In the future Dash Shaw proposes in his graphic novel BodyWorld, the Second Civil War and rapid industrial growth have left most of America a concrete sprawl by 2060. An exception is Boney Borough, a (literal) green zone somewhere on the Atlantic seaboard. This small secluded town is a new Eden in an otherwise gray world. Enter Professor Paulie Panther, a fuck-up par excellence. He goes to Boney Borough as part of a freelance mission to find out about a new, strange plant he’s found there via the internet. Professor Panther, you see, is a botanist and poet, a would-be scientist who finds out about the psychopharmacological properties of plants by smoking them up in big fat joints (when he’s not too busy trying to commit suicide or stumbling around on one or more of the various drugs to which he’s addicted). Professor Panther is the perfect acerbic foil to the homogeneous folk of Boney Borough. He gets hot for teacher Jem Jewel, turns-on Peach Pearl, the small town girl who wants to go to the big city, and pisses off and confuses her dumb jock boyfriend Billy-Bob Borg. The alliterative names (along with Shaw’s sharp, cartoonish style) recall–and subvert–the classic all-Americanism of Archie comics. Professor Panther soon discovers that the mystery plant, when smoked, grants the user strange telepathic abilities–namely, users sense the “body-mind” of the bodies of others around them.
The plant’s telepathic effects allow Shaw to explore what happens within a literalized I-see-you-seeing-me-seeing-you-seeing-me (seeing-y0u-seeing-me . . .) structure. His bright Pop Art goes Cubist in psychedelic trip scenes, superimposing images to show a surreal conflation of not just the melding of two people’s pasts and presents, but those people’s perceptions of past and present. Very heady stuff–but seeing Shaw’s work is superior to my description, of course. Observe, as Panther sees Pearl seeing Panther seeing Pearl idealizing their attempt at romance:
BodyWorld is sardonically humorous in its psychoanalytic visions, guided in no small part by Professor Panther’s hilarious outsider perspective, but also tempered by Shaw’s larger project, a sci-fi satire of American exurbanist insularity. We wrote earlier this month about science fiction’s tendency to work within the dichotomy of wastelands and green zones, and Shaw’s work is no exception. His marvelous trick is to keep us within the green zone of Boney Borough the whole time and to make us identify with a waster, Panther. The greatest irony is that in this futurist vision, the zombies are the ones in the green zone.
Not everyone’s a conformist though. There are exceptions, of course, especially in the seedy Outer Rim where Panther takes up transient residence. We meet a psychotic latter-day Johnny Appleseed who certainly shares Panther’s weirdo proclivities. The episode is a marvelous spoof on the corny “origin stories” standard in Golden and Silver Age comics, with Shaw’s treatment more loving than mocking. To tell more about this weirdo might spoil the climax of Shaw’s graphic novel, and we don’t want to do that, of course, because you’re going to want to read it, aren’t you? Suffice to say that it’s part and parcel of Shaw’s program, a sweet and sour subversion of the 1950s comics and contemporary conformist groupthink politics. Shaw owes some debt to the neat precision, spacing, and rhythm of Chris Ware, as well as the haunting inks and sharp wit of Charles Burns but it would be a mistake to see this young talent as anything but original. Still, while we’re making comparisons: Richard Kelly could make a messy, sprawling treasure of a film out of BodyWorld.
You can read all of BodyWorld now at Shaw’s website, or you can do what I did and read Pantheon’s new graphic novel version (Pantheon, you will remember, brought us the David Mazzucchelli’s outstanding graphic novel Asterios Polyp). Either way, you should read it. Highly recommended.