Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Everyone's Connected -- Whether They Like it or Not

Dash Shaw's BodyWorld came to my attention just last week when it earned one of the coveted nominations for the Digital Comic Eisner. But Shaw has been making a splash in the world of offline comics for a while now. In 2002, a 19-year-old Shaw was named one of the Small Press Expo's ten artists to watch, and his preliminary pages on his family disintegration drama Bottomless Belly Button so impressed Fantagraphics editor Gary Groth that he published the 720-page tome last June.

BodyWorld is a science fiction drama about isolation, connection, and fulfillment. After an unnamed civil war, Boney Borough is set up as a sort of eco-friendly Levittown, with couples and soldiers' widows hoping to raise their children in a wholesome post-war suburb, filled with high school sweethearts, big sporting events, and long walks through Boney Borough's expansive forests. Depressive botany professor Paul Panther takes one look at the K-12 school at the center of this apparently idyllic borough and says, with longing, "I wish I went to this school."

Paul has come to Boney Borough from New York, where he is updating a text book on hallucinogenic plants. It's precisely the only job Paul is qualified to hold, since the miserable, balding botanist is himself addicted to drugs. Paul can't seem to maintain human connection, but he's desperate for it; he meets his only friend by responding, in earnest, to spam email messages. He fills the hole in his life with various forms of self-abuse and has convinced himself that he longs to die.

A bizarre new plant has appeared in the Boney woods, and Paul has been sent to investigate its possible hallucinogenic properties. But this plant does far more than force the smoker to see pretty swirling colors. Instead, it creates a profound connection between the smoker and the people closest to him, letting him experience the other person's thoughts, memories, and even physical sensations. Soon, teacher Jem Jewel and students Pearl Peach and Billy Borg become unwitting lab rats as Paul attempts to forge a connection with them.

Of course, Boney Borough doesn't need Paul or the plant to be a science experiment. With its rigid zoning codes, fashions from some fictional corner of the 1950s, and absence of roads or cars, the whole town seems a sort of social ant farm. And, while Boney may seem, on the surface, the picture of sitcom perfection, beneath the school jerseys and argyle sweaters lurk sexual secrets, sports-related substance abuse, and an absurd level of surveillance. Ultimately, the denizens of Boney are no less vulnerable to loneliness than Paul Panther is, though most don't share his stubborn, almost self-destructive individualism. And when Boney Borough threatens to transform into the superorganism it seems to want to become, Paul has to either flee for his sense of self or let the town swallow him whole.

The characters in BodyWorld are archetypes we've seen before: the drug-addled loser who grasps at his last shreds of optimism, the sexy teacher who never really left high school, the naive girl who feels she's outgrown small-town life, the prom king jock who secretly knows he peaked long before graduation. But Shaw uses them to explore the subversive notion that we may be happiest when we surrender our individuality, our personal will to something larger than ourselves; that, left to our own devices, we will only make ourselves miserable. It's a smart and surprisingly accessible work that, despite its retro, alterna-comics look, has underpinnings of superhero comics, romance comics, and even The Twilight Zone.

It's the way Shaw blends artistic ideas that is most powerful here, poking and prodding at the language of comics to achieve his ends. Sometimes he plays it straight, using arrows and dotted lines to denote action in a way that is at once archaic and reassuringly familiar. Dead critters even get little Xs over their eyes. At other times, he radically busts the rules of traditional comicking, breaking out of his normally rigid panelling structure to allow scenes and people to overlap, and sometimes he abandons black lines entirely, filling the panels with blocks of unrestricted color. These choices make BodyWorld an interesting visual experience, but they're narrative rather than merely aesthetic.

My one issue with BodyWorld is that Shaw seems almost single-minded in the pursuit of these notions of individuality, community, microcosms, mirror neuron theory, and superorganisms. Although there are moments of texture, primarily (and appropriately) fleshing out our march-to-his-own-miserable-drummer botanist, the social science fiction lover in me longed for more details about this offbeat American future. And it's not merely a genre preference; I want some kind of anchor to this world. I want to feel chills (or at least ambivalence) at the prospect of a somewhat familiar civilization turning into something alien. But Boney Borough is a symbol pulled from a too-distant piece of Americana, making it difficult to connect to on any emotional level. This ultimately makes BodyWorld successful as an art piece, but falls short of that Twilight Zone-esque potential for being a truly chilling morality play.

Still, BodyWorld is worth at least two reads, best in quick succession -- one to take in the plot and the glorious weirdness of it all, and a second (or third) to examine how Shaw's themes play out. For print lovers, Pantheon is publishing a dead tree version in 2010 and there are rumblings of a possible film adaptation.

So, I give. I like BodyWorld and I see why it was nominated for an Eisner. But I still think comparing a self-contained work (albeit an extremely successful and intelligent one) to long-term web serials is a bit of apples and oranges.



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