Monday, June 16, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #166: New School by Dash Shaw

The very first thing a critic must do is understand and appreciate a particular work. If there's no basis of understanding, there can be no useful criticism. So the critic must be able to confidently say that this work is aiming at thus-and-so effect, or that it's solidly in such-and-such subgenre, or that it can interestingly be considered in light of some particular body of work, style, or kind of work. When a critic is reduced to throwing up his hands and guessing, his work is probably useless -- only successful by accident, if that.

Dash Shaw's 2013 graphic novel New School just about reduces me to that point: I warn you now. It has blocks of color underlying the art at odd angles and for multiple pages, for purposes I don't really understand -- the narrator's precognitive flashforwards are underlain with solid blue across all panels, that's clear, but the use and meaning of the other colors and patterns escapes me. And the dialogue is overwritten in a very particular style, as if it were badly translated into not-quite colloquial English from some other language, or as if all the words were deliberately chosen to be a little more serious and erudite than everyday speech. I don't understand that choice, either.

So New School is very clearly working with specific artistic choices and ideas that have flown right past me: I have to admit that. And Shaw is a very deliberative, specific cartoonist -- though you can miss that, with his deceptively simple drawings, full of thick lines that are much more carefully crafted than they appear to be -- so all of his choices are particular to a specific work and aimed at a specific end. I just have no idea what those choices were, or why Shaw made them in this book.

So I'm left to talking about the obvious story: two brothers, Luke and Danny, growing up in the 1990s in New York City. Their father edits a trade journal for theme parks, and the most exciting new park is Clockworld, being built on a mysterious island, X, its construction led by Otis Sharpe, a Xian local who spent most of his career elsewhere, building parks for other people. There are jobs on X for teenagers, and Luke goes -- the plan is for him to spend only a year there ("a single orbit around the mother sun," as the boys' mother puts it when he leavers). But two years pass, and Luke doesn't return, and hardly communicates. So Danny, our viewpoint character, who has prophetic dreams (about the movies Jurassic Park and X-Men, and later about future events in his own life), is sent to find his brother and bring him back.

That much is the set-up: the first thirty or so pages of a 340-page book. The bulk of the book is what happens when he arrives on X: how his brother has aged and changed; his brother's new girlfriend, Esther; the social and work situation on X and at Clockworld; the nearly-completed rides and attractions of that park; and how Danny himself is changed by being on X. The Xian language is apparently very difficult: Lucas has learned essentially none of it in two years, even though his entire job is teaching English to locals (who presumably are speaking Xian in passing to him every day). His "host father" also doesn't speak a word of English, even after two years with an English-speaker in the house.

Xian mores and expectations and society are equally different and surprising: they are practically a Victorian utopia, full of bicycles, free from theft and other small crimes, with a repressive morality that leads the young to sneak off to fool around in hidden corners of not-quite-completed Clockworld.

New School looks like a word that should be read as allegory, or metaphor, but I can't make the parallels come clear. Even the extended flashforward ending is more confusing than enlightening, a great slab of conventionality after a highly phantasmagorical Shavian chase and action sequence. Again: I don't know what New School is trying to do. I couldn't figure it out. So I can't tell you if it succeeds or not. It's at very least an interesting failure, another step on Shaw's idiosyncratic path through the comics world, and definitely worth reading to anyone who enjoyed BodyWorld or Bottomless Belly Button. But, if you haven't read Shaw before, I'd recommend picking one of those two books first: Belly Button if you prefer family stories and BodyWorld if you're a fan of SF and fantasy.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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