Thursday, August 15, 2013

Recent Work From Dash Shaw

Let's look at a Shaw book from 2009 that I never got around to reviewing, as well as a minicomic and old-fashioned comic book featuring more recent work.

The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D. (Fantagraphics)

I've reviewed a number of Shaw's comics here, having followed his work since he was at the School of Visual Arts and had his mini series Love Eats Brains available at Jim Hanley's Universe, and I'm proud to say that I've had a chance to publish his work in Other magazine. Shaw is an interesting mix of aggressive formalist experimentation and an emphasis on the struggle of being human. As such, identity, sexuality and mortality are frequently his running themes, along with the difficulty of communication. In this collection of stories from Mome and other places, Shaw has dipped into the genre well a bit with science-fiction trappings for his stories providing a slightly broader but perhaps easier to digest canvas for some of his ideas. At the same time, this book is all about Shaw's process as an animator.

Shaw openly invites comparisons betweens comics and storyboards, and it's fascinating to see his comics pages for the story "The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D." and the subsequent storyboards for each segment. In a series of short animations for the cable network IFC, Shaw made changes both subtle and significant from the original comics text. The story hits on a common theme for Shaw's recent work: societal unrest and those who seek to foment it. Whether they act as agents of an unseen, agitating rebel group or whether they're reacting against it, Shaw is interested in the frequently arbitary dynamics of society breaking down. In this story, there's a man who's being paid by rebels to pretend to be a robot, the very thing against which they are rebelling. The stakes go from the agent destroying a satellite to infiltrating a live drawing class, and it's the latter that's a more difficult assignment, as he has to take massive quantities of pills to make him stiff like a robot. The comics versions of these vignettes are short and compact, with narrative captions doing a lot of the heavy lifting. The storyboards are a decompressed version of the story, giving greater emphasis to the image qua image while tinkering slightly with dialogue and the framing of certain scenes.Shaw also inserts other notes and things for the eyes to follow, like a flip-book animation that comes to life in the upper right-hand corner of this portion of the book; it recapitulates a key scene in the story. I got the sense that Shaw wanted to remind the reader that the storyboards are ultimately meant to be viewed in quick sequence. He also notes the contributions of collaborator Jane Samborski using an iconic code. While he uses color in the storyboards (an indication of just how key color is in his storytelling these days), he also provides full-page drawings done in full color; again, these act as a reminder as to what the final product will eventually look like. Here's a link to the first episode.

The bulk of the rest of the book reprints most of his stories from the anthology Mome. "Look Forward, First Son of Terra Two", was his introduction to the anthology, and it's a stunner that's his first effort that really makes use of color as a narrative device. It's a time travel story of sorts, where a man lives his life in reverse, arriving dead at the doorstep of a girl but then springing "back to life" as he ages backwards and everyone else moves forward in time. Shaw's use of color drives the narrative, as the man is in blue and everyone else is in yellow. The man is the Other in the most literal sense in this story, and the completely incompatible communication between the peoples of Terra One and Terra Two, running on reverse timelines, leads to inevitable tragedy. The tragedy comes about strictly because cause and effect become hopelessly mangled as the two peoples attempt to interact. There's a deep sadness and tenderness to this story at its core that anchors Shaw's huge bag of cartooning tricks.

"Satellite CMYK" is my favorite of Shaw's short stories, and the best one ever published in Mome.. Shaw once again used color as a formal storytelling tool, experimenting with its eye-grabbing qualities to either anchor the narrative, guide the reader or else depict clashing or contradicting ideas in a clever manner. This story is about deception and identity, as a man is depicted at three different ages in three different identities. He is tossed around by a group of rebels in a huge satellite where people living on certain levels believe they are at the lowest level, whereas the rebels know there are lower levels and keep trying to smuggle people down to them and give them new identities. Of course, our protagonist has no interest in being part of this struggle--he just wants to live his life and resents having his loved ones and memories taken away from him.
The clever thing about the story is that each identity is represented by a different color from the offset printing scale of CMYK: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. That entire world is in that one color (and even goes in that CMYK order), with that "subtractive color" a handy stand-in for that subtracted series of memories. The final page, where the protagonist is literally in the dark before seeing a brand new image when the lights are turned on, is a perfect demonstration of the way offset printing works to create new colors through combining plates, just as the protagonist is now living on a level where he is allowed to keep his memories. It's an incredibly clever idea that could really only be done in comics, and on print in particular.

"The Galactic Funnels" in #11 is another science-fiction story tinged with pathos, as a young man is inspired by a particular natural formation in the future (conical funnels in space), is strongly influenced by an artist who creates paintings inspired by them, and later disavows that artist when he starts his own career. The breaking point comes after the young man, Stan Smart, becomes the lover of the artist in question, Don Dak. Dak rejects him after being threatened by his lover's own talent along with a fear of loss of identity--Smart's stealing the ideas that have made him famous. Smart reacts to the rejection by pretending Dak meant nothing to him, both as an artist and person, finally rejecting his own aesthetic point of view later in life. Once again, the wrenching emotional core of the story is augmented but not overwhelmed by Shaw's pyrotechnics with color and composition. Shaw has backed off some of his more oblique past storytelling tendencies but hasn't sacrificed his desire to explore the limits of the comics form. This story is all about how point of view affects perception and experience, with the funnels acting as a metaphor for how both Dak and Smart willfully shaped their memories and narratives in such a way as to reflect positively on themselves and minimize the presence of the other.

Shaw's use of color in "Scenes from the Abyss" is absolutely stunning. It's a simple story about an ambitious but banal young screenwriter trying to get his project made and impress those around him. Each segment of the story is introduced with a large panel dominated by a circular structure: a lamp, a tank of water containing a stage, a hot tub, a reel of film, etc. There's a sleazy sense of fakeness to this character, who in every stage of the story is finding a different way to distort reality, a practice reflected in the way Shaw blurs and distorts light and color in this strip.
Shaw's "My Entire High School...Sinking Into the Sea!" is another in a series of unusual color experiments from the artist. The story is a cross between a Steve Ditko homage and the film "Titanic", as the story is otherwise self-explanatory. Shaw draws himself back in high school as it's being swept away and he's desperately trying to stay alive. Shaw bleeds color across panels in an expressionistic manner, mixing them like watercolors in a tray to evoke extremes of emotion. It's an enormously clever experiment, mixed in with Ditko-style stiff character poses and an ending that mixes the end of "Titanic" with Captain America's 60s origin story. This is Shaw doing straight-faced farce, mixing in familiar influences (including autobio) in a funny, pointed manner.

Shaw has noted that his interest in the way that couples interacting led to him adapting episodes of the TV show Blind Date. That's a show that depicts a blind date and runs all sort of pop-up commentary along the way at the expense of the daters. Shaw took that formula, softened it with a sea-green wash, and stripped it of the snark. The result left only the pathos of the experience, with two people desperately looking for a connection but having vastly different ideas of what that connection might mean, especially as it comes in the context of an artificial environment. That became especially clear at the end, when the woman is taken by the man, but he said he didn't feel a spark that he had vaguely defined earlier in the story. Shaw makes heavy use of shadow in this story, almost as if the reader is seeing the characters through a thick window. The effect is both distancing and yet strangely intimate, as though the reader was spying on a couple they cared about. This is a comparatively minor Shaw story in terms of scope and ambition, but it certainly fits into his recent interest in the use of color to drive narrative in different ways.

"Cartooning Symbolia" is a pre-Mome piece done in Shaw's old style: cartoony, slightly grotesque figures. This is a very funny story that seems like a cousin to the sort of thing that Kevin Huizenga might do, as Shaw lists off the names for all sorts of cartooning effects: dotted lines indicating invisibility ("invisidites"), various lines indicating aroma ("waftaroms"), drops indicating "liquid discharge" likes tears ("plewds") etc. The various sub-nicknames for these terms get every more ridiculous even as Shaw frames a story around panel after panel of examples of silly formal devices. Having the protagonist of the piece be an anthropomorphic pig is a stroke of genius, tying it into the cartoony and silly nature of the terms but also giving the self-loathing of the protagonist a real form as he struggles to create art, betrays his girlfriend through his art, loses her and then finds someone new. It's a varation of a technique Shaw later used in Bottomless Belly Button, where one character appeared as a frog throughout the book because that's how he perceived himself.
Shaw's "Blind Date" stories and his interest in ideas like the identities constructed for fame play into the book's final piece, a storyboard-only comic called "The Uncanny Reproduction". It's about a young man obsessed with a particular woman, with his stalking her allowing him to save her from a fire. That turns him into a hero, where an agent carefully sculpts his persona and tells him precisely to manipulate the girl into becoming attracted to him. Shaw clearly read a bunch of repulsive "art of seduction" material before he wrote this story, because what the agent tells him to do are techniques standard to that sort of thing. Just as everything seems to be going his way, he breaks down and confesses his years-long love for her, which of course breaks the spell of seduction. Of course, it also breaks the programming he was given, which went as far as the agent monitoring and taping everything he did. Like many of the stories in the book, it's a clever riff on self-deception, false identities, and the ways in which the lies we tell about ourselves become our real selves. It's also a story that satirizes the societal structures that encourage us to deceive ourselves and others as a way of fitting in and getting ahead.

Three New Stories (Fantagraphics)

This old-fashioned comic book is exactly what it sounds like: three new stories, in color. All three are wildly different from each other, but use Shaw's new coloring style that uses color as a kind of narrative device in an unspoken, abstract manner. "Object Lesson" may be Shaw's funniest story ever, as it follows a laid-off criminal investigator who is forced to go back to high school due to some bizarre set of circumstances where his high school degree was no longer valid. Using thick but simple lines, Shaw creates pleasing shapes and sequences on every page, bolstered by interesting effects like a red-brick wall effect (hitting the bricks) around a radiant sun blasting through and around drawings and dialogue. The symbology he uses is hilarious, like the job the man's applying for having a giant dollar sign in its window and a framed picture of a cent sign on a table. The over-the-top nature of what the family has to do to survive while he's secretly going to school is pitch-black in its sense of humor, like when the family has to eat the dog.

The school turns out to be a scam, where the students have to pay in to get class credit but love it because they're back in high school and they "actually know what to say this time" to girls. What makes this story so great is that Shaw plays it completely straight on the surface as the man investigates and eventually busts the "principal" behind all of this. The principal being surround by a green-tinted photo of coins is another funny image. Darker bits of humor include grammar lessons being taught with sentences that have monstrous implications, like "Abuse requires the compliance of the victim." Eventually, he's co-opted into becoming a teacher there with a steady job, and the final panel has the "sound of my success": a family with eight dogs surrounding a Christmas tree, colored blood-smudge red and green. Shaw is just in absolute control of this story, making it simple to parse yet jammed with discordant and hidden wells of humor and satire.

Shaw's second story is another one of his comics translations of a trash-culture TV program. In this case, he takes an episode of the porn series "Girls Gone Wild" and transcribes it. It's interesting because the sleazy, unseen cameraman is urging the young woman to take her clothes off, with the panels set against a road atlas. Maps are related to comics in that they combine words and images to express information, though a map is entirely utilitarian in nature. The panels here are equally utilitarian for another purpose: getting a woman to strip on camera so you can sell the tape to someone who wants to watch porn. The conversation's tension is false because we know that if this young woman didn't strip, we wouldn't see this sequence. The strip gives Shaw, who has always been fascinated by the human figure thanks to years of figure drawing classes and experience as a drawing model, a chance to draw a figure in this weird, contrived state of being alluring and being shy, with the understanding that the presence of the camera is both a kind of turn-on and a subtle form of coercion. It's more thought experiment than story, and it falls into the same category as his "Blind Date" strips.

The final story, "Bronx Children's Prison", reminds me a bit of New School in that it's a take on a heroic adventure. Here, the adventure has gone horribly awry, as the leader of the rebellious kids is captured and put into a brutal prison with her friends. Ever the voice of optimism, she seemingly inadvertently leads her friends into torturous situations while expressing platitudes about hope. Those platitudes are abetted by bright dots of color, often springing into pinks and yellows. A prison break leads to everyone dying but the leader, who coldly states "No friends left, but I'll find more". In a single stroke, with only the dark yellow moon providing color on that final page, Shaw transforms her from idealistic idiot to sociopath. It's a hell of a punchline. All told, I hope Shaw continues to have an outlet for his shorter work, because his Mome stories were some of the best of his career and show a punchier side of the artist.

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