Friday, July 16, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 163 (7/16) -- BodyWorld by Dash Shaw

Dash Shaw's work is incredibly, intensely structured, full of complicated schematics and mechanisms to guide the reader through the world of the story (or, perhaps, originally to help Shaw organize that story to begin with) -- which belies his often loose and simplified drawings. (He's also fond of very comic-booky alliterative names that call attention to themselves and underline the fictionality of his stories -- he often doesn't seem to want his readers to forget that they're reading a made-up story.) He's also been fond of complicated science-fictional premises in his short stories -- like "Look Forward, First Son of Terra Two," "Satellite CMYK" and "The Galactic Funnels" -- but his first major graphic novel, Bottomless Belly Button, was an entirely mundane story of a contemporary family dealing with divorce.

BodyWorld is Shaw's follow-up to Bottomless, and it's just as carefully structured and organized as its predecessor -- there are fold-out grid maps of the town of Boney Borough tucked into the endpapers (looking like the campaign maps of some weird D&D group), backed with drawings of the major characters -- but the premise is as SFnal (as as pulpily unbelievable) as those short stories. It's 2050, and the US is about a generation into the aftermath of a second Civil War -- Shaw never explains what the war was fought about, or even who won -- as a freelance writer "professor" travels to the rural Virginia model town of Boney Borough to find and document a newly-discovered psychotropic plant for a major encyclopedia of hallucinogens.

The "Professor" -- Paulie Panther -- is jittery and intense, an addict perpetually coming down from something-or-other. The other three major characters have equally Shavian attention-demanding names: the science teacher Jem Jewel, homecoming king and "Dieball" player Billy-Bob Borg, and Billy's girlfriend and local wild child Pearl Peach. Boney Borough's claim to fame -- other than its offhandedly utopian ultra-planned-community origin; which Shaw mentions but doesn't make much use of -- is Dieball, something like basketball played outdoors with a giant D10. (And that detail doesn't help dispell the geeky air raised by the endpaper maps and the secondhand SFnal tropes -- Dieball doesn't make much sense as a game, in the same way that the maps don't function well as maps; both mimic the outward forms of usefulness, and show the results of energy and effort, but don't quite gel.)

The drug Panther came to investigate turns out to amplify empathy intensely -- to turn the user into a telepathic receiver for the urges and unconscious thoughts and feelings of whoever is closest. (As Panther badly explains it to Peach, "My theory is that the plant allows my body to "read" someone's bodymind in stages" -- though, the first time he used it, he very quickly was getting Jewel's conscious thoughts and was mimicking her actions -- so his folderol about "bodymind" is at best misleading.) Panther is an addict and a drug connoisseur, so he experiments with the drug, in the half-assed but intensely focused way of the addict, and he uses it with all of the other main characters: Jewel, Borg, and Peach.

The merging of "bodyminds" allows Shaw to draw fantastic overlapping scenes -- of past and present, of several people's perceptions, of minds merging and separating. He's less in control of the story, though, which spins out in pulpy directions more suitable to a paranoid thriller or '40s SF. The source of the plant, and its purpose, aren't even as up-to-date in SF terms as early Philip K. Dick -- there are a dozen prose writers who did more interesting things with similar themes fifty years ago, so it's difficult to see the last third of BodyWorld as anything less than a lost story opportunity...though this also the section where Shaw's carefully-constructed art comes into its glory, with multiply overlapping frames of reference rising to a big confrontation that Shaw keeps chaotic and fluid, just this side of incomprehensibility.

BodyWorld isn't as successful as Bottomless Belly Button was, because Shaw's less in control of the story and thematic material, and because his weakness for the pulpier side of SF leads him away from the subtleties that his art would otherwise lead him toward. But it's still an impressive second (graphic) novel, and it's great to see Shaw stretching himself and finding new, unique stories for his odd-faced, drippily sweaty, lumpy figures.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Voxtrot - The Future Part 1
via FoxyTunes

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