BodyWorld online comic and graphic novel by Dash Shaw

Once in a while you find a clue. Colors, lines, symbols, signs. BodyWorld. What is BodyWorld? The scene opens on a train speeding through the countryside. A bald-headed man drops a handful of seeds out the window. He thrusts his hands in his trench coat and sits next to a profusely sweating man with lightning sideburns. The sweating man can’t be bothered. He goes to the bathroom and tries to do himself in. “This is it, Paulie-Boy. Finally. The End. Getting murky. Dim. Dark. Darker. Darker. Darkness! Wait–there at the end of the tunnel, an opening! Light! I’m coming to you!”

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BodyWorld follows a suicidal investigator of psychotropic plants to Boney Burroughs, an experimental forest city in American circa 2060. In a few panels we “know” each character’s archetype. Dash Shaw uses caricature to exaggerate posture, movement, and physical features. He clips dialogue to visually balance word and image. The requirement of terse phrasing helps nuance each character’s speech. Shaw deftly portrays Pearl Peach with a few words, “I’m eighteen, Mom! Eight-Teen! An Adult.”

A high school student blogs about a strange plant growing in Boney Burroughs. Researchers come across the post online while updating an encyclopedia of the hallucinogenic effects of North American plant life. They send out an investigator. Professor Panther meets high school teacher Miss Jewel and follows her into a forest outside the local high school. He samples a plant that allows body-mind telepathy, putting him into unusual relationships with the town’s inhabitants. You scroll through the online comic. Tiers of three panels that at times converge into a single horizontal panorama. This is strange. You follow links through the Internet to Dash Shaw. Born April 6, 1983, in Hollywood, California.

Shaw sits at his drawing board scribing over graphite lines with Rapidograph and Crow-Quill pens, painting on acetate sheets, scanning them into his computer. Every Tuesday, Shaw posted new pages of BodyWorld at www.dashshaw.com and the entire story can be read online. Pantheon Books published the hardcover version of BodyWorld in April, 2010. It’s not a question of print or digital. The difference between methods of distribution is speed. An author can post work on a free, easy-to-use platform but still, the work must reach its audience. Naturally, an author is going to do everything in their power to accomplish this. Take the young man, Dash Shaw. An origin story worthy of a great artist, his father drew comics with Dash as a four-year-old. The young lad self-publishes through his teenage years. At age 24, Shaw published Bottomless Belly Button with Fantagraphics, an acclaimed 720 page graphic novel already optioned for the screen.

Over many years of print media, Shaw built an audience for his online comic. The title BodyWorld refers to the “(blank)World” science fiction books like Riverworld and Dayworld. “I don’t think I risk anything by putting it up for free,” Shaw states. “The only downside I’ve experienced is that now I want to go back and edit things throughout, but it will have to wait for the book version I guess.”

Ed. Note: This review first appeared in The Daily Crosshatch, April 2, 2009.

Science fiction is a vehicle for exploring the contemporary world.

My first attempt at writing science fiction felt like being a kid again and playing with my favorite toys—but the playtime was documented. Reading over the pages I became more conscious of the set dressing: colonial expansion by brave explorers to new worlds, militarized starships, power struggles among the crew, and hostile aliens. The early history of the genre contains the human aspiration to travel to other planets in our solar system—which human imagination had populated. The stories resembled the adventure books derived from the experience of European colonialists—so the basic tropes are ships, guns, and foreigners. Pointing this out isn’t to find fault with the exploration of space; and Star Trek has a great code of ethics, so it’s not all killing Indians and claiming New Worlds.

Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel (New Series in NASA History) is a valuable resource for anyone who writes science fiction, or anyone interested in the history of space travel. The book outlines the expectations of human space-exploration and the eventual discovery that robots could do the work of scientific discovery more efficiently than humans in the inhospitable environment of outer space. When humans are in outer space, much of the engineering becomes involved with the task of keeping the astronauts alive. An interesting aside in the book details proposed modifications of the human body to better survive in zero gravity environments. Most people found the idea of cyborgs to be repulsive and it didn’t get much traction, but if you’ve seen The Six Million Dollar Man, that’s the cultural origin of the show’s character, astronaut Steve Austin.

To venture beyond the conventions of the sci-fi genre, I wanted to find stories that aren’t set in outer space, and William Gibson’s cyberspace seemed like the best place to start. (I had heard him speak at Powell’s when he was on book tour for Distrust That Particular Flavor, and not only were his comments and observations fascinating, he is an excellent speaker. His use of language is literary and yet it still sounded natural when he read his essays aloud.) Gibson’s recent novels, the Blue Ant Trilogy, didn’t capture my interest, but his prose reads well, and so I kept opening the covers of his other books and eventually, I thought okay, let’s try this, and I got to say, I really enjoyed All Tomorrow’s Parties. The praise Gibson receives is well-deserved. He’s a fantastic writer. After reading the novel, I went online to find what people had to say about it; because while it’s a page-turner, the ending made me wonder, what is this about? Looking for some analysis, all I found were reviews that give a synopsis and then basically state what I’m thinking, this is a good read and the ending is kinda anti-climactic. But what’s more? I had to stop and think about it, but here are my thoughts. SPOILER ALERT: if you are going to read the book don’t read my stupid thoughts, go read the book and then if you remember, I’m still here. Okay, my thoughts:

All Tomorrow’s Parties is a sci-fi thriller that celebrates technology. Through the obsession and caretaking for the mechanical things people make, one of the book’s characters, Silencio, experiences healing; the mute orphan boy regains his voice and finds a father in the kindly shopkeeper and watch enthusiast. A drug (pharmaceuticals are also a kind of technology), though it has nasty side-effects, the substance allows Laney and Harwood—with the aid of cyberspace-connected goggles: to observe at a distance, anticipate events in the future, and to bring on the end of the world “as we know it.” The story also presents us with a device that can fax an object like a 3-D printer, but at the infinitely fine resolution of the nano, a billionth of a meter. During the book’s climax a girl materializes in the Nanofax. She isn’t identified but the story implies she may be the materialized entertainment-software called Rei Toei, an artificial intelligence and object of desire.

William Gibson pictures a technology with life-giving power. The poetry of the prose and the fantastic images make the unfolding story an enjoyable experience, and I like the boy’s healing at the end. But technology might be better as just part of the story, like furniture in a living room drama, rather than a central motive. I’ll venture that all fiction that explores the contemporary world is science fiction; we live surrounded by the influence of our technology, so it’s just an inevitable part of a story about the contemporary world. The creative invention of new technology in prose is great too, but the object of human technology that All Tomorrow’s Parties ends with—a watch-makers tool—is like basically saying, Technology Is All Powerful: you can put an old watch on this rectangle, and the nanobots will make it as good as new. Oh yeah and don’t forget, you can fax a naked girl!

All Tomorrow’s Parties is the third book in Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, now I’m going to make my way back to read Virtual Light and Idoru. And if you have any recommendations of contemporary science fiction that takes place in the here and now, please let me know. Or does all science fiction take place in the future?

Dash Shaw creates graphic novel NEW SCHOOL

Here’s a look at the book, NEW SCHOOL — for fans of graphic novels, the shock of the new.

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Dash Shaw displays a way to use color as emotional subtext liberated from the lines on the page. And by placing the emphasis on storytelling, the drawings have become calligraphic and efficient (why waste time when you can use a Sharpie and Tombow brush pens!). The pages are drawn large, and then reduced and redrawn with the pens to create a line that “doesn’t know what it’s describing”, or we could say, pure line. The pictures are graphic and bold, telegraphing the story with the increased pace of production.

The text takes it’s cues from the early era of boy’s adventure books, exclamatory sentences that have more in common with printed broadsides than literary device. But this is not recommended for young children. NEW SCHOOL contains what the title implies — innovation comparable to the expressive discoveries within underground comix of the late 60s.