This week at High-Low will be dedicated to a number of comics by Dash Shaw. Today, we'll look at reprints of my reviews from sequart.com of Goddess Head and The Mother's Mouth.
Goddess Head (Teenage Dinosaur, $11.99).
Dash Shaw is hard to pin down because his work continues to evolve from book to book. What doesn't change is the way he strives to do something new in every strip, while tackling the themes that inform his work: the pain of human relationships, the struggle that children have in adapting to an adult world that squelches their imagination, and the nature of identity.
His latest is a collection of short stories that display his obsession with what it means to be human, framed by a formal strategy that is unique in the world of comics. Shaw employs magical realism and surrealist imagery on a regular basis, but goes much further in his experimentation than that. The way he designs each story, including panel placement, the way he uses the physical quality of the letters in his words, the way he uses and twists conventions and expectations: it's all rooted in his interest in language. In particular, he is always exploring the way that language fails as humans struggle to relate to and understand each other. These formal pyrotechnics never feel forced or pretentious, because they are always in service to the emotion underlying each story. They act as a sort of buffer for the reader, distancing the artist from the raw intensity the artist is trying to convey. The visceral power of his stories lurks just beneath the surface of their form, and invite multiple readings to tease them out.
The titular short story has Shaw bombarding the reader with crazy images and ideas. In it, we see a young man with a deformed nose breaking up with his girlfriend, who happens to be an anthropomorphic banana. Shaw cleverly uses the page for his first trick; the woman asks the man why he's breaking up with her, and he replies: "Your ___n.___ is too ____adj.____, and your __n.__ is too ____adj.____." It works because what he says doesn't really matter, to him or to her…they're just words. She becomes hysterical and starts weeping, and not only drowns him in her tears but floods all of New Jersey.
That sets up a brilliantly designed couple of pages. The first involves the banana-woman floating through the flood in an inner tube, and the page sets up a group of panels in a circle as she babbles to herself; she's just going in circles. The next page sees her floating by in three panels in the middle of the page. Underneath the third panel, there's another panel revealing what's below her in the water. The next few pages reveal watery scrawl from the artist, emotional pleadings and resignation to misery. Things then shift to several pages of flood survivors' portraits; the payoff for this comes when he shifts styles to iconic block figures and asks rhetorically if there's such a thing as a perfect person, which he answers "No" to over and over. In other words, the survivors of the flood were humans, no one special. We are all human and fallible, and relationships break down when more than that is expected or demanded. The strip ends with a car driving down a highway. We don't see the driver or any other cars; we are ultimately alone.
Shaw adeptly uses absurdism to address the Big Existential Issues. In "Always Speak The Truth, Devote Your Life To Truth", he uses the trappings of a detective murder mystery story crossed with the game Clue to detail a slew of frustrated relationships. As he starts to use stark black images, he refers to himself using those blacks. The detective/narrator speaks in this clipped tone ("YOU: Are a detective", "AND: Your sister too") that quickly deviates from conventional narrative ("MAKES: You and your sister feeling like fucking shit", "BUT: You love her") until the detective gives up, because "WE: All die eventually." What's the Meaning? There is no meaning, because we all face the same fate. But while this story indicates Shaw's existential qualities, he is not a nihilist.
In fact, while the book is filled with despair over the failures of human relationships, it seems clear that seeking these relationships out is what makes us human. A common theme running through his stories is the visceral nature of being alive. He is constantly reminding his characters to breathe, while feelings of intense heat and cold and what it feels like to touch and be touched are also quite common. And of course, sex and occasionally violence are ever-present in his works. Shaw uses this as a touchstone for the idea that our minds/souls/feelings are not separate from our bodies, they are intrinsically and inescapably embodied. His stories show how we fight this idea, and it leads to the breakdowns in communication in his stories.
In "Time Travel", we begin with the sun beating down on a ship (the sun is made up of the words "the heat", another little formal trick). There are 2 couples stuck in 2 crates, one a pair of young girls and the other an older couple. The story is about yearning and the impossibility of ever becoming truly satisfied. The couple has sex and the girls listen in and immediately wish they were adults ("I wanna pay taxes"). They get so excited they start leaping on their bed, and the couple hears this and immediately wish they were children again. The crates-as-panels literally crash into each other as the ship sinks, and the quartet finds themselves on an iceberg. Faced with the cold expansiveness they had longed for, they immediately wish to be contained in a hot crate again. Shaw here balances the parallel narration with a simple style and spells the dialogue in sort of a Herriman-esque, childlike way. The story reveals that both adults and children are lacking something with regard to how they look at the world. It comes down to how children are always looking toward the future and its infinite possibilities and can look at it with wonder, while adults long for the past and can longer afford to think of the world in this manner.
I won't discuss all of the stories in this collection, but I must analyze the final one: "Echo and Narcissus." It's a retelling of the classic myth that happens to dovetail nicely with Shaw's themes regarding love and communication. It begins with a page showing a ravine, and another depicting a still lake: the two symbols of the main characters. Then we get another page of Echo's speech annoying her companion so much that she puts a bird mask on her to restrict her speech. Switching back to Narcissus, Shaw really goes to town with this page. The first panel simply says "Photo of You Here", the second is of an electrical outlet, the third of an air-conditioning unit, and the fourth is a drawing of Narcissus himself: the ultimate iconic blank slate. It's a circle with 2 dots for eyes and a line for a mouth. Narcissus is everyone, and Narcissus is no one special.
Shaw then turns around and turns his iconic dots and dash loose on the page, as they squiggle around (almost sperm-like?) until they coalesce back into a smiley face and 2 exclamation marks. Then the story begins: Echo finds Narcissus in a forest and throws herself at him. He rebuffs her and shoves her down a hill where she falls into a ravine. He then sees his own reflection in a lake and "sees" his words reflected back at him as though they were his own. He falls in love with his cold reflection and then throws himself in and drowns when he is "rebuffed". In an epilogue, it's revealed that Narcissus is not as "perfect" as he seemed—he had acne and scars on the back of his neck, which he could not see. Echo is known to be a stutterer.
This story is a tour-de-force in so many aspects. Narcissus calls out for someone and Echo jumps on top of him. When he says "Away with these embraces", Echo passionately replies "These embraces!". Repulsed, he yells "Don't touch me!" and she pleas "Touch me!". When she is rolled down the hill, she finally speaks with her own voice (echoing itself), hoping that someone hurts him like he did to her. In a remarkable sequence, we see Narcissus in a series of panels at the top of the page as he approaches the reflective lake, and we see Echo at the bottom of a ravine. Her words, symbolized by an empty word balloon, travel to the top of the page, where they trap Narcissus' words. When Narcissus cries "Woe is me—for the boy I loved in vain!", his reflection says the same thing—only it's Echo's way of getting revenge.
It's a fitting final story, because it sums up everything else in the book. People are desperate to give up their identities like Echo and too self-absorbed to receive love like Narcissus. The handicap is language; because we use it to disguise intent and deflect the world, we in turn have difficulty using it to express true meaning. Using two blank slates with previously established identities allows Shaw to really drive this point home. It's both less personal because of the lack of autobiographical anecdotes sneaking into the story and more personal because he lays out his feelings so plainly. We are always and ever frustrated in trying to communicate like Echo, but to not try is to become Narcissus, and that way leads to nihilism. While the quest for authentic communication may be doomed to failure because of our natures as embodied intelligences, one must still struggle in the attempt because this is what it means to be human. Shaw is concerned with this idea above all else.
The Mother's Mouth (Alternative Comics)
Many of the same themes from Goddess Head are explored in THE MOTHER'S MOUTH. Shaw digs into sexuality, memory, the possibility of connection and communication, the relationship between childhood and adulthood (not to mention children and adults) and the nature of identity. This time around, his narrative centers around the device of regression. The four main characters all experience regression in different ways and for different reasons, and this allows Shaw to explore his themes in the context of compelling characters and a more linear narrative than usual. The resulting story is another candidate for best comic of 2006.
The story is simple: a librarian named Virginia has to quit her job in Chicago and drive to New Orleans in order to take care of her mother, who is dying of Alzheimer's disease in an assisted living home. She is haunted by the death of a boy that she loved as a child, a death that has held back her development into adulthood and left her resistant to growth. In New Orleans, she meets a musician named Dick and falls in love with him. Dick has his own issues with identity, but immediately feels a bond. As the book unfolds, we see each character regress in different ways, with the end giving us a portent that Virginia is finally ready to move forward.
While the book is dizzyingly clever and often formally challenging, in many ways it's his most accessible work. Shaw eases up a bit on the dense layers of symbolism that were evident in GODDESS HEAD, but still displays his fascination with language and the language of comics. The physical and formal qualities of words and images, their phenomenological properties, fascinate Shaw. He breaks them down and builds them back up to not only form his narrative and breathe life into his characters, but also charge each page and image with raw, visceral emotion. Shaw never lets the reader forget that they are in the act of reading and interpreting text and image, but at the same time focuses on the moment-to-moment activities of being human. It's why breathing, eating, sex, sleep and tactile sensation are so prevalent in his stories: Shaw is simultaneously distancing the reader and drawing them in.
Shaw loves mixing media and subverting reader expectations. On the first page, there's a blurb for Shaw ("Praise for Dash Shaw, cartoonist") with comments by Zak Sally and Gary Panter. Then we see "Praise for Hasben Toy Trucks", with a seemingly random quote from someone named Virginia Miles, children's librarian. Then Shaw gives us "Praise for Virginia Miles, children's librarian" with comments from her boyfriend and mother. It's a neat trick that puts the reader off guard. The next page is series of panels as we follow several ambulances speeding along their way. The four ambulances all pull up to a four-way stop simultaneously, and no one knows what to do next. This is a nice set-up for the crises faced by the four main characters in the book.
After we see Virginia driving backwards from Chicago to New Orleans (symbolic of her regressing to a past life of sorts) Shaw then introduces each of the characters as though they were plates in an art book. It's another distancing technique, as Shaw comments either directly or obliquely on each character. It provides the reader with key information in deciphering what's going on without giving them too much data.
Another device Shaw uses is showing us an image, and then mimicking that image to produce another meaning. After introducing Richard, the child who died at an early age, we see a drawing of a child's house (along with an excerpt from an essay that posits the universality of how houses are drawn by children worldwide). The next page is a realistic drawing of the assisted living home where Virginia's mother is dying. Shaw notes that this is an homage to Stanley Kubrick's famous shot in 2001: A Space Odyssey of the ape-man triumphantly throwing a bone in the air after learning how to use it as a weapon, and then in the next shot we see a space station where the bone once was falling. On the next two pages, we see Mary (Virginia's mother) tucked into bed in an image drawn by Shaw; then we see a photo of an older man wrapping a child tightly in a blanket. In both cases, the full power of this transition and these images won't become evident until later in the book, but we still get a sense of their importance because of the way Shaw juxtaposes them.
After this initial barrage of imagery, the narrative becomes a bit more transparent. We see Virginia with her mother as she talks to her. Virginia is a wreck as she tries to come to terms with her mother dying. It's clear that she's not close to her mother, or to anyone for that matter. The focus shifts to Mary as she's lying in bed, processing what memories she has left. Shaw uses a device where we see Mary laying in bed at the bottom of the page. At the top of the page, we see photographs--images from Mary's life. She narrates each photo, with the memories of people whose names she's forgotten being xxxx'd out. Whole parts of sentences simply disappear and become more and more fragmented until the memories disappear and we see the moon go from full to new and simply disappear. The reader then sees a clock in three consecutive panels--except the clock is moving forward. Mary has completely lost touch with her memory and the regression here has ended.
Shaw then cuts to the first date between Virginia and Dick, the musician she met on the street. Virginia is all curves and roundness while Dick is sharp angles--a complementary pair. As they go on a walk after a sometimes-awkward but still sweet dinner, Shaw shows us images of a fossil being created over time, which then segues into Virginia talking about digging up what's buried and time capsules. Again, she is obsessed with the past. Finally, she admits to Dick that she reminds him of Richard and gets him to act out things they used to do on the playground with each other--little acts of intimacy that she had clearly not allowed herself to experience since.
When Virginia goes to see Dick perform the next night, she hears a lot of awful things about him from the audience. In particular, she learns that Dick has reinvented himself time and time again and hears two hipsters disparage him for "desperately trying to be someone else". Virginia decides all at once that these revelations don't matter. Everyone wants to be someone else at some point, and even though Dick is cycling through older personas and influences ("Michael Jackson meets the Pixies"), Virginia finds in him someone who's willing to at least move forward.
After Virginia and Dick have sex for the first time, Shaw then goes back to his theme of regression as the pair lay in bed, Virginia wondering about the possibility of growth. The tangled sheets turn into the branches of a tree as we slowly go backwards on the evolutionary scale: human to reptile to insect to fish to amoeba-like shapes, a recapitulation of the book's tropes. We then dissolve from that image to the sandbox where Virginia and Richard used to play.
As Shaw relates the sad story of Richard, his art simplifies and becomes more childlike. We see the joy of his brief time with Virginia contrasted with the abuse he's suffering at the hands of his mother (we simply see the word "bruise" on his face—another instance of Shaw transposing our understanding of word and image and interchanging the two). He simply shrugs that off as he's sent to therapy, and we return to the child's drawings--this time, it's an analysis of his drawings and what it could his symbology means from a child development perspective. It's another distancing technique as Shaw manages to convey to the audience the pain of Richard's awful life through a clinical filter. Then he distances us even further, switching to a news story of a child dying in rebirthing therapy. It is of course Richard, who is accidentally smothered in a type of therapy meant to mimic and hence resolve the trauma of birth itself. We then see the photo of the older man with a child wrapped in a rug once again and we now have the horrible realization that this ultimate form of regression is what killed Richard.
Of course, Virginia has done nothing but regress herself since the death of Richard. Earlier in the story, Virginia tells her mother that she's thinking of cutting her hair for a fresh start, but was hesitant because "I just get so attached to things"--especially memories. Virginia hasn't changed her hairstyle since Richard died. As she's lying in bed with Dick and her mother has died, they discuss the future. Dick, as always, is optimistic--"I could become anything". Changing is as easy for Dick as it is difficult for Virginia--which makes him her perfect match. Virginia understands this and knows that she's going to be the anchor that Dick needs--and that she'll be able to change herself, as evidenced by her last line of the book: "I'm going to cut my hair tomorrow".
While I've examined the major themes and motifs, there are other, smaller images here and there that reflect and magnify the overarching ideas that Shaw explores. It's a true pleasure to delve into a book so rich with ideas, so worth studying its every word and image. Shaw continues to get better with each passing work, smoothing out the rough patches in his art and refining both his ideas and his ability to express them.