Just finished Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button, which I picked up after having been following the online serialisation of the still-in-progress “Bodyworld” for a while. Shaw is good, and he seems to really be hitting his stride. One thing is dropping a 700-odd page comic seemingly out of the blue, another is for it to be actually convincing.
Belly Button is that. It’s a real page-turner, and for all his visual pyrotechnics, Shaw’s good on character. I really dug the way the mysterious divorce of the elderly couple at the head of the family the story centres around isn’t explained, or rather is explained right away, but never coalesces into neat cause-and-effect. The story of how the family copes, or not, is touching and each character is given room to unfold before our eyes. The frustrated, clueless Dennis who is hit the hardest, his stolid wife Aki, the resigned Claire who recognises herself in her teenaged daughter, Jill, and the inhibited romantic younger son Peter, drawn and perceived as a frog.
The premise for Claire’s situation is rather cliched and she is probably a bit underdeveloped as a character, but I like the way it’s left to the reader to fill in substantial amounts of what’s going on with her. The weakest or at least most predictable part is probably the romance that Peter experiences, but Shaw makes up for this through the sheer inventiveness of his storytelling. And it is really in this his budding mastery resides: on the one hand, he follows several of his older peers — from Chris Ware to Kevin Huizenga — in being fascinated by how comics can elucidate complex constructions or processes in the world around us through diagrammatic explication and the use of text to clarify things images leave less obvious. Like Crumb before him, he isn’t shy of telling instead of showing us that what the grandfather in the bathtub is doing is blowing bubbles through his beard.
On the other, Shaw uses comics as an almost phenomenological exploration of the world as it appears to us. Amping up the shorthand cartooning has always used to connote things that are hard or impossible to see — smells, noises, etc. — these elements are a constant visual presence, working our senses through synaesthesia. He obviously has fun knocking our senses out of whack, for example by lending equal weight to the noises and incidental happenings in a kitchen where several people are preparing their food and the dialogue and character moments between the characters. Almost as if the comics page were a mechanical recording, not cancelling out the incidental the same way our brain does. Also, this approach allows for affecting images, such as the almost Steve Ditko-like, star-studded flow of rising steam obscuring Claire’s face in the scene mentioned.
There’s certainly an amount of self-indulgence in Shaw’s work, which at times seems almost ostentatious and gives a lot of space to such conceits as the different permutations of the sand that surrounds the family coastside house — a less subtly suggestive device than it is obviously intended to be, if you ask me — and leaving rather important information in hard-to-decipher code also strikes me as a number too cute. But it’s all done with such verve and confidence that I didn’t hesitate to accept it as a reader.
By all means, read this remarkable comic and, if you haven’t done so already, go catch up on “Bodyworld,” where Shaw uses the obvious storytelling device of mind-altering drugs to take his phenomenological explorations into intoxicatingly innovative territory.
Watch this kid.
Image from “Bodyworld”.