Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Fantagraphics: Dash Shaw's Cosplayers

The collection of Dash Shaw's comic book series Cosplayers loses some of the energy from the original periodicals, which seemed to really revel in being actual comic books in a comic-book size and format. The smaller hardcover makes up for that a bit with a lot of supplementary images in the form of Shaw's collages from the original covers and new drawings of cosplayers, a form of expression that Shaw not only loves, but has engaged in. (He cosplayed as his own character, Paulie Panther from Bodyworld, at MOCCA one year.) The story of cosplaying friends Annie and Verti is one about how the shared idea of relating so much to a fantasy world that one wants to bring aspects of it to real life is especially fascinating, because they went a step further in starting to film themselves doing cosplay.

In this context, "cosplay" started to mean anything that was captured on film that could then be repurposed later. For example, Annie pretended to deliver a package to someone, and they filmed that. Annie hid a knife behind her back while going out with a date she selected from OKCupid because he seemed to be the least threatening guy there. While Shaw resolutely chooses not to judge his characters, he's also not at all reluctant to show the real-world collateral that Annie in particular causes with her behavior. The guy she goes out with thinks she's "the one". When Verti goes on a date and its goes well, she feels guilty for lying to him about stuff she made up for the purposes of the film and later apologizes. For Annie, the line between fantasy and exploitation is a thin one, one she herself has trouble understanding. The appeal of using one's time to not just become someone else, but to live one's life as if it was one long performance, was difficult for her to separate from an attempt to make actual connections outside of Verti.

That performative aspect made Annie acutely aware of her potential audience. Early on, when they were first posting their videos to YouTube, Annie violently overreacted to a piece of criticism from someone she wound up knowing, but scaled back her reaction at the end when the unspoken sense that going down the rabbit hole of trying to get back at your critics wouldn't help her. More troubling was the idea of fame, as she was approached by a nerdy fan at an anime convention who wanted nothing more to simply be around (and hook up with her), and she was weirded out by the attention. The entire convention sequence was one of Shaw's funniest, and the book in general is notable for Shaw exercising that part of his skill set: there are more jokes in here than anything he's done since Bottomless Belly Button. That was especially true in Shaw's depiction of manga/anime critic named Ben Baxter, who was given the unforgiving 9am slot for his discussion of Osamu Tezuka, was shown as a bumbling, penniless man whose life and self-esteem was as wrapped up in his knowledge and critiques of manga as the cosplayers were obsessed with the idea of manifesting and living their fantasies.

There's a hard line between art and commerce that's explored in this comic as well. Annie & Verti are bitter that the cosplayers who spend thousands of dollars on their costumes always win, momentarily coveting fame and recognition over the simple love of what they enjoy. Baxter may not have had the money to actually go to this convention, but it's clear that it's the only time he feels alive, even as he's disrespected by virtually everyone. It gets more complicated for Annie & Verti later on, when they're approached by someone from a major website who offers them a big budget. The entire process changes how they make art and what it's like to see a creative friendship that's battered by outside forces, such that the reaction of the crowd becomes the only thing that manners.

This is a book of vignettes, and it certainly reads that way. The last story, about the cosplayers going to a comic book store, steps out of the cosplay scene and more into the idea of repurposing things into objects of beauty as well as being a take-off on people who are totally sold on comics. It also serves as a tribute to Jack Kirby on a couple of levels, both for the weirdness of his 2001 comic book series as well as his interest in comic book collage. This book must be read as a series of vignettes, or else it  feels half-finished. There's no arc that really concludes what the cosplayers are doing, and the last story is such a departure (it was published in a place other than the original Cosplayers series) that it almost feels like a non sequitur compared to the other stories. One gets the sense that Shaw wrote as much about these characters as he wanted to say and then stopped without trying to write a larger, overarching plot. He simply let these stories and characters meander pleasantly for a while, and the stopped when he was ready to do something else. As such, it's more of a fun side-note rather than one of Shaw's major books, but there's still plenty to look at. For example, his use of coloring flips between four-color standard and his abstract, emotionally jarring color technique that he used in New School. He uses it sparingly here, making it all the more effective.

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