Comics Review: Bottomless Bellybutton
I was hopeful when I received this fat new comic book in the mail. Make no mistake: Bottomless Bellybutton is a tome of a weight and size that more than satisfies this critic. An 800 page comic book contains maybe 80 pages of writing so it isn't that the comic is "long," but the emotional impact was there. I still get excited by the appearance of books, despite the deceptions of modern publishers. I enjoyed running my hands over the cover, made out of a brown paper bag. It had the mysterious, symbolic-looking face of one of the characters on the front, and Chris Ware-"inspired" maps on the interior.

This comic was somewhat arbitrarily described as the "graphic novel of the year" by a magazine. By what criteria is a work given this title? Who were this year's other contenders? It did not say. Still, based on what I read, I had high expectations. I really did.

An ambitious "graphic novel" with a large cast of completely fictional, non-autobiographical characters? A classification of "family comedy/drama/horror/mystery/romance/NOT for children" printed on the back of its massive spine--impious labels, such as one would find on a DVD case, or perhaps use to describe a commercial comic book, intended to entertain? An epic comedy/drama/horror/mystery/romance about a family, just like The Brothers Karamazov or at least (as someone commenting on the New York Magazine article pointed out) The Corrections, except taking advantage of the inherent awesomeness of pictures, of the comic book form?

On the one hand, despite not being autobiographical, Bottomless Bellybutton appeared to use lots of the other indie conventions: "humble" line art, a story about a family that we know is "realistic" because the main plot point is they are getting Divorced. On the other hand, possibly Mr. Dash Shaw--of our own neighborhood of Bed-Stuy--had taken those lame conventions and used them to make something good? Could this be?

Dash Shaw's artistic manifesto.

From the beginning, I was conflicted about the art in this book. Mr. Shaw is a recent graduate of the Cartooning Department at the School of Visual Arts. The pages of Bottomless Bellybutton show that he went to school for Cartooning and learned the right way to draw simple characters talking and doing stuff in such a way that it is clear what is happening.

The world of serious comics is in love with this art style. It is in love with the simple visuals of Charles Schultz and Jeffrey Brown. It cannot get enough of how much like real life these artists' work is, and how different from the juvenile bombast found in superhero comics, those false gods. "Why do you think James Kochalka has a wife/girlfriend? It is because he draws sensitive, legible comics about his life, not crass 'power fantasies' about physically fit men in 'capes and tights.'"

I, myself, do not inherently have a problem with the "simple and clear" comic book art style. First of all, there are lots of variations to the thing. Some artists emulate the look of instructional diagrams; sometimes, they go way overboard with the schematics and the dead eyes and become very awesome and bombastic. Some artists use "clear lines" to depict visually complex things, like a frigate full of pirate treasure, in more detail than would have been possible otherwise. And some artists (like Charles Schultz, actually, or scary Lyonel Feininger) use but a few decisive strokes to give their work an authentically weird and distinctive appearance, the comics' "form" inextricable from their "content."

However, what I don't like as much is when comics artists--for example, Jeffrey Brown, Alison Bechdel, "Seth," maybe everyone at Top Shelf--think "simple" means "serviceable and boring." It isn't even the presence of the boring art style that rankles. I liked Bechdel's Fun Home okay, even though it was not very interesting to look at. My problem is with how the boring "cartooning" style is privileged as artistic and honest in comics, the same way Hemingway's writing style used to be in literature. The same way, arguably, that literature now privileges boring "realistic" subject matter.

Unfortunately, in Bottomless Bellybutton, Mr. Shaw is guilty of drawing in a boring style, as though the minutely-traced movements and soulful stares of his competently-rendered stick figures contained a deeper artistic truth (and the figures really are "competently," even "well" rendered; you can tell the guy can draw, that isn't the problem). Do they contain a deeper artistic truth? That brings me to the next part of my review.

It is kind of a credit to the art and writing in Bottomless Bellybutton that you a) can always tell what is happening on the page, and b) always want to turn the page. The dialog is plain, but natural-enough sounding, with constant minor tensions and resolutions (e.g. How will Julie react to Peter blowing his nose? What do the girls chat about in the car?) . Similarly, there are many lucid multi-panel sequences of beer bottles rolling into the gutter, or characters approaching doors. It is the same principle that makes it hard to resist watching TV, if it's on. The reader is eased into a "rhythm."

As for the story, it is that the entire "Loony" family is under one roof again, because the mom and dad are getting divorced. That is the story's drama. The comedy, I guess, is that only the oldest of the three now-adult children cares, and everyone else has separate, unrelated adventures. This is a good idea, but, unfortunately, these adventures are kind of underwhelming.

The book's best character is Peter, the youngest sibling. He is drawn as a frog who always wears Mickey Mouse gloves, even while masturbating. There is real pathos in this, especially in the panels where his sexless, embryonic frog-face contrasts with his naked, post-pubescent body, its tragic weight apparent even though it's just a simple cartoon. Also in the panels when he gets frightened and his giant frog eyes turn into liquidy pupils and nothing else. That is when the book is at its best.

However, except for the frog thing, Peter's doesn't go very far beyond his role of being that stock figure of indie comics and maybe of all Western art since The Sorrows of Young Werther--the figure that is far more cliched than even Superman. I am talking about figure of the lonely young man. His adventure is, he finds a girlfriend.

The middle sibling, Claire, is just a girl. She has some emotions, sure--all women do--but she is subdued and has common sense. Consequently, she doesn't do very much. Her adventure is, she goes to a club with her sister-in-law and discovers she can loosen up. She reminisces about her ex-husband. Meanwhile, Claire's spirited teenage daughter, Julie, worries about her personal appearance.

It is a credit to the modest, weirdly involving art and writing in Bottomless Bellybutton that, despite all these problems, I didn't realize it wasn't very good until I was about halfway through.

In the book, the oldest sibling, Dennis, becomes obsessed with figuring out why his parents are getting divorced, as he was raised to believe in the myth of family. The "mystery" transpires when Dennis finds a "mysterious" stash of his parents' old love letters. One of the letters is in code and the reader has to solve it! "Is this good or lame?," I wondered, upon I reaching that point. I wasn't sure, but, after about 5 minutes of embarrassed deliberation, I picked up a pen. I guess I had to get to get to the bottom of, uh, David and Margaret Loony's story.

Slowly, a text emerged, in my handwriting. If hadn't already known the answer, and someone asked me, "Was this text written by a reserved science fiction enthusiast from the 50's who was very much in love? Or by a modern-day author of sensitive comics?"--I would probably have said, "a modern-day author of sensitive comics."

The decoded letter, which revealed the meaning of the book's title, was full of "poetic" yet "quirky" imagery, such as a simple man would supposedly use to talk about the big feelings. It had an "and... and... and" construction. It ended with the words, "I'm sorry I'm not a poet." I bet an actual science fiction enthusiast would have written a long and pompous letter, but maybe that would have struck too close to home for Mr. Shaw.

The letter was the book's only obvious false note, as far as what the characters said or wrote. Was this because it was the book's only attempt to ascribe to the characters words that went beyond the blandly "naturalistic"? Or was the letter's inadequacy simply more evident because I had written it out?

I wondered what to do with this literary artifact. What if that arrogant Stephen Future found it, and mistook it for one of my own efforts at prose! I stuffed the "love letter" in my pocket. And that was when I decided that Bottomless Bellybutton was not very good.

Mr. Shaw's web comic, BodyWorld, is much better.

Posted by xerxes on Fri, 18 Jul 2008 22:06:02 -0400 -- permanent link

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