11.01.2008

Graphic Novel Of The Month

Bottomless Belly Button (Fantagraphics): In many ways, the definition of what this book is really about is right there in the title. You could easily swap in “Endless Navel Gazing” as the title and have a firm grasp of the concept that Dash Shaw plays with repeatedly. Be clear that I’m not intending that as a pejorative title or activity, there is indeed a thematic point to the repetitive introspection of Shaw’s tale. I sort of feel like I’m a bit late to the party here; seems that everyone else in the Blogosphere has already reviewed Belly Button. It’s not because I wasn’t paying attention; just that my wonky LCS had only one copy of this work, and it was terribly dinged up. I finally relented and picked it up when it went on sale for 10% off, unable to find a copy locally anywhere else. I can play “Seven Degrees of Stan Lee” with Dash Shaw and make it in three moves… I know Jason, Jason knows Tim, and Tim knows Dash… so I’m pretty interested in all he does. I’ve kept my eye on Dash ever since he was one of many at Meathaus (love the cat named Farel, assumably a shout out to fellow Meathauser Farel Dalrymple), up through Love Eats Brains and Goddess Head. Wow, I’m totally digressing here… So, Bottomless Belly Button strikes me as a grand tale which is the aggregate of smaller, not so grand moments. Through his characters, Shaw is cataloguing life, deconstructing an existence comprised of the awkward realism found in typical, average, everyday moments. It’s about the uncomfortable speech patterns and strained relations found in the archetypical family, in all their painful glory. It’s sort of Seinfeld-ian, in that it’s a comic “about nothing” specific on a micro level, other than sex, divorce, attraction, loneliness, vice, generational gaps, dysfunction being normative, and the recurring macro theme of truth being hidden in the dirty details of everyday life. Shaw uses a few tools to achieve this effect. Notice how he’s able to avoid explaining the divorce of the parents. There simply isn’t a tidy, cerebral answer for the children to pin the failed situation upon. It’s based in emotional foible, something that the married couple is unable to articulate to their kids. There are brilliant strands of parallel storytelling around the themes of danger and discovery. When the child on the beach loses his asthma inhaler, Peter is finding out at that exact moment that his “girlfriend” has a boyfriend. There’s this simultaneous theme of having the wind knocked out of you, whether that feeling is evoked physically or emotionally. Shaw is careful to play with time; notice the slow, deliberate way that he intentionally controls your eye through 12 panels per page of a girl taking off her bathing suit, as if you’re supposed to be slowing down to enjoy, noticing something there in the minute detail. Every scene seems to hint at something slightly disturbing on the edge of your perception, just out of reach or comprehension. The greatest commentary that can be drawn out as a trend in the scenes of Bottomless Belly Button is that there is rarely a single solitary moment that culminates to an instance of truth or profound realization. Rather, it is in the moments in between; in the ether just before or just after where we’d expect something grand to be. One such example is the grandmother and granddaughter walking on the beach together. It’s impossible to point to a single panel or moment where “something” happens. There is no pearl of wisdom shared by an elder, no universal truth revealed, no stereotypically life altering moment of clarity. Nevertheless, at some point during this act of sharing space, an unspoken bond is forged between the two. It’s there on the edge of our understanding, not a single moment, but a process that occurs in between panels, with no identifiable point in time when it actually occurs. Shaw has taken a long form approach to explaining the old adage that life is about the journey and not the destination. He’s given us one family’s quirky, holistic example of what that actually means – in all its mundane glory. If life is defined by man’s search for answers, Shaw would suggest to us that the key to the riddle is actually about the search itself and not the elusive answers. Bottomless Belly Button is ambitious in its sheer scope, and I predict it will be on many Top 10 lists. Yes, I think it will be remembered as one of the best books of the year. Grade A+.

2 Comments:

At 8:12 AM, Blogger Ryan Claytor said...

Wows. I was a little leary about reading this post for a couple reasons

1) Despite you recommending it highly to me, I still haven't read it.
2) I was hoping for a minimal amount of spoilers. :)

You delivered, regardless of digressions, and I'm even more eager to pick this up. My local library has it on order and I'm first in line, with my hold already placed.

Ryan Claytor
Elephant Eater Comics
http://www.ElephantEater.com

 
At 9:10 AM, Blogger Justin said...

Hi Ryan,

Thanks, that's awesome... this book just grew on me. I find myself still thinking about it weeks after I put it down, that's a sign to me of something really transcendent, thought-provoking.

It will definitely be on my best of the year list, that's a fact.

Curious to hear your thoughts when you've finally digested it!

Justin

 

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