Posted by: Joe McCulloch on March 8, 2008
Yeah, there may have been comics released on Wednesday, but I feel the urge to talk about this past Tuesday instead, since it saw the completion of Chapter Two of a VERY GOOD webcomic, Dash Shaw’s BodyWorld. If you’re an admirer of rampant drug use, sticky sporting events, eye-searing colors, municipalities of the future and extra-sweaty teenage hookups, you’d best be clicking that link forthwith.
Now, Shaw isn’t a mysterious guy on the comics scene. He’s already completed two longform comics projects — Love Eats Brains: A Zombie Romance (Odd God Press, 2004) and The Mother’s Mouth (Alternative Comics, 2006) — a collection of short stories — Goddess Head (Teenage Dinosaur Press, 2005) — plus anthology contributions to MOME and Meathaus, along with an upcoming story in Marvel’s alternative comics thingy and various other projects. This summer will bring a 720-page(!!) graphic novel from Fantagraphics, The Bottomless Belly Button. Obviously what he needed was more things to do, so he started a webcomic at the top of this year.
Those who only know of Shaw through the vigorous formalism of some of his earlier works may be surprised by how straightforward a comedic sci-fi soap opera BodyWorld is thus far. The plot more-or-less follows Prof. Paul Panther, a deeply questionable academic who’s (allegedly) putting together an encyclopedia of hallucinogenic plants, or at least an updated edition thereof. He’s a sorry, abrasive bastard, a romantic nostalgist and very much prone to harming himself. His misadventures take him to futuristic Boney Borough, where strange things are growing out by the local high school, and youth drama seethes inside among a wishes-she-was mature girl, the strapping athletic hero she’s seeing, and the obligatory pretty cheerleader.
It’s a fast-paced story, charged with Shaw’s detail-prone imagination; you’d better believe the beloved local sport of Dieball — a collision of lacrosse, a live-action tabletop game and a Double Dare physical challenge — is presented with full gameplay instructions, just as Boney Borough itself is helpfully mapped. There’s small mysteries, and odd folks wandering around. I can’t say the main cast is thrillingly detailed yet, early in the story as we are, but Prof. Panther is a lot of fun, and the occasional awkwardness of Shaw’s dialogue is offset by the ingenuity of his art.
Packed with distinctively outlined character art — and I love how the older ones are literally sharper or more determinedly molded than his round, simpler youths — Shaw’s ‘core’ style sets white-heavy foreground elements against outline-free layers of color, sometimes vividly contrasted to affect the mood of a sequence. Arrows and sound effects often fill panels, while large portions of word balloons remain blank, lending a mannered, diagrammatic sensation to these hesitant characters’ interactions, although Shaw is careful enough with subtle expression to give them some human dignity.
But this is a pliable world too, prone to launching into bold slashes of movement, bodies contorting with speed against suddenly abstract backgrounds. Note how the burning primary colors of the players below clash with the muted hues of the geometric crowd and their buzz of panel elements.
Meanwhile, one of Prof. Panther’s flashbacks might adopt a monochrome, doodled elegance, befitting the cherished fuzziness of even his more painful recollections.
It really is an intuitive setup, smartly complimenting the artist’s story – and it’s great for emphasizing the body in Shaw’s world. Nearly everything these characters do is related to physical sensation — sports, drugs, climbing, kissing, bleeding — the only refuge being Prof. Panther’s memories, which fail to help him any. Every body is nearly a blank slate, all but demanding the marks and colors and letters of tactile sensation. Shaw has mentioned that psychic phenomena is soon to come to the plot (along with drama at the prom), and it will be something to see how this works in the context of this thought-through world.
Anyway, it’s neat. And free. Updates each Tuesday. Go connect.