Something Old, Something New
The latest funny books from indie vet Daniel Clowes and relative rookie Dash Shaw
Every year--at least since Art Spiegelman's Maus, and most certainly by the time Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth was a bookstore-ready hardcover--a few sophisticated, sprawling comic books make their way out of the alt-comics echo chamber and into the mainstream. Last year it was David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp and R. Crumb's Book of Genesis; April alone saw the release of Daniel Clowes' Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly) and Dash Shaw's BodyWorld (Pantheon). Though it won't replace the great American novel anytime soon, the past 20 years have certainly witnessed the rise of the great American graphic novel.
Both Wilson and BodyWorld are graphic novels in the loaded, fancy sense of the term, but each book also subtly defies the expectations for the kind of smarty-pants comics that get write-ups in magazines and, well, free alternative weeklies. Clowes' collection of depressive joke strips--a parody of the Sunday funnies--about a middle-aged, out of touch douchebag, shuns comics' recent fascination with the grand statement, opting for a terse take on America in the aughts. It feels like a relic from an earlier indie comics era when every release didn't have to swing for the fences. Shaw follows up 2008's Bottomless Belly Button--a 720 pager about divorce--with an erotic, pulp-obsessed, 384-page book about a strand of weed that makes you psychic: It's a new kind of comics epic.
Nearly every Wilson strip plays out as follows: Wilson reaches out to somebody, grows annoyed with them, and acts like a huge fucking dick. The first strip starts with Clowes' McTeague-reading curmudgeon introducing himself as "a people person" and ends with him asking a complete stranger, "For the love of Christ, do you ever shut up?" The strip is titled "Fellowship."
Along with his scruffy, pop-art illustration style, this type of cruel comedy has been a Clowes staple since his pre-Eightball book, Lloyd Llewelyn, but there was always something else to the story besides cruelty--eventually some humanity cracked through. Ghost World's Enid and Rebecca snicker at their old high school classmate who now has a tumor wrapped around her neck, but it's just one admittedly loathsome and very real aspect of their wider, more complex personalities--not all that's there.
Wilson isn't supposed to be likeable, but he's not complex either. He's insincerely sincere, a loudmouth who thinks calling people on their bullshit is the same as honesty. And no one else in the book comes off much better. An ex-wife, a daughter he didn't know he had, and random strangers he accosts for being rude, boring, or resembling Frankenstein are all schlubs leading lives of quiet, ignoble desperation. Wilson's a jerk, but everybody else that wanders through the book--all fat, ugly, and American--isn't any better.
It's all a bit much. It is funny, though. OK--it's really funny. See: the property of sir d.a.d.d.y. big-dick tattoo on his ex-wife's back; "Vampire," wherein Wilson suggests his dying father would suck the life from his own damned son if it were possible; and "Hard Time," in which Wilson, new to jail, prattles on to a dead-eyed, white supremacist cell-mate who simply responds, "You shut up fo' I gon' turn yo ass'ho' into a pussy!" Jokes like that are non-stop, but that's also why Wilson feels like a regression. And once it's clear the picaresque narrative is going nowhere--it ends with a mock epiphany--the joke's on the reader.
BodyWorld sits somewhere between mainstream comics and insular indie fare, and unlike Wilson, it challenges and confuses in a good way. Originally serialized online (and still available for free on Shaw's web site), it reads vertically--an attempt to make print reflect the online reading experience--and merges pre-'60s high-school melodrama and sci-fi action with of-the-moment text-speak, slang, and references to blogs and the internet.
At the center of the wobbly action, set in the year 2060, is stoner botanist Paulie Panther. Following a tip from a student's science blog, Panther travels to Boney Borough, Va.--perhaps the last bucolic suburb in a futuristic world of smoggy urban decay--to study a plant that, when smoked, gives the smoker psychic powers. Panther becomes involved in the drama of the nearby high school, first with Jem, an aging hipster science teacher, and then with a student, Pearl. Inevitably, her meathead boyfriend Billy shows up too. Also, there are vague rumblings of an alien attack.
BodyWorld's tangly, bat-shit crazy story pulls the book along, but it's surprisingly casual, more focused on character and emotion than typical comic book build-up and pay-off: The story only sort of wraps up, and feels like it goes beyond its own pages--very Infinite Jest.
The most immediate feeling emanating from the book, however, is Shaw's genuine love of comics. In sharp contrast to Clowes' funnybook mockery, Shaw grabs from the haphazard style of diary comics and Clowes' own character studies, employs all his art-school training (silk-screening, abstract painting, Photoshop) and smooshes it together with Jack Kirby's conceptual craziness.
Particularly inspired is the way Shaw visualizes the pot-inspired mind-readings. It's done with discordant doubling and tripling of images and panels, different characters' mind-states occupying the same panels, sharing both head-space and space on the page. A mental threesome between Paulie, Pearl, and Billy is erotic and unsettling at the same time--and raises the story's stakes.
Soon enough, it's revealed aliens planted the psychic weed and a forest full of the plant catches fire and turns every Boney Borough citizen clairvoyant. Shaw responds to his story's tension by getting visually darker and more daring. The blurry blobs of paint and marker used for backgrounds begin bleeding into the foreground. A police shoot-out takes place under a Francis Bacon sky.
Every comic that Shaw has read and every skill he picked up in art-school wedge their way into BodyWorld. Unlike Clowes, who appears cramped by his own comic-strip conceit, Shaw's visual narrative knows no bounds. Wilson is purposefully minor--a quiet response to these critically acclaimed comics tomes everybody's doing now--but it's ultimately just slight. Clowes made a book that doesn't have a narrative and that lacks visual continuity about a grumpy asshole. In a way, it's genius; at the same time, it's disappointing.
BodyWorld is an affront to the sophisticated comics, too, but it one-ups the arty graphic novel and forges something newer, weirder, and harder to categorize. Intellectual and visceral, smart and silly, Shaw's sprawling dope-from-space tale somehow sustains itself, while the latest slim volume from the creator of sensitive, snark such as Ghost World and David Boring merely underwhelms.
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