Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dash Shaw, "Bottomless Belly Button" (2008).

Dash Shaw is one of the youngest rising stars of alternative comics, and of course that means that you've never heard of him. You won't be able to find his graphic novels at the large corporate chain of your nearest strip mall. In fact you'll likely have difficulty getting your hands on his just-published Bottomless Belly Button, regardless of where you do your shopping. But if you want a substantial work of art in book form, you'll go to Amazon today and order your own copy. I had a hard time getting mine. It took several stops to my reliable local indie comics store. Fortunately for me I'm a valued repeat customer, because this title seems to have quickly sold out of its first edition. I'm sure there will be more on the way, but I can't say when.

What's particularly shocking about the commercial success of Bottomless Belly Button is that it carries a retail price of $29.95. That's a hefty price for a graphic novel by any cartoonist. But for a relatively unknown quantity, it's almost unheard of. The truth is that before this publication few (even among alt comix fans) had even heard of Dash Shaw. Still, reviews of BBB's quality have passed by word-of-mouth within my little subsection of the underground consumer demographic. This is a 720-page epic detailing six days in the life of the Loony family. However, don't let the surname throw you- this isn't a wacky brood. These aren't the Simpsons or the Bundys. They are fully fleshed-out characters with complex personalities and real-life concerns.

David and Maggie Loony are the eldest members of the clan, and they are the reason why this mostly estranged group comes together at the book's beach house setting. After 40 years of marriage they are getting a divorce. Their three children (Claire, Dennis, and Peter) all have their own ways of dealing with the shake-up. Dennis, who is accompanied by his wife (Aki) and baby son, is driven to seek out a buried reason for the impending separation. Claire (who has teenage daughter Jill in tow) has already been through her own divorce, and is trying her best to be supportive. And then there's Peter, who alone among all of Shaw's characters is anthropomorphized, and (almost) exclusively portrayed with a frog's head.

In more than one way, Peter seems the black sheep of the family. He's a would-be filmmaker who is floating through the confusion of young adulthood with the aid of chronic masturbation and beer. It's clear that at 26 he lacks experience with the ladies, but Peter gets his chance to address that deficit when he meets a youth counselor (Kat) on the beach. While each of his relatives go through their own personal dramas back at the house, Peter stumbles on to what appears to be his first love. The emphasis on the nature of relationships, both old and new, underscores the entire tale that Shaw shares with the reader. There is much to be said for his deft and subtle touch in showing personal dynamics, rather than feeling some need to explicate every inner detail.

Shaw accomplishes his achievement with a tremendous facility for conveying inner emotional states through movement and facial expression. He adds to those skills an eye for telling details and skewed perspectives. All of this is filtered through a loose and slightly-quivering line style that somehow lends a fragile and wistful tone to the story (I thought alternatively of John Porcellino and Jeffrey Brown). Bottomless Belly Button is a series of moments chained together to form a gestalt that coalesces only gradually through accumulation. Shaw wants you to take time with his creation, which only seems fair as it must have taken an inordinate amount of hours to complete. It is broken up into three parts, and he asks the reader to take a break in between each. I respected his wishes and was rewarded with a genuinely moving experience.

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