Time keeps leapfrogging on, days yielding to weeks, yet I'm still pondering highlights of the year gone past. Man, we Balloonists are slow. Me in particular. Lately I can post only fitfully, with big yawning gutters between. I have to say, though, that Craig's excellent posts (from Tamara Drewe to his wonderful "Gifts" entry) have shamed me back into action. Notwithstanding a grinding work schedule and loss of rhythm, I've just got to post!
Besides Craig's stuff, another thing lighting a fire under my ass is the recent arrival in my mailbox of The Comics Journal No. 296, their Best of 2008 issue, which includes picks by many correspondents (sadly not including me, not this time) plus cool interviews with Lynda Barry, Dash Shaw, et al., an impressive gallery of Finnish comics, and an enticing preview of Carol Tyler's You'll Never Know. I count 140-plus best-of works in this issue's pages, and I'm shocked, in a slow-motion carwreck sort of way, to realize how few of these works I've sampled, let alone read all the way through. Ach, I am out. of. it.
Let's move on. What follows is another of my faves from 2008 that I haven't already written about here. I'll be brief, by Balloonist standards, because I hear time's winged chariot pulling into the driveway, etc.
Shaw is very good and getting better. His book Goddess Head is fascinating and his contributions to Mome are among that series's highpoints. With Bottomless Belly Button he has pulled off something remarkable: a 700-plus page book that doesn't feel like a stunt but rather is perfectly proportioned, intimate, and subtle, a privileged entryway into a private world that nonetheless feels universal in its emotive resonance and applicability. Like Craig Thompson's Blankets, this is a hefty, brick-like book that can be read easily in a few sittings, but Shaw's work is tougher and more astringent than Blankets, as well as more formally inventive.
Essentially, Bottomless Belly Button is about navigating a site saturated in memory: a house that becomes not only a locus of family history and reminiscence but also the setting for the painful disintegration, or at least fracturing, of said family: the Loony clan, who converge on their old beachhouse for one last get-together before the breakup of Mother and Father Loony, married some forty years but now fallen out of love. Shaw takes a generous, multi-sided view of this narrative problem, exploring it from multiple characters' perspectives and in the process suggesting what the dissolution of family, or rather the renegotiation of the idea of family, feels like for all parties.
Bottomless Belly Button has depths. It evokes the power of memory and the phenomenal richness of ordinary experience with the sort of Proustian precision of observation and recall that alternative comics have been chasing since Spiegelman. Indeed the book has the diagrammatic properties of Spiegelman and Ware, as well as their yen for exploring domestic space and something like their aesthetics of stillness: consider by way of comparison Spiegelman's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" or Ware's current "Building Stories," or for that matter Richard McGuire's famed "Here" (which Ware has been contending with creatively for a long time). Shaw's evocation of deep, lived-in feeling also reminds me of Seth's Clyde Fans; it aspires to the same minuteness of observation.
Bottomless Belly Button is full of formal gambits that are meant to render legible things that are usually not caught by comics: dust motes sparkling in sunlight, the glare of fluorescent lights, what it feels like to immerse your body in seawater,
how to pull a fitted sheet onto a mattress,
and innumerable other small things that make up the texture of lived experience.
The book could fairly be described as an anthology of such effects, yet it coheres into an involving and affecting story. Shaw's yen for formal devices -- diagrams, cutaways, labels, the representation of "found" documents -- never feels hermetic or alienating; if anything, he manages to make such things gentle and approachable. Even the book's inside front cover is a marvel:
It's hard to see in my scans -- the cover is printed on brown cardboard the color of a grocery sack -- but Shaw overlaps black-line and white-line images here in a kind of diagrammatic palimpsest. This device begins to suggest, right away, how the Loonys individually relate to the space of the house. I've taken the liberty of converting this page to grayscale and fiddling with the contrast to try to pick out the different elements (please forgive me for doing violence to the book's austerely beautiful printing):
Here, badly reproduced, are some of the ghostly white-line images that create the palimpsest:
This book has a lot to say about both aloneness and togetherness. Shaw's grasp of the family is admirably complex. Rather than focusing, alt-comix style, on a single alienated protagonist (though there is one here: Peter, youngest Loony and aspiring filmmaker, an archetypal recessive artist-hero), Shaw enlarges his perspective to all of the Loonys, individually and collectively, moving from one focalizing character to the next so as to open up the book's claustral spaces. As a result, everything about the book seems more generous and full. Dig how these diagrammatic conceits from early in the book capture the family's quality of being alone even when together:
These paired pages are just a hint of the complexity and nuance to be found once you dive deeply into the book.
Admittedly, Bottomless Belly Button is not perfect. There's an occasional awkwardness about the figure drawing and a Playmobil-like rigidity to some of the character designs. Shaw tends to approach the human body in the same diagrammatic way that he approaches spaces and actions, the result being a mix of clarity, simplicity, and mannered stiffness. (The sex scenes are oddly offputting for this reason, but I suspect that's deliberate.) Moreover, some of Shaw's formal conceits -- some instances of labeling and diagramming -- look like end runs around the limitations of his drawing, as if Shaw didn't have confidence that certain points of action would be clear without textual signposting. That said, I love the way he keeps pushing past the limits of what he can easily do. He's ingenious and unafraid and tries very hard. If perhaps Shaw overworks his story, as if forcing it into that Ware-ish mode of willed attention to minutiae, he manages to do some very interesting things that neither Ware nor other cartoonists have done, and ultimately he discovers an interesting grapholect all his own. If the ending of Bottomless Belly Button, like the endings of so many promising alt-comix novels, is irresolute and not equal to the book's best moments, it still feels like an effort to do justice to life's bountifulness, open-endedness, and incompletion. I admire the reach and I enjoyed the experience.
In sum, this is a very strong, very cool book. I recommend Shaw and I recommend reading that Comics Journal interview. Shaw's comments there give me every reason to expect that his prolificacy, ingenuity, and creative restlessness will continue. Also, check out the varied work -- some of it even more inventive, some of it stunning -- to be found on Shaw's website. I think you'll find that the above just scratches the surface.
I get the feeling that Shaw has already left Bottomless Belly Button behind, and that we'll see him dismantle our ideas about comics again and again. Looking forward to it.