by Dash Shaw
reviewed by MZA
colour me fuchsia, red, teal, lemon, green, and impressed. Dash Shaw alchemizes Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Ed the Happy Clown, Acme Novelty Library, Gilbert Hernandez's Birdland, Frank Miller & Lynn Varley's maligned The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Charles Burns, Harry Potter, and probably some sci-fi thing I haven't read; and turns them into something new and surprising in the world of comix. BodyWorld experiments with form and technique on nearly every page, filters these experiments through Shaw's singular voice, and somehow ends up with an easy-to-read narrative.
Without giving away too much ... It's a post-apocalyptic, dystopian, psychedelic drug comedy. In the year 2060, botanist/"poet"/professor Paul Panther's job as a tester of new plant life for hallucinogenic properties takes him to Boney Borough, Virginia (!!), where an unknown plant with two black leaves has been found behind the high school. Panther's testing of the potential hallucinogen -- he rolls it up in a joint and smokes it -- brings him into contact with three locals: Jem Jewel, a hot-ass science teacher at the high school; Pearl Peach, a disaffected teen and recent graduate of the high school; and her boyfriend Billy Borg, the school's top "dieball" (a variant of rugby in which the ball is a big 10-sided die) player. Paul discovers that smoking the leaf grants him and whomever he's hanging out with a form of telepathy with one another. They feel what the other person is feeling, remember what the other person remembers, think and say what the other thinks and says. The usual boundaries between one person's "bodymind" and the other's disintegrates. This instant intimacy entangles the four main characters in a number of soap operatic plot developments that threaten to engulf the whole town.
More importantly, the drug's powers give Shaw an excuse to mangle his drawings of his characters in a car crash of bright colour, clean linework, redundant sound effects (a Shaw specialty), and layers and layers of Photoshop. Faces, bodies, word balloons merge grotesquely. Panther's angular Dick-Tracyesque features get joined to Pearl's Princess Leia hair. Colours escape their containing lines and panel borders. Indoors become outdoors. The miracle is how easy to read all of these pages are. Most of the pages stick to a 12-panel grid, a solid structure that provides a steady rhythm even when each panel is filled with free-jazz blasts of colour and shape. Shaw's compositions are designed not to impede eye movement from one panel to another.
The stylistic paradox of BodyWorld is that it is always easy to read, never easy to look at. Of the well-known cartoonists who've been published by the bigger American independents (Fanta, D&Q, Picturebox, Top Shelf, Buenaventura), Shaw's drawing is amongst the ugliest. His people are not cute, sexy, charmingly primitive, baroque, or graceful. They are stiffly posed, facially autistic, and anatomically retarded, with especially irritating shapes for hands and feet. They are bodies that lack moving parts. He seems comfortable with simple geometric shapes; beds, laptops, bathtubs, room corners, windows, and chairs look OK (in the computer-generated way); but the figures in front of these props might as well be furniture, too. I hope he gets better at drawing.
However, if he doesn't, maybe that's not the worst thing. Part of what made reading BodyWorld interesting to me was watching the cartoonist struggle to communicate. A hand pushes open a door, and we know that that's what it is, but it looks retarded. A woman's buttocks as she walks resembles two Rubik's Cubes trying to push through a potato sack. In this way, information is transmitted, imperfectly but fully, throughout the book. The drawing forces the reader to engage with it from the creative side instead of the receptive side: How would I have drawn that? I could have drawn that nicer! It's akin to seeing the wires attached to Jet Li -- the magick is dead; long live the magick!
I'll remember this book for its humour and its reimagining of Hunter Thompson as a creepy, nerdy manchild. I'll remember its mood, a precarious balance between organized nerdiness and chaotic psychedelia. I'll remember its mushroom clouds of colour and its lifelike simulation of magick mushroom mindsex. It's hard on two eyes but pretty easy on the third eye.