The story opens in 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!”
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: A version of this review first appeared in The Daily Crosshatch, April 2, 2009.