Comics Time: Bodyworld

Dash Shaw, writer/artist
Pantheon, April 2010
384 pages, hardcover
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Did everyone know this was a comedy but me? I actually put off reading Dash Shaw’s, what is it now, second magnum opus and first full-length science-fiction graphic novel because I find the formal experimentation of his SF stuff intimidatingly difficult to parse even in short-story format — surely a 400-page webcomic turned fat hardcover would fuck my shit up, right? But while Shaw’s shorts frequently swap complexity for clarity, at least for me, Bodyworld is a breeze to read. Part of that’s physical — the fun of its vertical layout, kicking back and flipping the pages upward on your lap or desk. But mostly it’s that the thing reads like a quirky indie-movie genre-comedy — think a mid-00s Charlie Kaufman joint, or Duncan Jones’s Moon with more laffs ‘n’ sex. We follow one helluva protagonist, Professor Paulie Panther, a cigarette-smoking, plain white tee-clad schmuck who wouldn’t look out of place hanging out with Ray D. and Doyle in a Jaime Hernandez comic and who has harnessed his prodigious appetite for doing drugs and not doing work into a career as a field-tester for hallucinogenic plants. Basically, he travels around the world smoking anything that looks unusual. For the purposes of Bodyworld that has taken him to Boney Borough, a Thoreau-like enclave whose planners mixed unfettered nature right into the zoning laws as a response to a horrific decades-long Second Civil War that began ravaging the United States, it seems, following the installation of George W. Bush. There he discovers a smokable plant that gives its users a telepathic bond with anyone in their proximity, leading to disastrous romantic entanglements and disentanglements with the local high school’s hot teacher, its prom king, and his girlfriend. But there’s more to the plant that meets the eye, and a Repo Man-style series of surreal/slapstick/science-fictional escalations leads to a funny but still black and potentially apocalyptic ending, like the Broadway version of Little Shop of Horrors.

Bodyworld‘s webcomic incarnation was famous for its vertical scroll, and for my money it’s recreated enjoyably by the vertical flip in the book format. What surprised me about Shaw’s other formal innovations here is how relatively restrained they are. You don’t really need to keep track of his complex, color-coded grid maps of Boney Borough or the school to understand what’s going on where, and the to the extent that he plays with overlaps and repetition and color and so on it’s mostly done to convey the hallucinogenic mind-melding engendered by the drug, quite effectively, at that. Moreover, I’ve often found his character designs hard to parse and hard to like — something about the way they’re constructed from purposely ugly swirls and swoops just gives me prosopagnosia — but his quartet of leads and dozen or so prominent supporting characters are by far his strongest ever in this area; you really can get who they are and what they’re about just by looking at them, which prospect is not at all unpleasant, either. And while some of the yuks fall flat (particularly with the town sheriff late in the game), it’s for the most part a dryly witty, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny comedy, with finely observed humor about high schoolers, teachers, druggies, hoary sci-fi tropes, and the sort of shiftless ne’er-do-wells you enjoy spending an evening with when your buddy brings them along. In short, it’s a prodigiously ambitious cartoonist plying the various tricks of his trade just to tell a good story you can catch some weekend afternoon and then chat about with friends at the diner afterwards.

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