In Dash Shaw’s first extended comic, Bottomless Belly Button, three generations of a family on vacation learn that the patriarch and matriarch are, after 40 years of marriage, divorcing. It’s never clear why. But the emotional distress and dysfunction that ensues is anatomized with meticulous, almost excruciating clarity.
New School also has a straightforward, family-based storyline, but there similarity ends. Where Bottomless Belly Button was nearly as naturalistic and restricted in time and place as a Chekov play, New School is a broad-ranging fantasia with the emotional template of a blockbuster film, where personal issues of love and loss are overshadowed by grandiose abstractions of good and evil. Full of pain and rage and fear, New School‘s true subject is its own production technique, rather than the emotions it compasses.
It’s the 1990s in New Jersey. Luke is the older brother; Danny is three years younger. Danny idolizes Luke. Their father publishes a trade journal about theme parks — a plot contrivance that takes 17-year-old Luke to the fantastical island of “X,” site of a new theme park, Clockworld, which recreates historical periods and events. (Although Clockworld and its designer, neglected genius Otis Sharpe, are presented as an avant garde alternative to Disney, the mechanics are the same, down to its “animatronics” and “imagineers.” The attractions themselves — the Roman Colisseum, “Livingston to Africa,” “Muhammed to Mecca,” JFK’s assassination — are a generic high-points Baedeker of history more appropriate to Disney than to, say, Thomas Pynchon.) Luke is to teach English to the Xians who’ll staff the park.
Two years pass with no word from Luke. At his parents’ request, Danny goes to X to bring Luke home, sailing on a three-masted schooner — one of many details which makes sense only in a dream world. The setup is so makeshift, it’s easy to imagine that the whole story is being filtered through Danny’s pulp-haunted adolescent consciousness. The storyline is too blunt and routinized to call it surreal, but it’s too schematic to be called realism. It’s a framework on which to hang graphic improvisation and elaboration.
Like recent Gary Panter, Shaw opts for a blunt graphic line throughout. Everything appears to be drawn with a Sharpie. This deliberate narrowing of graphic vocabulary has an echo in Danny’s stilted dialog. It’s the tin-eared prose of grandiloquent pulp characters, and it clashes ostentatiously with normal dialog: “Dude, this drawing is awesome!” “I concur!” And: “How long will he be gone?” “A single orbit around the mother sun.” It’s not merely Danny’s way; this awkward diction first shows up in the mouth of Danny’s father — “Halt, sons! Take my palms!” — and it’s arguable that Danny is imitating him, but the same diction is occasionally given to Luke as well — “Did you dream my hand your own?”
The most radically innovative feature of New School is its thick overlays of color that at times all but obscure the drawing and lettering underneath. There is a definite vocabulary to these overlays. They’re entirely absent from the New Jersey chapter, except for a dark blue/ochre mix used to signify Danny’s precognitive dreams. (He dreams blockbuster movies yet to be released: Jurassic Park and X-Men.) A variety of palettes and patterns occupy the other chapters, with less clear significance; sometimes they’re clearly reflective of Danny’s mood, but it’s hard to say why chapter 4, for instance, favors dots, plaids, and checkers. In the last two chapters, photos are used, which creates a more direct counterpoint between the two layers of images.
As a location, X has very little reality of its own; it’s a blank slate for the psychodrama of Danny’s sibling rivalry, sexual confusion, xenophobia, and artistic frustration. His perceptions and proclamations have little connection to his surroundings. He goes from wondering “Is X good or evil?” to thinking “It is good!” and “What strength the Xians possess!” to declaring “This place breeds lies. It calls out the abyss in man,” and “Mankind is evil.” But this is all projection of his own uncertainties. “The foolish Xians and their blank stares.” “Its ridiculous demands and invasive arguments of foreign, bogus reasoning!”
Danny’s emotional state becomes increasingly desperate; he gets drunk, he verbally abuses Xians who can’t understand English, he shoplifts with Luke from Xian malls (“X is a trusting society and it is our goal to abuse this trust”), and finally the brothers deface Clockworld on the day before its opening, leading to their arrest and escape. At the height of this defacing, Danny destroys his own mural, obscuring it with crude swastikas and penises, while Luke declares, “We’re fucking Guernica in the ass right now!”
This oddly gratuitous comment, coming at the end of a chapter, is worth a parenthesis. Picasso might disagree with it more vehemently than I will. I’ll grant at some level that any image so heavily iconic might need to be symbolically fucked in the ass. But as an actual work of art, I believe it remains unfucked, probably unfuckable, and continues to fuck its would-be fuckers. Nelson Rockefeller wanted to buy it, and Picasso quite rightly refused him. Nelson then commissioned a tapestry imitation, which hung in the UN General Assembly until Colin Powell got up there to announce the start of the Iraq war in 2003. It made a poor backdrop to Colin’s message, so the US insisted on covering it up. Looking back, who was fucked?
Instead of Bottomless Belly Button‘s multiple points of view, which afford a more distanced, nuanced perspective, New School is mired in Danny’s tortured consciousness, from which nothing is seen clearly. As a coming-of-age story it lacks a depth of self-knowledge. In a last precognitive dream that closes the story, as they are escaping Clockworld, Danny sees his own future over the next ten years: returning home, going to engineering school, witnessing 9/11, taking a gay partner, designing park attractions, and finally returning to Clockworld with them. In this final, dense sequence, Danny’s pulp-dialog voice vanishes, adumbrating a new maturity. It is a prospective, still unaccomplished, maturity.
Not that this “story” is central. Shaw is messing with the conventions of the comic strip narrative in a radical way, and that disruption is his true subject. The disruption creates quite a few original, striking, even beautiful effects. But messing with narrative is tricky business. The blunt three-act form of New School (quest, crisis, escape) works against the act of disruption in a way that, for example, the manic complexities and borderline incoherence of Gary Panter doesn’t. Cognition has its own inertia, and the remnants of the form will insist on making connections that are more (or less) rewarding than the thing itself. As Christian Wolff once remarked to John Cage, “No matter what we do it ends by being melodic.” In the realm of prose, Samuel Beckett was perhaps the master of stripping away almost all of the narrative conventions, but he was well aware through long practice that what remains, despite all efforts, is some kind of story — that stubborn, necessary glue of our minds and selfs.