Bottomless Belly Button
by Dash Shaw (Fantagraphics, 2008)

Dash Shaw has alternately been viewed as both a peer to, and successor of, the Daniel Clowes/Craig Thompson/Chris Ware school of graphic artists/writers. This may be unfortunate in terms of his subject matter, because he covers the same area -- white middle-class angst -- which may be why he's prompted such divisive (but for the most part, quite positive) reviews. This is a topic that, admittedly, has been covered quite exhaustively.

But the success of Bottomless Belly Button depends on its presentation. That presentation is innovative and witty enough to revisit familiar territory with the refreshing ease and balanced viewpoint of a person much older and wiser than Shaw's 25 years (at time of publication), making it authentic and compelling.

After some 40 years of marriage, David and Maggie Loony gather their three children to the family beach house for a reunion and a shocking announcement: they will be divorcing, for the rather ordinary reason that they are no longer in love.

As premises go, it's simple enough. It's also deceptive, because the one-sentence summary in no way outlines the true scope of the book, which is very ambitious. But it's always "ordinary" drama that truly yields the most iconic storytelling, the most idiosyncratic characters.

BBB indulges in a lot of cinematic tricks, but they serve the story well. It's almost purely expressionistic, but the art focuses the emotional effect as if it were a lens. The oldest child, Denis, refuses to accept the mundane reason of his parents no longer being in love. Treating it like a crime that he has to solve, he sneaks around the house, even crawling under the floorboards in an attempt to gather "clues," in between working out, caring for his infant son and fighting with his wife. The only daughter and middle child, Claire, has put her own divorce behind her and is now trying to bond with her teenage daughter. The youngest son Peter, an aspiring filmmaker, is such a nonpresence in his own family and in his own eyes that he's represented not as human but as a sort of Kermit-the-frog-like anthropomorphic being.

The various storylines are juggled perfectly: characters are given their own tangent and every dysfunction, including sexual, is explored. The narrative devices are as clever as they are multilayered, though the overall tone is warm, forgiving and almost confessional in its intimacy, with not a few hilarious moments scattered throughout like shells on a beach.

While it's true that the dysfunctional family theme is a very universal one, it's a gripping tale in Shaw's hands. It's the particular combination of artwork and writing that makes it so fascinating. Shaw has great talent for panel layouts and smooth transitions. In many panels, sometimes for whole pages, artwork alone carries the story, while his attention to little moments is a masterful examination of tiny revelations. This is why there's no need to worry about the brick-like size of the book: it moves so quickly that it can be finished in one sitting.

As young as he is, Shaw is a master at imparting volumes of information in small chunks. For all his experimenting with the form, though, he does not distract from the narrative, moving along at a fast clip like a slide show of sand-toned images, leaving the ending ambiguous but realistic and emotionally affecting. This is a beautiful piece of work on every level.

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Mary Harvey

4 December 2010

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