by Dash Shaw (Pantheon, 2010)

Originally a web comic, this nine-chapters-long serial is collected into a what can only be described as a strange, psychedelic, fascinating and very inventive graphic novel. Writer and artist Dash Shaw's style is rapidly becoming unique. As with Bottomless Belly Button, he continues to experiment with mixed-media representation, seamlessly melding different forms into one big epic. BodyWorld is as thematically bold as it is hugely ambitious but Shaw pulls it off.

The year is 2060, after the second great Civil War. A writer and botanist with a name straight from a pulp novel, Professor Paulie Panther, is traveling around the country, "sampling" various plants to gauge their potential effects, with careful attention paid to, shall we say, any psychotropic side effects. He arrives in a town called Boney Burrough, Va., host to a newly discovered sort of superplant (the only known batch of which grows, conveniently enough, behind the town high school) that can completely alter the user's consciousness when inhaled, in the form of mind-melding with another. Not mere telepathy, but true, genuine empathy, in which both users go completely inside the emotional skin of one another. While attempting to record the effects of the plant, Panther shares some with two high school students. This rather thoughtless action predictably causes a bit of chaos in a town that already had some problems.

Shaw continues to be a relentless experimentalist, with crisp, well-drawn panels that speed along. He combines ink, paint, digital effects, even maps, in a visually stunning story that has its rough spots but whose overall effect is engrossing. For all its pretensions the art actually remains quite coherent and moves right along with the narration, even if it's occasionally necessary to have to look carefully at the panels to get all the details.

Shaw really wants to break down traditional visual paradigms, although sometimes the desire to exceed all previous boundaries, such as using multiple layering images in one scene, can result in artwork that is somewhat lacking in feeling. The characters are very interesting but oddly static and somewhat emotionless, almost the complete opposite of Bottomless Belly Button; however, the plot holds up well enough to keep the pages turning. Very much the successor to Jimmy Corrigan and a good example of why David Mazuchelli has called Shaw "the future of comics."

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Mary Harvey

12 February 2011

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