpening and contrast boosting in Photoshop.)

#4 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 12:56 AM:

Oh, bleh. I managed to skip that sentence. Sorry about that.

#5 ::: Comesleep ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 01:09 AM:

Oh! I read Fleep a long time ago, and forgot what it was called--occasionally I remembered it vaguely, wondered where it was. Thanks!

#6 ::: LMB MacAlister ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 01:18 AM:

Dunno about the "young and strong" part. My eyes are 57 years old, I bitch about 'em all the time, and I made it through the whole thing with my Drug Emporium readers. The crude artwork makes it difficult to tell the difference between some of the minor characters, but all-in-all, I have to say, way cool!!

#7 ::: surlyben ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 02:43 AM:

Bookhunter is totally awesome. I have a handmade/photocopied version that I bought a few years ago and tried to convince all my librarian friends to read. Alas without much luck.

Pretty much all of Shiga's work is worth a look, especially if you happen to be a math or physics nerd...

#8 ::: bill wringe ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 04:02 AM:

People who like that might also be tempted by Colson Whitehead's 'The Intuitionist', which does something similar with elevator inspection.

#9 ::: Tlönista ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 06:56 AM:

Shit! I saw this at Angoulême and ever since have keenly regretted that I didn't pick it up. It looks to fulfil all the library-nerd potential that Rex Libris didn't.

#10 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 09:42 AM:

Abi said the binding stuff wasn't actually reality-based. Still rocks, though.

#11 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 10:29 AM:

Michael Roberts @ 10... So that's why this sounded familiar. Still, it seems like this'd make a fun movie.

#12 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 10:47 AM:

It doesn't have Bookhunter, but Things From Another World is a good resource for people who lack a local comics shop.

Caveat Emptor: I haven't purchased from them myself yet (I have a local comics shop) but they have a good reputation and have been around forever. Dark Horse has used them as a preferred vendor for some stuff in the past, IIRC.

#13 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 10:53 AM:

This makes me think of the novels/manga/anime READ OR DIE, wherein the Special Operations Division of the British Library and its agents are responsible for world-saving covert operations.

#14 ::: John Overholt ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 12:05 PM:

Abi said the binding stuff wasn't actually reality-based.

As a rare book librarian, I have to say the rare book stuff isn't that reality-based either. They keep using the word "Caxton" but there's no such US publisher in the time period. If there's such a thing as American incunabula, it's books published in the 17th century, so 1838 definitely doesn't qualify. The book is basically worthless without the provenance, so the idea of making a forgery is just silly; it'd be far simpler to buy a real one. The BAL is for literature, so Bibles aren't listed.

Obsessive-compulsive quibbling aside, this was a hoot and a half. Loved the guns-blazing raid on the politically motivated book thief, loved the reference work while clambering around on a moving truck, loved the narrow escape from rapidly closing compact shelving.

#15 ::: bill wringe ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 12:18 PM:

Caxton was presumably after Wm which point I assumed that 1838 was a misprint for 1538 - still too late to be incunabula, I think (printed before 1500, no?).

The link to the original story said that one of the stolen books was 16th century, iirc.

#16 ::: John Overholt ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 12:35 PM:

The real Amistad Bible was published in 1838, so I presume that's where Shiga took the date (which makes perfect sense; it was a new Bible at the time Adams received it). Caxton died in 1492, so 1538 still doesn't make any sense. And if it's not American, the reference to BAL makes no sense whatsoever.

It's not like this ruins everything, but the attention to detail is so good elsewhere, it's weird to me that some bits are so confused, and it's impossible for me not to notice. My wife is very tolerant about my pointing out in movies every time somebody's bookshelves are filled with the unmistakable spines of Reader's Digest Condensed Books.

#17 ::: Hob ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 03:33 PM:

Avram: "You can order his books from Shiga himself, but expect shipping times of six to eight months"

Or you can order them from the... what's it called... publisher; that's what Shiga's own ordering page says is "the best place to order my comics online". Don't give $50 to Amazon, and don't pester a busy cartoonist with order forms!

John Overholt, I'll forward your complaints to the responsible party. He will be devastated and plunge a sword into his bowels.

#18 ::: Tracey C. ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 04:02 PM:

Huh, I had no idea it was so hard to find! I picked up my copy at my local comic shop a few months ago, and immediately pimped it to all of my librarian-geek friends. As someone who's worked in libraries for a very long time, there were just tons of details that had me cracking up or going "oooh!", that really nobody else cares about.

(the microfiche checkout system! I remember that!)

#19 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 04:54 PM:

Tracey C, I don't actually know how hard it is to find. I figure if you live in a city with good comics shops, you can find it, and if you don't, you can't. A lot of people don't.

But it's not like, say, the first Casanova trade, which you can easily order online for less than cover price (and I just did the other day). Or the latest X-Men comics, which you'll be able to find just about anywhere.

#20 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 06:22 PM:

I have old eyes, too, but I managed to get through the whole story online by magnifying the screen. It was on a Mac, which has a built-in screen magnifier, but there are accessories you can download for windows or linux machines that do the same thing.

#22 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2008, 09:42 PM:

John (and Abi, I guess) -- I figure that since the action takes place in an alternate universe where the library police clearly have special legal powers, that all the details of binding and incan... incunibb... incunabulae ... are from this alternate history. Which takes care of any petty inconsistency with our own more pedestrian world.

My wife, by the way, is less tolerant of my conniption fits about magical movie computers.

#23 ::: Doug Faunt ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2008, 01:12 AM:

And it takes place in Oakland, where a few of us live, and use the library. Of course, I checked it out from the Berkeley Public Library, since OPL's copies were heavily reserved (or on display).

I heard about it in "Unshelved, the library comic strip",

Someday I plan to do a bike tour of the places that are mentioned.

#24 ::: vee ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2008, 01:42 AM:

Speaking of book thefts, this came out recently and made me boggle--US v. Allen. The facts read like a heist/comedy flick. Yes, the combination.

Jason Shiga, when he's not working on comics, is actually a librarian. He's also rather sweet in person, and quite the geek. He makes a lot of local appearances in the company of Derek Kirk Kim and Gene Yang.

[No, I don't stalk them--why do you ask?]

#25 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2008, 02:34 AM:

I just read through that whole US vs. Allen case. You're right, and the crowning bit of black comedy is the outcome of Allen's appeal; thanks to his appeal, the appeals court reviewed all the issues raised, rejected all of his claims, concluded that the original court had misapplied some complex rules leading to erroneously light sentencing, and sent it back to the previous judge to impose a longer sentence.

#26 ::: LMB MacAlister ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2008, 03:40 AM:

Michael Roberts @ #22:

since the action takes place in an alternate universe where the library police clearly have special legal powers
You mean the Library Police doesn't have that kind of powers where you live?

#27 ::: LMB MacAlister ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2008, 03:43 AM:

re: US vs. Allen, it looks like the slackers will have plenty of time to learn how to slack differently. What maroons.

#28 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2008, 05:00 AM:

#24: it is with a complete lack of surprise that I notice the thieves were also involved in the marijuana business. Don't sample the product, guys.

#29 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2008, 08:23 AM:

It's got to be an alternate universe. The systems cracking part clearly shows tcpdump being used, and I'm fairly sure that didn't exist in consensus reality until some decades later. :}

(Excellent, excellent geeky work. Will show to all my friends until I don't have any left.)

#30 ::: judith strauser ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2008, 12:23 PM:

#9 Shiga books in Angoulême? I am surprised (and delighted!). I'm the proud owner of a handmade copy of his delightful, choose-your-own-adventure comic "Meanwhile" (it's in the Interactive section of his site) - which must have taken hours to make, with all the little tabs that enable you to pick your destination on each page. I picked it up at APE in SF in 2004, iirc, prompted by friends who were familiar with him...

I'm also a translator (En/Fr) and I was just very recently pondering if it was worth trying to convince a French publisher to pick up some of his work (and, of course, pay me for the translation job)! Hence my curiosity, now piqued.

Bookhunter looks indeed very, very cool. Adding it to the list...

#31 ::: debcha ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2008, 01:56 PM:

Thanks for the info, Hob (#21) - Just went and placed my order, and I'm looking forward to it arriving in less than 6-8 months.

#32 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2008, 02:22 PM:

When this guy looks at a human face, he sees the lower eyelids.

#33 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2008, 02:24 PM:

In #29 Nix writes:

It's got to be an alternate universe. The systems cracking part clearly shows tcpdump being used, and I'm fairly sure that didn't exist in consensus reality until some decades later. :}

Plus, lowercase? In 1973?

#34 ::: Hob ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2008, 03:20 PM:

Judith @30: I don't know much about French publishers, but I know Cornélius and La Comédie Illustrée have done several translations of U.S. indie comics -- some obvious ones like Clowes and Crumb, but also lesser-known artists like Tom Hart and Ted Stearn. Shiga has probably escaped their radar, and I can imagine one of them going for him; that would be cool.

And it's way past time that someone published Meanwhile. I think some small press in the U.S. kept saying they were going to do it, but they flaked out or maybe they just decided the tabs were too much trouble.

#35 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2008, 04:32 PM:

I just spent much of my morning going through a number of the paths through Meanwhile. At first it seems like you're just going around in circles, but after you end up on some of the more exotic paths, it really gets interesting.

#36 ::: judith strauser ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2008, 02:04 PM:

Hob @34, I looooove Cornélius; they seriously rock. I have a friend doing an internship with them later this year, too; I might be able to move suggestions even easier then, who knows.

I did not know about La Comédie Illustrée though, and will look into it (as soon as *this* translation job is done, that is). Thank you!

#37 ::: Tlönista ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2008, 04:37 PM:

@30: There was an all right selection of North American indie/alt comics there, and yes, in translation. Fantagraphics, D&Q, that kind of thing.

#38 ::: johnofjack ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2009, 03:59 PM:

I found this book by chance at my library this year; it was a big hit among the comics fans. Pity it's out of print.

#39 ::: miriam beetle ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2009, 05:44 PM:


are you sure it's out of print? i bought a copy from the artist, at his publisher's table, at ape in november.

#40 ::: johnofjack ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2012, 07:47 PM:

Ah, yes, Miriam, right you are. It's not out of print; it's in print through a small press and not readily available on most internet bookstores.

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