‘BodyWorld': Dash Shaw’s trippy tale of telepathy

April 29, 2011 | 7:40 a.m.

Last year, “Asterios Polyp” won as the graphic novel category was introduced at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. The five finalists in the category this year have been announced and the winner will be named Friday. Leading up to the awards ceremony, we will be looking at each of the finalists. Today: “BodyWorld.”

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"Bodyworld" (Dash Shaw/Pantheon)

In Dash Shaw‘s “BodyWorld,” published by Pantheon, aliens deposit seeds in the sleepy suburb of Boney Burrough, where Billy-Bob Borg, Pearl Peach and teacher Jem Jewel are preparing for high school graduation. New-in-town professor Paulie Panther, a botanist and drug researcher, discovers that smoking the psychedelic plants induces telepathic hallucinations. Hero Complex’s Noelene Clark caught up with Shaw.

NC: Your book is about an alien plant that allows people to experience what it’s like to be someone else. How did you come up with this?

DS: I was in the woods in Rochester, kind of just thinking about how I thought telepathy would work if it was real. Then I divided it into different stages in my sketchbook, plotting out how it would happen. I think people can become very sensitive to other people, but I don’t think that humans could reach the level of telepathy that I was interested in without some kind of outside force helping them, advancing their abilities. So then I thought the most likely thing would be some kind of plant from outer space. And then, the stages, which are basically exactly what’s in the book itself. So it all came out of telepathy, and then I created a narrative around that…. I really just felt like that was the most realistic way that telepathy would occur, and I think that obviously drugs do kind of heighten your awareness of things. It’s kind of weird because I don’t really want to think that I made some kind of stoner book. I think I spent a lot of time seriously thinking about how this would work, and telepathy relating to empathy, and sharing emotions. So I do stand by that if telepathy was going to happen, this is how. Obviously I don’t know if the plant would look like that, but it seemed like it would.

NC: Explain a bit about the telepathy.

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"Bodyworld" (Dash Shaw/Pantheon)

DS: The first stages of telepathy would be receiving very loud signals that a body would send, like having to go to the bathroom. That’s a very loud signal where I’m very conscious of my body in that moment, so that became the first scene of telepathy in the book, and then it just goes from there. And the general premise I had was when I’d seen telepathy in fiction, movies, comic books, things like that, it was always like an unspoken whisper between a character and another. So like, Professor X would basically speak to another person in their mind. Or since I’m sort of walking down the street right now, and I’m having really uninhibited thoughts about everything, and if someone had telepathy, they would hear me as if I was constantly delivering a monologue. I thought that if you were receiving someone’s thoughts, you would start to feel what it’s like to be them entirely. So instead of like a computer burning a disc and passing the disc to another computer and uploading the information of the Word document, one computer would kind of morph into the other computer. My hand would feel like what it’s like to be your hand. That kind of communicating seemed really natural for comics, I think because comics combine words and pictures. I thought I would be good at describing these kinds of disorienting scenes as clearly as it could be from the perspective of the characters.

NC: It’s an unusual take on telepathy – to share bodies as well as minds.

DS: I just think that the mind has decided that it’s really important, because that’s the one that’s doing the thinking. But if a mind started sharing with another mind, then other parts of the body would be sharing as well. That was my main problem with the telepathy that I’ve seen before. That was a large reason why I wanted to do the book. And also, I think that the physical aspect comes from figure-drawing. In college I did all these figure-drawing classes, and then I was a figure-drawing model. When you’re drawing somebody’s body, you kind of get very low-level telepathy of kind of you trying to feel what that leg is like when you’re drawing that leg. You are drawing all of these people with very different body types than you, and you can sense it in the drawing when someone is there, meaning kind of inhabiting that body. I felt with drawing and visuals that you could kind of put someone into a character’s body, especially if you’re doing these very exaggerated character designs that I was doing.

NC: You posted “BodyWorld” online long before it was printed. What made you decide to publish your work on the Internet?

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"Bodyworld" (Dash Shaw/Pantheon)

DS: The book I did before this, “Bottomless Belly Button,” was print, and I had drawn it by myself, and Fantagraphics had published it. Basically I was just kind of annoyed with the whole publishing system.… Usually you work on your book for a long time alone, and then you turn it in, and then it’s printed a year later, and by that time you hate it, and then you travel around, and you have to answer for this book that you don’t like anymore.

NC: Why not?

DS: Just ’cause I felt like I’ve outgrown it. That’s what happened with “Bottomless,” anyway…. I liked going online because it would have immediacy, which is something that publishing didn’t have. I could upload the pages right when I was feeling good about them, and some friends would e-mail me and say, “Hey, those pages look really good.” And so I would get that kind of buzz that I can’t really get anymore. That is what cartoonists in the past had had because of monthly, kind of sloppy, serialized comics, which aren’t topical for anyone anymore, so they aren’t made. The immediacy of it was super-exciting and attractive.

NC: Was your creative process different knowing that you were publishing online?

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"Bodyworld" (Dash Shaw/Pantheon)

DS: It’s in color. I’d done color comics before, but they weren’t printed in color, because I’d just assumed that no one would pay to print them in color. Then, the other weird thing, I got into pre-Photoshop coloring techniques. Before Photoshop, everything was done by hand, and lot of it was done with acetate sheets, which are these celluloid plastic sheets that are kind of like animation cels. When I was a kid, I would go to the Disney store, and they would have these animation cels that you could paint on. You’d buy like a cel that had Mickey Mouse on it and you’d paint on it. I just loved celluloid, so when I was in college, I would color comics on these celluloid sheets. So I had this idea of kind of combining pre-Photoshop with Photoshop coloring. I would do line art by hand, then I would print it onto acetate sheets and color it, and then that would be next to flat color fields that would basically be like color separations that were then paint-bucketed in Photoshop. The other thing about putting it online is getting rid of pages and page spreads, because before “BodyWorld,” I was kind of formally minded with these really nerdy comic book concerns. Like I wouldn’t end a scene in the middle of a page, because that moment of turning a page is kind of like a transition, so I would be conscious of what page was facing what page. Doing it online, I wouldn’t have any of those concerns at all. It would just be a long stream, like a long movement downward, a scroll. Like scrolling online and a biblical scroll.

NC: And that’s why the book was printed in a vertical format?

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"Bodyworld" (Dash Shaw\Pantheon)

DS: That’s how everything was designed, so I wanted to preserve that. It’s kind of this weird, hard-to-hold thing. You can’t read it on the subway or anything.

NC: Your drawing style seems very retro to me. Was that intentional?

DS: I wanted it to have this look where I was kind of investigating the history of comics coloring while I was working on the story. So it goes through a lot of different things, but most of it involves kind of this animation-style coloring. Like the backgrounds and the woods and stuff look kind of like these “Yogi Bear,” Hanna-Barbera backgrounds. There are kind of crossovers between what I think of animation sequences and comic sequences. Animation involves drawing people a whole bunch of times from the same angle as they’re performing something. So I would have sequences in “BodyWorld” that are basically the same sort of camera angle, if you want to call it that, of a character performing. Most comics don’t really have four-page sequences of just someone talking to another person the way that “BodyWorld” has.

NC: The panels with aliens look like they’ve been painted, and the aliens seem to be drawn in a very different style than the rest of the characters in the book.

DS: They’re kind of like Richard Powers. There’s a genre of science-fiction called soft sci-fi, which is things like “Riverworld” — that’s where the “BodyWorld” title comes from. It’s not like techie sci-fi, like Arthur C. Clarke. I think “BodyWorld” is really just relationship-focused, or character-driven, kind of like psychological sci-fi.… So Richard Powers did all of these science-fiction book covers and illustrations for these soft sci-fi books, and he had this kind of style that was very much like the painting at the time, like Morreau or Paul Klee. It was kind of like artsy, but kind of silly…. It’s kind of like if you looked at a Pollock painting and were like, “Oh, that’s like a space-gate, and it needs a spaceship in it.” I guess that’s an OK thing to say. I really genuinely like them. I don’t look down on them. I enjoy them a lot, and that kind of weird sense of humor that I have about it really worked with the sense of humor I had in that book, I felt. So I just kind of did these Richard Powers-like creatures for the aliens.

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"Bodyworld" (Dash Shaw\Pantheon)

NC: The jocks at Boney Borough High play dieball — a sport that you invented. How did you come up with it?

DS: That came up pretty much exactly how you would think it would come up, which is in middle school, playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons and kind of thinking of a sport that would use a 10-sided die or a multi-sided die. It was really embarrassing, but I was in Boy Scouts, and we would play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, and there was a kind of fetishized aspect to these dice, because there is no other situation where you would need a D-4 or a 20-sided die, so they’re really only used for those games. They’re very strange. Because D&D doesn’t have a board, a lot of it is carrying around these dice. It was funny to think about these sports players playing a game that was so obviously related to this kind of nerdy activity.

NC: And when you call it dieball, it sounds like murderball or something.

DS: It’s really nefarious, yeah. So I had it in my mind, and I didn’t know where to use it. And then I thought, “Oh, I’m working on this thing in Boney Burrough. ‘Harry Potter’ and all these things, they have a sport, so my book, I should use dieball in it.” So then it also really felt like it related to the general like nerd-ification of culture. When I was working on that book, it was 2007, but it started even before then where I would be at a 7-Eleven, and these guys would be like taking about, “Yo, man, you got to see the special features on that ‘Lord of the Rings‘ DVD.” Something happened where the nerds took over, and now they’re providing mass entertainment to everyone, and so these people who would normally have completely laughed at these really subculture-y things, it’s now become completely mainstream. I thought this somehow related to it, like these D&D dice could become a huge sport, and there’d be a crossover. I did an interview with ["Asterios Polyp" author David] Mazzucchelli for The Comics Journal, and he said it was crazy, because he did “Batman: Year One,” and you would have never thought that “Batman: Year One” would then kind of be like “The Dark Knight,” which was the No. 1 movie in the world at that time. This kind of strange subculture of geeky people would become like the kings of all entertainment for the world. It’s weird, and it’s funny.

NC: How does your work fit into the world of comics?

DS: I started making comics really early. My dad had comics lying around the house. I’ve always made comics. I feel like I know a lot about comic history because it’s been my primary interest my whole life, from Marvel and superhero comics to Japanese comics to Franco-Belgian comics. I kind of have this psycho interest in comics from all over, so I feel very much like a cartooonist, and I feel really proud to be on the same shelf as all of that other stuff…. With the comic books, you get two experiences. You get reading it and the narrative when you’re inside of it, traveling through the story; and you have the second experience of it just being a cool book on your bookshelf of drawings. And I feel like a lot of the books that I really like and I’ve taken with me as I’ve moved around year after year, I primarily experience on that second level, where I’ll be eating my cereal, and I’ll pick up my collection of Sunday newspaper comics, and I’ll just look at the book, or books that just have interesting printing, or an interesting kind of object just to have lying around.… A lot of people will read a comic and think, “Well, that’s it.” It’s just that story that they traveled through. And I think valuing the book, part of it is just kind of having it around and looking at it.

- Noelene Clark

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