Dash Shaw’s new works

pic of stories and new school by Dash Shaw

Dash Shaw’s 3 New Stories on an iPad and New School.

How many times have my arms opened the enormous pages of Dash Shaw’s New School? How often have I lugged around the heavy publication on my shoulders? Why am I talking like a soothsayer? How often do I dig into a jar of nutty peanut butter, pouring chocolate chips directly into the jar? It’s a rare treat that nearly makes me choke on the spoon. Get me a glass of water with this delicious peanut butter. Or should I say I predict a waterfall of clear, soothing aqua will evaporate this peanut butter. Pouring water.

Those two disparate happenings – opening a large graphic novel and snacking on the lavish peanut butter and chocolate combo – are the start of understanding Dash Shaw’s new works. Why am I wondering how often I crack open a comic book? What does this massive work have to do with eating the rough mix of chocolate chips and peanut butter? How does this relate to my life? So many tasty questions. So here goes swallowing the peanut butter. Here goes packing the graphic novel into a bag because I’ve already renewed it twice from my local public library. Here goes pouring my ideas onto a computer screen.

Dash Shaw has two new projects out in 2013. New School is the graphic novel/comic is an epic that reminds me of William Blake’s mystical prints. The other new work is a digital comic book and much shorter in length. It’s called 3 New Stories. The digital comic is available from Comixology, an excellent digital retailer of digital comics. The works depict journeys of discovery, disappointment, and ecstasy. Stories involve teens growing up, people questioning their worldviews, and today’s current dreadful economy. The settings are weird schools for weird curricula, and escape. Escaping to anywhere, escaping to anyplace from wherever the current location. The grass is always greener, or in Shaw’s works, the grass is always splashier with messy green, neon, and color splatters. Amid this colorful landscape characters often suggest “Damning the man”. There’s also characters’ psychedelic trip of damning it all, feeling overpowered, and emotionally overwhelmed. People and abstract lines hover over perilous situations. There are dangerous lights and beautiful shadows.

I experience three emotions mentioned above: discovery, disappointment, and ecstasy. I travel through new layers of artwork and storytelling and see how a story can flow in drastically different ways. I’m bummed out and exhilarated by the thick marker lines over background layers of color and collage. These marker lines are part of the main style of Shaw’s drawing style: executed quickly, laid down onto paper with a manic pace. The magic marker lines feel fleeting, immediate, and confident. Layered beneath the markers are swathes of color, collage, and shape. The two layers create a different speed to reading the work, a hyper speed, faster than manga comics full of speed lines and action scenes. It feels quick, as though my eyes zoom over shapes and patterns drawn across the layouts that emphasize layouts. This reads similar to Frank Santoro’s studies of comic book panels featuring lines criss-crossing through classic comic book layouts (Santoro and Shaw have collaborated together, notably in Kramer’s Ergot 8). The speed is also choppy, if you look at just the overlays, you might miss the story. If you look at the story, you miss pausing over the overlays. Or this is what I thought was happening at first.

The background layers require reading the shapes and movements of the stories separately from what happens at any precise moment. So first I read the stories in a linear straight-ahead fashion. Then I randomly paged through the works, admiring the dazzling light show created by Shaw’s use of overlapping line and color swatches. Sometimes the blocks look like serene Mark Rothko blocks. Other times a Rauschenberg collage effect occurs. Yet what happened a third time while paging through New School suggests that referencing these two artists is problematic.

Shaw’s work is flat, though if feels sculptural. The total effect shares the disorienting energy of Lygia Clark’s living experiences of sculpture and performance. Lines wrap around bodies, and structures turn into actions. Events unfurl through explosions and leading up to even larger damaged scenarios. Blue pieces break along with broken bike parts. Theme parks vandalized. Jail yards razed by murderous gunfire. After seeing the overlays more like a light show of bodies, buildings, and broken parts that combined with magic marker swatches, the work reveals an incredible swirling flow. I can’t overestimate or even stop talking about the flow. Even when my wife says flow isn’t the best way to describe anything specific, it seems like the best way to describe Shaw’s work. Especially in New School, the work is something that moves fluidly and strangely, ebbing and rushing readers along through dreams crushed, missions accepted, jealousies torn asunder, and drunken binges slammed down on the cold ground. The flow is like jumping into an ocean wave, or leaping into a swimming pool, or hitting the bottom of a pool with your feet, suddenly too fast, then too slow to rise back up to the surface for air. The experience feels like a person who turns and breathes underneath water or about to break through the surface. A person doesn’t just see works on the wall, or panels on the page, a person might be part of the activity, feeling swept up into the events by landing on a completely separate portion of the whole.

Lygia Clark's «Baba antropofágica», 1973
Lygia Clark’s Baba Antropofágica, 1973

The choppiness of the story, combined with the dramatic soothsayer wordiness of the main character in New School creates a heady experience. This comic might have more to do with light shows and walking through an exhibition of minimalist sculptures than reading a comic book. Yet I was still thumbing through a comic book. If Shaw’s work lacks elegance and smoothness, it abounds with an energy focused on immersion. These huge pages, with colorful layers and sweeping magic marker lines, unfold in a gigantic emotional sway. Wonder and messy disappointment are always good feelings to feel while reading a comic book.

Shaw’s shorter e-comic features is not as overwhelming as New School, yet it might be better for readers to take in smaller bits of his unique flow. The stories render moments even more heartbreaking than those in New School, with dire economic situations creating soul-sucking tragedy turned into opportunity. Hurt people appear in these three new stories in bizarre alternate realities. For example there are children escaping from a prison. Disappointment is a character co-starring in these pieces. Things do not end well. There is sweat, tears and seeking fears face on. Shaw’s shorter work is recommended for readers not quite ready to delve as deep into New School.

Overall the best part of these works are all about the flow. Or whatever other phrase you want to use for the choppy, lapping over your feet movement. It’s created by the colorful bursts of kinetic line overlapped mixed with solid marker. The perfect way to depict characters’ change from thrilled enthusiasm to disgruntled coping mechanisms.

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