28 January 2010

Daily Breakdowns 057 - The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century

The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century
Writer/Artist - Dash Shaw
Publisher - Fantagraphics Books. $19.99 USD

I was rather alarmed to search online and realize I never got around to reviewing Shaw's Bottomless Belly Button, one of the best graphic novels of 2008. This is quite a different animal from that 720 page sprawling seriocomedy/weird romance/exploration of divorce, but that's probably to be expected. After such a huge work, it's natural for authors to scale back, do some shorter stuff, try out some different ideas without the commitment a graphic novel requires. That's sort of true of this book, but it can't be said that Shaw is resting on his laurels, goofing off, or coasting. If anything, the handful of short stories here represent great leaps in, or at the very least previously unseen examples of, his innovative approach to comics coloring, as well as some inventive storytelling techniques. He also swings and misses once or twice, too, but that's fine.

First, though, we have "The Unclothed Man..." to examine. Not a short story, this was originally a series of four two minute animated shorts written and directed by Shaw (with additional artwork from Jane Samborski) for the Independent Film Channel about a rebel in the future bent on bringing humanity back to the almost impossibly automated life in the 35th Century. Shaw's is not a dystopian future in the sense of it being apocalyptic, irradiated and doomed. Rather, it's a placid, dull, unchallenging existence, with the passions and survival instincts of our ancestors largely bred out of us. The first 24 pages of the book are devoted to the series, with some lovely paintings and studies for the series alongside three one-page strips that inspired the shorts, but the majority of the work here are storyboards, often 24 per page. The process is mildly interesting, but ultimately frustrating because Shaw's directing notes are hard to read in this small format, and because storyboard artwork is never meant to be as good as comics or the final animation product. One could question why so much space was given to this, but the IFC logo on the front cover is a good clue. Whether they had anything to do with the book, I don't know, but it's not at all a bad idea to have that logo on the cover, which is striking in itself, its acetate suggesting the qualities of an animation cell. I could easily see someone picking up this book in a bookstore, curious about the IFC connection.

Speaking of the shorts themselves, which can be viewed here, Shaw turns out to have great promise as a director, and his comics strengths are displayed well. Shaw is not really a futurist, but part of the charm is the silly retro quality of some of the designs--both here and in one of the short stories, characters wear helmets of great power and technical sophistication, but they really just look like children's toys, or the designs a child would make of a cool spaceman. I like that Shaw hasn't lost that, even as he playfully lingers on the rebel character clipping his pubic hair to complete his disguise as an art model-droid. The animation itself is jerky, organic, trippy but low-fi, totally in line with the humanistic theme of the shorts.

As with "Unclothed," the short stories are variations on the theme of a man trying to find or retain his identity in a confusing, cold world. There's often a satirical element, as in "Terra Two/Terra One," which has The New Yorker giving an enthusiastic review of a dance performance only unique because it is performed backwards. Perhaps on some level Shaw realizes the story itself, underneath strong art and attractive coloring, is a gimmick more than anything else, a la Benjamin Button, or dare I say, Mork & Mindy? And I say attractive coloring, as it's nice, but I don't see depicting the backwards-living man in blue and his forwards-living paramour in yellow as having a deeper significance, not the way David Mazzucchelli dug deeper with color choices in Asterios Polyp. Still, while it isn't poignant, it's still pretty funny.

Alternating various story/timelines/levels of reality with fields of cyan, magenta or yellow, "Satellite CMYK" is a more successful effort, harrowing, disorienting and sad. Shaw has a gift for finding horror and despair in a simple, friendly drawing style here that would normally be suited to a '60s teen humor comic. The blending of the colors and then the descent into darkness are masterful, with an ending that's nicely ambiguous--it could be hopeful, or just another illusion meant to keep them in line.

"Cartooning Symbolia" looks to be one of the older pieces here, from 2005. It's a long series of funny words invented to convey various emotions, with complex, often brilliant, visual signifiers of those emotions in comics form. Think of a light bulb or broken heart symbol over a character's head, taken to the third power. Some of the other stories almost strike me as juvenilia because of the wild shifts in style and tone, but based on several being from 2009, it seems they're experiments, and produced at a fairly rapid pace. This intense work ethic may explain a certain "living in his head" quality to the work itself (it's nitpicking, but salsa is packaged in jars, never cans), as well as all the protagonists being males, often around Shaw's age. There's a real sense of working through artistic problems and challenges first, with the story second, as in the tale of the would-be screenwriter/gofer on the set of James Cameron's The Abyss, where Shaw employs a series of circles (water tank, salsa lid, hot tub, tape reel, etc.) to little effect, although the dialogue is comparable to a Dan Clowes loser study, or "My Entire High School...Sinking into the Sea!," a flight of fancy that boils down to an escape sequence with triangular panels, an unsure attempt at inking waves, and a particularly ugly coloring decision to do everything in a Photoshop airbrush effect. But that's what experimentation is about. Judging from the examples here, Shaw doesn't seem to repeat things that aren't working.

Much better are stories like "Blind Date 1" and "Galactic Funnels," the latter of which was selected for The Best American Comics 2009. "Blind Date 1" adapts a real episode of the syndicated show, and Shaw lets the awkwardness, forced gaiety and psychological impediment to happiness (the guy, anyway--what's his problem?) speak for themselves, while his cool blues, moody shadows and abstractions add a jazzy sensuality the shot-on-video game/reality show lacks. "Galactic Funnels" is justifiably acclaimed, an assured King of Comedy-style romp through the hollow life of a young man who finds an artist he admires, imitates and eventually tries to absorb. Full of dazzling color choices and smart storytelling that firmly deny this is a satire of the art world, the two key panels are, appropriately, near the beginning and right at the end. We see young Stan Smart toiling away, trying by repetition to lock into his hero Don Dak's real inspiration, galactic funnels, represented by Dak as circles. The splashes of color on Dak's face and the intense look in his eyes makes clear who the real artist is. Dak is obsessed, inspired. Stan is hip, a planner. He slavishly copies, with a compass. His worship appeals to Dak's vanity, briefly, but Dak's muse wins out. There can be only one funnel artist, and his love is sincere. Even when Stan tries to make a small innovation, a new wrinkle to call his own, he succumbs to the impulse of the hack: do the same thing, only bigger.

Shaw ends with what appears to be a new story in storyboard form (although drawn and colored with more of an eye towards publication than the "Unclothed" storyboards) that's another story of disconnection, finding a sort of "Joe the Plumber" instant celebrity trying to deal with his new fame. What's funny is that while his new manager is undeniably a crass womanizer giving him advice that may not help him find a genuine soulmate, the advice is much better for at least getting the ball rolling and starting a relationship than Joe's naked sincerity. It ends up as a nice visual bookend to "Unclothed," a reassuring piece of self-examination from an artist whose star is on the rise, and in its comics/storyboard hybrid format a fork in the road for where his career may take him.

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