Reviewed by Martyn Pedler
Before you read Dash Shaw's BodyWorld, you should note his strict instructions inside the cover: "THIS BOOK IS FOR IDEAL READERS ONLY!!!" Is that you? Consider the fact that even before you wade into the story, you'll have to grapple with it as a physical object. Will your first thought be "This is one beautiful book" or "Dear lord, this is annoying to read"?
You see, BodyWorld was originally serialized online (and is still available, if you prefer) to be read in long, vertical strips of screen. The book does its best to recreate this experience by forcing readers to hold the book lengthways, spine horizontal, hands clutching top and bottom. It's amazing how a simple gimmick can make the book feel so alien. It's fitting -- irritating as hell, but fitting nonetheless -- for BodyWorld's subject matter.
It includes oblique mentions of a second American Civil War and a ridiculous sport played with an oversized Dungeons & Dragons die, but you already knew BodyWorld was a sci-fi of sorts. Look at the neon faux-digital title spelled out down the book's side! The town of Boney Borough, though, is an artificial throwback to simpler times: less dystopian megacity, more Archie Comics' Riverdale. Enter Paulie Panther: a "rogue botanist," pharmaceutical investigator, and someone miserable enough that there's a running joke of him willing himself towards death. (We see the suicide attempt; an all-black panel or two; then we realize, just as Paulie does, that he's still alive.)
The other characters have Philip K. Dickish names, too -- Jem Jewel, Billy-Bob Borg, Pearl Peach -- and as BodyWorld continues, they form a kind of romantic... well, not triangle. Rectangle, maybe? Or rhombus? Whatever shape it takes, it becomes infinitely more complex with the discovery of a new flower near the high school that, when smoked, gives you "telepathy-ish powers." Paulie explains: "Not like cool superhero powers. More like a heightened sensitivity." This plant provides just the narrative excuse Shaw needs to empty his formidable toolkit of artistic techniques onto the page.
How do you illustrate how "Pearl sees how Paul sees Pearl sees Paul"? Arrows zoom from one character's brain to another. Afterimages of memory linger and overlap until it's impossible to focus on what's underneath. The shapes that make up cartoon eyes un- and re-form into a single image. I could waste all my wordcount on trying to put the dozens of these techniques into words and I wouldn't do any of them justice. One helpful subtitle describes a panel as containing "an unknown language of pictures instead of sound," and there are times BodyWorld comes close to achieving the same. And it's this, precisely this, that'll make some dismiss the book as a masturbatory exercise in formal experimentation.
It's not, and let me flash back to Dash Shaw's first book, Bottomless Belly Button, to explain why. It's a more naturalistic and obviously emotional story of an extended family coming together at their parents' home -- only to be told that their parents are, in fact, about to get divorced. (One character describes the trip as "like a sucky vacation to a prison.") The grandchildren deal with it fine. It's the adult children who struggle with the news, and it bothers Dennis, their son, most of all. When his sister comforts him by telling him not to cry, he shouts, furious: "I'M TRYING NOT TO!"
Well, okay, Bottomless Belly Button's drama is made slightly surreal by Chris, who looks like a frog. "Do I look like a frog to you?" he asks a girl he meets. "Sometimes I think I look like a frog." He's the most abject and adolescent -- producing snot, semen, and sweat throughout -- but also the most human. (Admittedly, I mistakenly thought his ears on the top of his head were his eyes and his eyes were his nostrils for the first chapter or so. It occurs to me this isn't the kind of thing that regular literary critics have to worry about.)
The book's not without its own look-at-me trickery. You open a page of a character looking through a photo album, and notice your own thumbs -- outside the book -- align perfectly with the character's thumbs, drawn inside. Earlier, two panels of strangers in adjacent cars, stuck in traffic, are placed side by side to make them conceptually kiss in the gutter between panels. The usual comic book sound effects are replaced by labels explaining what you're seeing, as if Shaw's reading over your shoulder. "Straight lines in carpet after vacuuming," he whispers in your ear. "Strain of calf muscles when climbing a dune."
It's filled with these kinds of labels, codes and catalogues. Dash Shaw painstakingly draws all the different types of sand and the different types of water. The family home always seems like it's about to give up its secrets via mysterious keys and pie charts and hidden passageways and even a painting with the eyeholes cut out, Scooby-Doo-style. Dennis says he's getting "to the bottom of this." He's not. How could he be? Can we ever really understand why our families act the way they do?
Shaw seems convinced that if he generates enough pages and fills them with enough ink -- more maps, more notations, more artistic explanations -- this family will start making sense, fitting together. It's not just page-filler. It's what transforms Bottomless Belly Button's more experimental moments into something heartfelt. It's the desperation that gives the book its weight.
(Bottomless Belly Button also comes with special instructions. It's in three long chunks, and Shaw insists you take a break between each one. I obeyed orders, I swear. I can't say the same for the second command buried in BodyWorld's disclaimer text: "PLEASE READ IN BED NAKED.")
BodyWorld doesn't wear its heart on its sleeve like Bottomless Belly Button. If nothing else, It has more goofy jokes -- the D&D-meets-Friday-night-football mentioned above, or when Paulie tells Jem she's photogenic and she explains it's because her features are "very flat. Two dimensional." Its characters don't have the kind of depth as they did in his family drama, but they're kept simple -- the popular jock, the heartbroken blonde -- because it's more clear how their consciousnesses interact and infect each other. That said, Paulie Panther gets all the best lines. "Oh! Sorry," he snarks at one point. "I didn't mean to liberate your mind or anything. My bad!"
When someone in BodyWorld describes an image as creating an "irony-free synaesthetic experience," are they being ironic? Maybe. But I choose to learn a lesson from Paulie Panther. He writes back to a spam email, oblivious, only to find there's a real person spamming him and have a real friendship develop between them.
I believe Dash Shaw's sincere, too, and what these two books share is a palpable desire for intimacy; for new and better kinds of connective tissue between human beings. Shaw's formal play isn't masturbation; it's sex, or at least, it wants to be. He's willing to try anything that'll illustrate two characters sharing something real, whether it's an intimate panel of a finger touching Paulie's chest through a hole in his t-shirt or page after page of abstract swirls suggesting shared psychic experiences.
If technology allowed, I have no doubt BodyWorld would prefer to rub its contents straight onto your skin or inject them between your toes or beam them straight through your third eye. For now, consider Dash Shaw's art the rough blueprint for the storytelling machinery that's yet to arrive.
Before they've encountered the alien plant and the shared consciousness it offers, teenagers Pearl and Billy-Bob are kissing. Pearl says: "I want to see what's inside you. I want to know everything about you." Soon after, Billy asks her: "You always kiss with your eyes open?"
BodyWorld kisses with its eyes open.
Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia, and hopes to one day be described as an "irony-free synaesthetic experience," too. Find him at www.martynpedler.com.
Books mentioned in this post