The Bottomless Belly Button
By Dash Shaw
I would call this book a fascinating work, if not a perfect one. But that's not a slight against it; sometimes a bit of imperfection makes a book that much more fascinating, and that's definitely the case here. Dash Shaw certainly isn't erring on the side of cautiousness; he lets everything hang out in this massive 720-page book, and it ends up being an intensely personal work that touches on some deeply-felt emotions and lays bare its characters' souls.
Really, if there's any complaint about the book, it would be the artwork, which can look kind of crude at times (one character's beard stubble looks like a polka-dot-containing circle drawn on the lower half of his face, for instance). But it's deceptively so; while characters sometimes look a little stiff, and they usually sport wide, circular eyes, there's a nice subtlety of expression here, with plenty of techniques used to display emotion and some nice mood-setting backgrounds and landscapes. In fact, instead of hiding the artistic awkwardness, Shaw all but highlights it, using non-standard visual signifiers like obvious arrows that show motion:
Or placing words in the panels to point out bits of visual information that might not have been evident from the art alone:
And he doesn't stop there; there are all sorts of formalist touches, like cutaway diagrams or floor maps of the house where most of the story takes place; the intrusion of a dispassionate narrator who points out the different kinds of sand and water; the insertion of long bits of text; varying the size, shape, and placement of panels; and even leaving large sections of pages blank to isolate panels and change the flow of reading. And when he pauses these in-your-face techniques to spend a few pages filling a tight, twelve-panel grid with a detailed scene of a female character getting undressed, it's an arresting moment that becomes notable for its matter-of-fact nature. This all really calls attention to the "comicness" of this story, using the medium in unique ways that wouldn't be possible on film or in prose.
But as interesting as all that artistic noodling is, without a decent story to hang it on, it would be little more than cheap flash (like some other books I could mention). Luckily, Shaw has built the structure of the book on a solid foundation of character. The plot involves the dramatic turmoil that results in the Loony family when the parents decide to get a divorce after forty years of marriage. The three adult children and their families return home for the "event", partly to help their parents figure out how to work things out, and partly to try to deal with it themselves. It's kind of reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film, with a disconnected family trying to relate to each other in a sad-but-funny manner.
This all works so well because Shaw defines the characters, both in their personalities and in the way the interact with each other. We focus mostly on the adult children; oddly, the parents don't seem very emotional about what's going on, as if they settled things long ago and are just carrying them out. Oldest brother Dennis takes it the worst; he's sure that something is going on under the surface and is determined to get to the bottom of it. It's a realistic portrait; divorce can be hard on adult children, and being with the family in the house he grew up in puts Dennis in the frame of mind of a child, even though he now has a wife and child of his own. As he searches the house for "clues" and ends up going through old mementos, the situation becomes sadder and sadder for him.
Middle child Claire is less affected by the whole thing, at least on the outside. Having gone through a divorce of her own, she doesn't see it as a big event. Instead, she uses the opportunity to try to grow closer to her own teenage daughter and her sister-in-law. But she still deals with some emotional issues of her own, especially in a dream sequence involving her ex-husband that reveals that she hasn't dealt with things as well as she thinks she has.
Youngest brother Peter is kind of the odd man out in the family, never feeling like he belonged. Shaw demonstrates this quite literally by depicting him as a sort of cartoon frog, with a rounded head, bulbous eyes, and three-fingered hands sporting Mickey Mouse gloves. It's an odd choice, since he looks so freakish next to all the relatively normal-looking family members, but a poignant moment ends up making the depiction rather sad and forlorn. In his mid-twenties, he is kind of adrift, but he manages to make a connection with a girl who works in a day-care center on the beach where the family's house is built. It's a sweet relationship, even though we realize well before Peter does that he's falling for this girl much more than she is for him.
Finally, there's Jill, Claire's daughter who is going through her tumultuous teenage years. She gets to interact with most of the other characters, and it's interesting to see her outlook change as she realizes who her family is and how it works (or doesn't). She has an encounter with a friend early on that seems to mirror her grandparents' situation: the friend and her boyfriend have decided to break up, but not for another week, allowing themselves to ease out of the relationship. Of course, while they seem dispassionate about the breakup, it's revealed that they are both much more upset than they are letting on. In comparison, the grandparents kind of have the same attitude; do they also have strong feelings boiling under the surface?
It's a great ensemble piece, as each character gets their own bit of the story, and it's all engaging and fascinating to watch, probably because we can recognize ourselves, or at least basic human truths, in the way everybody interacts. Shaw stages it wonderfully, jumping back and forth between storylines expertly; a scene in which Claire is cutting Jill's hair while Dennis is pawing through notes and photographs in a crawl space and Peter is hanging out with his new "girlfriend" sees pages bounce back and forth from setting to setting, and it's as fascinating to watch as a dramatic movie or stage play. Shaw almost seems to structure everything intuitively, and it makes for great reading.
And the matter-of-fact presentation also helps. With the lengthy space in which to work, Shaw spends a lot of time detailing small moments and gestures. He shows many moments that don't normally get panel or screen time, including casual nudity while characters are changing, showering, or urinating (or in one case, masturbating). It ends up giving a bit of a voyeuristic feeling to the story, but not in a salacious way; it's more like the characters aren't hiding anything from the reader. That way, when we see them weep uncontrollably or sweat in embarrassment, it doesn't seem like they are performing for an audience, but that we're viewing them honestly.
So, yes, it's an excellent book, and Dash Shaw is a talent to watch. He's got a daring style and a bottomless imagination for ways to communicate using the comics medium, and he uses these talents to deliver some beautifully humanistic moments involving realistic characters. Don't let the thickness intimidate you; this book is not to be missed.
By the way, Dash Shaw has a really nice animated "trailer" for the book which you can view here.