Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Bottomless Depths of Dash Shaw

Dash Shaw has all the earmarks of the shy and awkward kid in high school,
the one who hung alone in the back of the classroom with his nose in his sketchbook. Tall, thin, and good-looking in a bohemian way, the 25 year-old cartoonist has a slightly tanned complexion and long brown hair, angular eyebrows, and a young face devoid of stubble. He’s very shy when you first meet (as I did, in our mutual hometown of Richmond, Virginia a few years ago) sometimes his voice being so low that you have to strain to hear it, and sometimes polite to the point of awkwardness. He’s wearing a red, blue and white plaid button-down shirt with faded jeans, a hole in the right thigh allowing the bottom part of his pocket to poke through.

We catch up in Greenwich Village in June, picking a French restaurant for a drink; I wind up settling with a vodka martini and he with a light beer, and we start.

“I don’t really like cities,” Dash admits, sitting at the wobbly square table, and nursing his bottled beer. “When I draw comics, I try to transport myself to a place that’s different from where I am. My Fantagraphics book is a beach house area, and my webcomic Bodyworld is in the woods, in a remote, experimental town where everything is built around parks. I don’t like doing city-based stories, and don’t really like being in the city.

“But,” he admits. “I do like that New York has a lot of visual culture and different kinds of people. You walk down the street in New York, you see all different kinds of faces, but walk down the street in Richmond, and everyone looks the same.”

Dash moved to New York in 2001, right before September 11, where he went to SVA for sequential arts (“If I didn’t get into SVA, I probably wouldn’t have gone to college…” he noted) to learn the ropes, and got to hang out with indy cartoonists like Farel Dalrymple at Alt.Coffee. He left New York upon graduating in 2005, and made his way back earlier this year, just in time to benefit from the release of his graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button. Then, came the publicity: New York Magazine and The Wall Street Journal (to name just two) gave Shaw props and before he knew it, he had an agent and was hanging out at art gallery openings.

Bottomless Belly Button follows the reunion of a family on the eve of their elderly parents getting a divorce: while the older siblings have a hard time dealing, the sexually repressed brother loses himself in a doomed summer romance. The younger brother is arguably the focal point of the narrative: at the very least, he’s the most relatable. The protagonist of Shaw’s futuristic tale Bodyworld features another conflicted outcast: Professor Panther, who finds himself castigated from a public school where he has been performing research…and becomes embroiled in relationships with both a teacher and a student.

“I did Bodyworld more like a serialized story, and Bottomless Belly Button was written, then edited into sections, and was more of an intuitive writing process. And with Bodyworld, I don’t really edit, but complete section by section. What I’m hoping to do after Bodyworld is something I pencil all the way through, and then ink all the way through. I’m trying different ways of working that fits whatever I try to do. What would it be like to do a year of layouts, then a year of penciling; rather than doing it scene-by-scene. I’m trying different things.”

Where Bottomless Belly Button was a long, slow drag of a cigarette, with spaced panels with loose borders and a black and white world, Bodyworld is a headtrip trapped within rigid mechanical panels that are smattered with spot colors. There is a solid evolution between both projects, and we’ll just have to see where Shaw’s evolution next takes him amidst the streets of New York…

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