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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Bottomless Belly Button -- Dash Shaw's mammoth new graphic novel is a sweeping tapestry of a family in crisis. It's sad, it's thoughtful, it's dirty and funny and hesitant and right in your face. It's about the adult children of a divorcing couple gathering at their parents' beachside home to come to grips with reality and with each other.

It's a large, heavy book that is hard to hold up but rewarding to do so, kind of like a real family, and that and other resonances make me wonder just how brilliant Dash Shaw is. Another example: Bottomless Belly Button comes with one of two covers, a mom cover and a dad cover, the divorcing mom and dad of the book. And you have to choose one.

Years ago, I said "I'd love to see how Shaw grows as a writer and artist," and I guess now I know. Bottomless Belly Button is loose but fully-formed, rambling but always aware of its destination. For every discrete moment -- Peter's awkward first date, Jill's humiliating experience with her friend's boyfriend, or dad being given a bath -- Shaw is in complete, if intangible, control of where the Loony family is going. The events at the beach house unfold with the natural rhythm of real life, with all the digressions and messes that implies.

And most gratifyingly, Shaw is content to let us learn to like all of these people. Some are weirder than others, or more uptight, or more distant, but each is human and alive and entitled to some measure of understanding, and Shaw utilizes the length of the book to give us access to the hidden corners every one of his characters possesses. My very favourite panel comes near the end, a shot of the mother in the shower; yes, she's old, "wrinkly," as she says, but the look on her face, even possibly in tears, is one of strength and determination, and also enjoying the heat of the shower. Shaw conveys pages of information in this one masterful panel.

The drawing itself is impossible to separate from the narrative -- Shaw's line is powerfully emotive and organic, simple when it needs to be but sometimes detailed and diagrammatic. Lists sometimes drop in and out of the reading, like an obsessive cataloging of types of water or sand, such as a troubled child might keep as a distraction from ongoing turmoil.

Shawn's been doing some complex, excellent work in MOME recently, and Bottomless Belly Button even further establishes his credentials as a cartoonist you should be paying attention to. You find a lot of him inside his new book, but you'll find even more of yourself.


Bottomless Belly Button is available from Fantagraphics Books.



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