5.03.2010

Graphic Novel Of The Month

BodyWorld (Pantheon): On the back of this hardcover book, David Mazzucchelli’s pull quote pays homage to music critic John Landau’s description of Bruce Springsteen and reads “I have seen the future of comics, and its name is Dash Shaw.” I don’t disagree with that bit of projection, but in the here and how, I’d say that Dash Shaw is the Gary Panter of our generation. Instead of infusing comics into his Fine Art the way that Panter did, Shaw seems to infuse Fine Arts into his comics. To see the most ostensible connection between the two artists, look no further than Shaw’s “Origin Story” for Johnny Scarhead. For me, it was a big signpost that called to mind the uncredited work that Panter did for Marvel’s reimaging of Omega: The Unknown about the origin of the Omega Corps. If that’s an obvious visual cue that connects the two, the more subtle clues in their shared approach involve the way Shaw blends so many cultural influences and nods to various arts into his work. There are literary references to John Norman’s Goreans, advertising imagery, the still life of Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, dance moves from Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal video, and plenty of sci-fi nods to George Lucas’ “Outer Rim,” and James Cameron’s “No Fate” carved into a table. All the while, Shaw is careful to root the endeavor in comics, with some panel emulation of Charles Burns’ Black Hole, a copy of Ross Campbell’s underrated sleeper Wet Moon in the background, a Professor X and Magneto analogy, and Alan Moore’s The Courtyard from Avatar Press, which seems to be a seminal work in this 2060 setting.

Shaw also continues his fascination with maps and cut-away diagrams. There’s an early shot in BodyWorld of a floorplan that reminds me of an early shot in Bottomless Belly Button that was a cut-away of a family riding in a car. Like the various maps and dieball court layout, not only are these terrific examples of world-building, but they seem to highlight the way Shaw is concerned with man’s place in a man-made world. It’s an odd dichotomy of natural beings attempting to navigate the unnatural environment they’ve created. The journey is aided significantly by faces which are penciled so full of emotion. If you happen to notice the way Miss Jewel reacts to being photographed or Billy’s sexualized panic at his teacher wiping down his chest with a wet towel, you’ll see pages of emotion being conveyed silently in a single static shot. I remember Bottomless Belly Button’s black and white rendering fondly, but BodyWorld reads as a completely difference experience in full color. If Belly Button seemed to use black and white as a means for you to slowly draw emotion out of life’s daily monotony for yourself, then perhaps they are polar works, and BodyWorld pushes you to retreat from the garish colored futurism it presents in order to find the very same emotion that’s been lost in the pseudo-utopia. Structurally, Shaw begins with a fairly rigid approach, relying on 4 rows of 3 panels to create a 12 panel grid that probably mirrors the pacing of the original web-comic. It’s worth noting as an aside that Shaw is very adept at pacing, his use of all black panels as story beats shows masterful control of the passage of time and what he expects the reader’s eye to do on the page. As the story progresses, he begins to use overlapping forms to represent figures and thought patterns. This complex presentation is more like what David Mazzucchelli did in Asterios Polyp. I think that’s also an interesting inter-textual reference since I feel those two books will be forever linked, as they were generally considered the best two books of the year when they debuted. I’d be surprised if Shaw doesn’t rack up another Eisner nom for this work as well. Shaw really pushes the synaesthetic experience hard, forcing his audience, through his characters, to perceive multiple layers of meaning embedded in the narrative, both textually and visually. The best example of this is the dual running paths of panels where Billy and Paul’s paths converge and they ultimately undergo a very intense drug trip together.

Hopefully that’s a nice segue into discussing the drug. It’s discovered near the school and Paul is sent to investigate its properties through actual consumption and experimentation. The drug causes users to “read” other people and experience their memories as well as their physical form. Often times, these experiences involve reading people at their most revealing or embarrassing moments. The drug only seems to work when people are in close proximity, and has no effect when taken alone, which emphasizes the connectedness between people. The entire tone for these shared experiences is unapologetic and accepted, echoed in the way Billy’s mom matter-of-factly discusses her cheating. There’s no attempt to edit herself; she mentions it casually and without shame. That need for connectedness is an important theme that runs throughout this book. In this sterile future marred by a recent Civil War, man – as a single super-organism on the macro level – attempts to reconnect to the natural world. Miss Jewel insists on licking the sap of the mysterious drug when in plant form. She is quick to put her feet in the dirt. Paul is eager to smoke the new plant, eat it, or climb trees in one of the only remaining forests. The dieball players smear their bodies with diegunk, so that they can feel anything, even a loss of mental acuity. Female characters are seen reveling in the sweat of the boys they’re interested in. Building a camp fire is a lost art that’s carefully explained, drug trips appear as communing with nature, everyone is desperate to connect to someone else, even teachers justifying ways to connect with their students. They’re all desperate attempts to connect to something real and earthy, not the artificial future that’s been homogenized for them. We learn that the closed society is being watched by an alien race that is attempting to homogenize the humans. Through the drug, by engineering common experiences and perceptions, they eventually become all the same, and are thus easier to control. It creates a hive group-mind, stressing that it is actually strength in diversity that keeps societies afloat. Paul is a very liberal guy, fearful of bureaucratic and Orwellian thought police in the age restricted zone, frequently seen doing drugs with students. His path is fraught with failure, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, the conformists that succumb to groupthink are equally culpable in failure. This suggests that there is a happy medium of diversity which is appropriate for survival. There were a couple of oddball typos that distracted me, I don’t know where else to mention them, so I’ll just do it now before I sum up. There was “mam” instead of the more common ma’am, things like “donno” vs. dunno’, “fellah” vs. fella’, and one “seperated” vs. separated.

Those very minor quibbles aside, an overwhelming response for me was that I kept thinking about James Cameron’s box office blockbuster Avatar. Let me say in no uncertain terms that I absolutely hated Avatar, and when I say hated, I mean almost everything about it. I didn’t find it that interesting visually; I thought the blue people were dumb, ill-functioning, and hilariously stupid. The 3D gave me a headache, the CGI envelopment was off-putting, and the whole affair lacked any identifiable humanity. I detest being hit over the head with the big stick of meaning. I’m sure the shouty environmental messaging appealed to the lowest common denominator to ensure mass market appeal, and you can blame the system for that – “hate the game, not the player” – but, players are capable of changing the game by their actions. In addition to blatantly ripping off the major arcs of Dances With Wolves, Avatar beat its simplistic points home with a big rock, using overt methods, and stereotypically horrible and clichéd acting performances. It’s too long, too loud, too predictable, and too obvious. For me, everything that Avatar tried to be in its big spectacle of intentions-on-the-sleeve manic reaching, BodyWorld does with careful nuance and subdued subtlety. BodyWorld is for the more discerning consumer. It’s the opposite in so many ways. It doesn’t preach, it converses. It doesn’t tell, it shows. It doesn’t force, it allows organic expansion. It uses homage, it does not steal outright. It doesn’t insult, it elucidates. It doesn’t sacrifice humanity for achievement. It doesn’t sacrifice substance for style. It proves that yes, millions of moviegoers actually CAN be wrong; the Avatar phenomenon is the very groupthink mentality that BodyWorld argues against. It proves in the most natural way, without the aid of multi-million dollar digital production, that man has an inextricable link to nature and when that symbiotic relationship is strayed too far from, bad things can happen. As for pull quotes, “I have seen the thinking man’s Avatar, and its name is BodyWorld.” Grade A.

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