The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century AD
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-I finally picked this up after multiple vociferous recommendations from Matt Seneca, who came just short of saying that the book changed his life. Matt and I we approach comics from different places, Matt is interested at the ideas that are translated to the page by way of lines on the pages – that’s why he reads them, that’s his main focus when approaching a piece of work: what is the sum total of the effects of the drawings? That is why Matt can approach an artist through a single panel and make an assessment on their work, why he can dissect the use of color from a musical perspective, you can see it in his own comics. Although lesser writers (“shorter, more direct criticism” is code for “critical skills that were picked up at Wizard Magazine” btw) might disagree, what Matt does is invaluable because of this approach, not simply because he’s got the writing skills to pull it off. I generally approach comics based on how they use techniques to tell the story. Matt would rather technique overtake the narrative, I’m all about diegesis. The two of us, we both can talk about Steranko and McCarthy and Baker, all artists we absolutely love and still disagree on everything. I hate a lot of Matt’s favorite artists and I’m sure he despises a lot of my sacred shit. But we compliment each other’s approaches well. And writing with the guy is still the most fun I’ve ever had typing. So I can completely understand why Matt would love a book like The Unclothed Man, because Dash Shaw is an artist who approaches the medium in the same way that Matt does.
The Unclothed Man is a collection of concept art, storyboards, and Shaw’s short story contributions to the Mome anthologies. Shaw is the definition of a cerebral cartoonist, his work is almost clinical a lot of times. There is a formalist streak to the material, even in the simplest stories (even though there isn’t what you could call a “simple” story in this collection) are about rigorously codifying complex ideas into simple abstractions that can be repeatedly drawn. It is almost scientific, an feels “experimental” in the scientific sense of the term rather than the usually dismissive critical use.
There is even an entire story entitled “Cartoon Symbolia”, where a series of illustrations of things like stink lines are labeled and compared, though it slowly becomes the story of the characters who are exhibiting the icons. It’s a pretty nice microcosm of the book as a whole, where the conflicting ideas that drive all of these stories are Shaw’s formal concerns and his approach to characters. Which, if we’re to simplify it down to an easy sentence – Shaw thinks people are selfish, but still a kind of blindly romantic. Actually less “blindly romantic” and more “myopic to the point of self destruction”.
The best work here is several of Shaw’s science fiction stories, both of which are in the mold of the 2000AD Future Shocks – short, usually based around a dark sense of humor ( which is where the other work of Shaw’s I’m a more little familiar with, Bodyworld, thrives). The rest of the material is either production work for the animated series, as well as stories where Shaw is trying out an artistic technique completely different from the previous story. In the introduction, Shaw talks about this collection being influenced by his collection of storyboards books from various anime series, and while there isn’t much in the way of storyboards in the book, that’s the real show. Shaw’s storyboards are in the Scorsese Taxi Driver storyboard mold, where there is no effort to make the drawings look good, there is only communication of motion, action, etc. They aren’t pretty, but they are REALLY effective. And good.
The stories here – they feel like experimental work. This is essentially Dash Shaw’s own private version of The Short Films of David Lynch, with a couple devastating short works that can best his longer attempts, the weird take on “mainstream” towards the end, the okay filler, and the bravura technical exercise to close the collection out. The Unclothed Man material is even printed on a separate paper stock to disconnect it from the shorts collection – this is smart because it makes what would be the central focus of the book (it’s called Unclothed Man after all) feel like additional material to the collection. The content itself – we are shown a one-page comic, then shown the storyboarded version of that story, with backgrounds, concepts and digital renders that went into production of the series. The idea itself, of a man posing as a model robot for an art class for ill-defined reasons, is straight out of the earliest science fiction. Like, you’d be cool describing it as Gernsback-ian. There is also – Symbolia, which is more cute than anything else; an untitled story in the storyboard template; and adaptation of an episode of blind date; a story where Shaw himself heroically saves his girlfriend from a flood then freezes to death (Titanic style); a story of a writer going through minutia on a movie set; and a science fiction take on the story of artist-as-plagarist. Each of these stories changes technique – computer coloring, spot-color of clean lines, watercolors; odd panel rhythms, layouts. Each is a slight tweak of Shaw’s own style (which is at times crude but I think that’s got more to do with approach/subject matter than actual craft). Each story also seems to be about a failure of it’s characters to communicate with one another emotionally, let alone themselves. Shaw’s protagonists (in this book) are all delusional or profoundly confused at their lives in the moment of story.
The best material here is two of Shaw’s Future Shocks-style pieces – Look Forward First Son of Terra Two and Satellite CMYK. The first of which is a story of two timelines running in opposite directions, and a bizarre version of what is essentially Benjamin Button, told through the lens of an interstellar war. While the tone of the piece is sardonic, there are brief moments of real bleakness (this isn’t the only story in the collection where domestic violence happens but it happening in reverse is certainly brand new) and horror (the baby leaping inside his mother’s womb). There is just as much of a formalist streak in “Look Forward First Son of Terra Two” in the other stories, but it feels more integrated into the premise itself – color-coding the members of each world, the use of normal comics shorthand like lines and arrows to show reversed actions, changing color captions, deleted moments in the timeline demarked with an x. This is the kind of science fiction story where the idea overtakes any need to maintain a moral stance, sneaking in amoral weirdness. Better still is Satellite CMYK, which takes a strong central concept, a and a technical flourish and makes the two things one and the same. Three timelines running simultaneously – cyan for childhood, yellow for teenhood, magenta for adulthood, black for the present. Each one of these timelines, the same character has his memory erased and replaced with another’s – an incredibly smart idea of a plan to keep humanity from inbreeding, the last of humanity is sectioned off from each other by color-coded levels (the colors come from light being filtered down through the colony. A rebel group routinely kidnaps people and drops them down a level to discover the whole of the place, always without the subject’s consent. Shaw intercuts between the colors/timelines, first by tiers and then by panel, maintaining a 16 panel grid throughout the story, emphasizing emotional notes through juxtaposition/editing and repetition. It’s exactly the story that Shaw’s skills can be uncoiled on and used for the most emotional effect. It is the one piece here that works as a story, rather than just a cool thing on the page that makes up for the story. But I would say that, wouldn’t I? That’s the way I’m wired to read these things, certainly I’ll go with images-serving-narrative a million times before narrative-serving-images (except when Geof Darrow is concerned… well it gets complicated), and Shaw’s work, while as considered and intelligent as it can be and often is, is coming from the narrative-serving-images school. I dig it in part, but in whole it leaves me feeling like there’s something to connect with here that just isn’t happening.
-Sean Witzke, April 2011