BODYWORLD: The Medium is the Mindmeld

Behind me sits a copy of Bodyworld, Dash Shaw’s latest graphic novel, released this past April (which I’m only midway through, so this is not a review proper*). Shaw’s one of the more interesting dudes** under thirty making narrative art right now—not just for his facility with the comics form, though he has that, but because he also seems to have a wide variety of stories to tell with it. (There’s more going on in a Shaw comic than formal gimmickery.) Bottomless Belly Button, Shaw’s second-to-most recent, dryly and unhurriedly outlined a family’s tensions during a reunion weekend. Bodyworld moves into more Dickian territory—the year 2060, specifically, where Paulie Panther, a romantic/degenerate researcher of psychoactive drugs, discovers a plant that permits telepathy once smoked.

Bodyworld is published by Pantheon, and the book’s publication conveniently marks for future biographers the last step in Shaw’s transition from talented newcomer to member of the literary comics cannon. (Other Pantheon books include Spiegelman’s Maus, Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, and Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp.) More importantly, though, Bodyworld was originally serialized online, where the size of a given panel was only as small as one’s monitor. At 9.4 by 6.2 by 1.3 inches and 384 pages, Bodyworld is a brick of a book. But Shaw packs his layouts tight—most pages feature twelve full-color panels in rows of three—and one gets the impression that in a perfect world, with funds even larger than Pantheon’s (presumably large) production budget, the book would have been bigger still. Oh, and the spine is on the 6.2-inch side, even though the pages are read across the short end and down the long one, so readers move through Bodyworld as one would a Mad Libs packet.

Bodyworld’s unusual construction will likely be a barrier to entry for some readers–I have trouble imagining casual comics fans choosing Bodyworld over something that’s easier to hold—but it also invites closer looks at Shaw’s work. Like, literally. You have to hold it really close to your face to check out those teeny panels. Because of Bodyworld’s first life online, I’m not convinced that its “innovative vertical format” (quote the back cover copy) is crucial to the book’s thematic unity. But in a roundabout way, the format encourages the kind of intimacy Shaw’s book deserves. And for a comic about telepathy, uncomfortable closeness is at least something readers ought to have some sense of.

* In fact, it might be an example of blogger’s excess, a post that’s basically about the shape and size of a book I’m only halfway finished with

** Dude being in this and most other uses on the blog a gender-inclusive term of endearment

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