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Gardenhead
By Dash Shaw
Published by and available from Meathaus Enterprises

A literate, low-tech graphic novel about words, symbols, connections, growing up, and the threads that bind all those things and more in the tapestry of our lives.

Gardenhead is the creation of Dash Shaw, writer/artist/publisher of a "zombie romance" comic called Love Eats Brains. I'm not familiar with that title, but based on Gardenhead, I definitely want to see more of what Shaw can do.

My favourite character here is Raymond, an elementary school student who acutely feels the pain of wanting to grow into his own space while all around him he bumps into the rude and cruel expectations of a society that wants nothing more than conformity. The criticism he absorbs and the ache he feels to fit in sent me back to my own childhood, even as it made me reflect on my desire to raise my children in a house where they are free to express themselves and their creative souls without being degraded or devalued, as Raymond tragically is.

This is an affecting work, which uses clip-art, cultural iconography and some deeply personal and thoughtful interludes to cut straight through the walls people erect to protect themselves. Not all the walls fall, here or in real life, and through Shaw's words and pictures we see that the strongest of them are built from the hardest scar tissue, from the deepest wounds.

Shaw demonstrates a number of influences in his work, from the naturalism of Steve Lieber and David Mazzucchelli's more sedate work to the experimental explorations of the artform suggested by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics. The story's experimental sequences contain a wealth of suggested nuance about what is going on with the characters, and to a great extent the result of Shaw's technique will be that the reader's reaction will be unique based on their own life experience and what they bring to the tale. I found it moving, at times sad and at times soaring, an admirable effort to express emotion and experience through ink on paper.

This is a rough work that achieves a paradoxical elegance through its theme and execution. I'd love to see how Shaw grows as a writer and artist based on this impressive graphic novel. Grade: 4.5/5

-- Alan David Doane



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