Dash Shaw made a splash in comics in 2008 when his first full length book “Bottomless Belly Button” was published by Fantagraphics. Since then, he’s created a number of other comics such as “BodyWorld” and “The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D.” with a long list of short comics and minicomics, including a number of contributions to the “Mome” anthology. He’s contributed artwork to the film “Rabbit Hole” and directed and co-wrote “Seraph,” a short film based on a Sigur Ros song. Shaw has created many other animated shorts and is currently working on a feature length animated film. This year, Shaw has a new major book out, “New School” and two comics, “3 New Stories” from Fantagraphics and “New Jobs” from Uncivilized Press.
“New School” focuses on Danny, a 16-year-old boy who grew up in the ’90s with a love for the dramatic adventure stories of the X-Men and movies like “Jurassic Park.” After Danny’s older brother Luke goes missing for two years after travelling to a remote desert island to teach English to the employees of the fantastical amusement park ClockWorld, Danny must fight to bring his brother home. Based on Shaw’s own experience teaching English in Japan, “New School” brings a coming-of-age story in Shaw’s signature illustrative style.
CBR News spoke with Shaw about his approach to “New School,” how the story developed from concept to printed page, his childhood desire to be an Imagineer, the coloring process for the illustrations and more. Plus, Shaw discusses his comedic adaptations of the reality show “Blind Date” and his current animation projects.
CBR News: Dash, where did the idea for “New School” come from?
Dash Shaw: I wanted to do a book about my sixteen year old self: things that I did and happened to me and mostly, what it felt like. When I was sixteen, I was in the middle of nowhere Japan teaching English to people my age. It wasn’t through an exchange program, it was just me over there. It was south of Nagoya, the middle of nowhere. The combination of being sixteen and being in a place where no one spoke the same language as you, I think, was a strange heightened emotional state. I wanted to somehow translate that into a book.
The book feels very realistic on an emotional level, even though the story is of a more fantastic nature.
It’s layers of artifice to get at something that was very real. I wanted it, with this heightened world and language and imagery, to be based in real feelings. Because if it isn’t, then it’s unearned emotion — it’s sentimental. I thought that I could shoot those real feelings into the book and that even though so many things about the book are outrageous, there would be these true feelings shooting through it.
Also, when you’re sixteen years old, things are already larger than life and your emotions are flaring. Even if this kind of language or imagery takes it a little higher than where you, the reader, might be at, I wanted it to still be real. It’s almost if a child is crying, you can look at the child and think it’s not that big of a deal, but you still know that it’s a big deal to the child. It’s not really about completely empathizing with Danny, but that the feelings in there would be real.
How did you accomplish heightening that experience, from the landscape to Danny’s reactions to what he goes through?
I wanted to move it closer to what I felt like the truth of his feeling was. If I made it take place in Japan, then suddenly the book is a commentary on Japan, which is ridiculous. It has nothing to do with that place. It has to do with this boy being in a different place. It wouldn’t be accurate to his feelings to put it in a real place. I felt like I was moving it closer to the truth of his situation. It’s just about what’s going on inside of the boy. Like the opening of the book when the dad is talking about “Jurassic Park,” and he’s speaking in this overwrought language and he’s physically trembling talking about how these dinosaurs have taken over — it’s ridiculous, but when you’re a kid and you hear about “Jurassic Park,” it would feel this way. It did feel that big.
The dialogue does something similar, moving between more natural dialogue and this more formal, almost antiquated diction.
It’s really interesting to me that alternative comics is so much about combining the visual language of older comics with the language of prose writers from outside of comics. So you try to draw like Wally Wood and write like Nabokov and that becomes alternative comics. Or you try to draw like an old Sunday newspaper comic but the writing is informed by prose authors. But comics has this totally deranged, psychotic prose writing style that comes from printing. The periods would get lost so everything had to have exclamation points and so everyone would be super-enthusiastic about everything all the time. It would be bigger and it was almost biblical the way people would talk. Things are over-written and it has this really unique to comics bizarre writing. That, I think, is honestly why young boys, in particular, connect to those kinds of comics at that age. I think there is something about that overwrought exclamatory writing that shoots into the sixteen-year-old boys’ heads and makes sense to them. If you go back and read all these reprints of old comics it’s like the writing is just completely crazy. [Laughs]
In “New School,” Danny searches for his missing brother in ClockWorld, a remote amusement park on a desert island. Where did the design sensibility for something like ClockWorld come from?
I always really liked amusement parks and I wanted to be an Imagineer when I was younger. I thought about looking at this time that I had in the nineties and that kind of time traveling experience where things were kind of confused about when [events] happened. That reflectiveness could be echoed in this amusement park. It’s also, I think, very related to comics. Just the idea that there would be an avant-garde amusement park movement of people trying to make non-amusing amusement parks — that seems like something that only a comic book artist would think of, because it’s such a kiddish commercial enterprise. This guy who creates Clockworld is not based on anyone in particular, but there were these people who were forward thinking about comics in the eighties when there was all of this money in the art world and people like Julian Schnabel are getting really famous and wealthy. Then someone like Mr. Sharpe, this amusement park guy, felt like he was doing similarly ambitious, unusual work that had to do with simultaneity, but he was excluded from the club, like a lot of people were. So he has to go to this middle of nowhere place, where he’s really bitter, just to make the amusement park that he wanted to make. Clockworld could be seen as a lot of different things. Like time completely leveled, which is comics too. Also, when you’re sixteen, history is all just one thing that happened. You don’t know if your parents were around when there were flappers or they were hippies — it’s like there’s basically what came before you and it’s one giant thing. The more we move forward the more Bill Clinton is just going to be like a Velociraptor or something.
There’s a great line in the book about Walt Disney winning and Sharpe being forced to go into exile.
I think of them as like these old bitter guys, these avant-garde amusement park people. At the end they talk to Danny and they’re in some kind of strip club. That these old guard amusement park guys would meet at a strip club I just thought was funny.
I kept thinking about politics and how allegorical the story is. Luke at one point notes how he doesn’t know anything, these people are abroad, they have no skills except knowing English and don’t know the history depicted in the park.
They don’t really care. It did feel, in the nineties in the United States, that other people were just one thing that we didn’t understand. We thought we were the coolest. I think the reason that I felt comfortable telling this story is because I did know what it was like. The story is true. I know what it’s like to be sixteen years old and in another place and be really frustrated that every conversation you would have with someone was, “Why are Americans so violent?” or “How’s my English?” That was all anyone would say to me because that was all they could say to me. When the personal is political I think something happens that is interesting.
The coloring in “New School” is pretty unique. What was the process like in coming up for the color scheme and palette?
There’re a million metaphors that you can think of for how color relates to the line art in comics. One way can be like sound in movies: the content is apparent during the scene and the color is not really necessary to understand what’s happening. So the question is, what do you do with color? Chris Ware uses naturalistic color. The grass is grass-colored.
There are also some people that were in the “Rubber Blanket” screen printing wing of comics coloring, which is two colors to make a third color, which is what I’m closer to. Although with “New School” I think something different happened-actually it started I think maybe late 2008 or something I did a story “My Entire High School is Sinking into the Sea.” That again was about a younger person but I wanted the colors to be like a Bernard Hermann score. It’s just loud, in your face smashing into the content of the scene. So it’s line art that you can read. I’m very interested in making a completely one hundred per cent legible story. Then this other element — the color, the sound — is smashing into what’s happening. The scene becomes the collision of these two forces. Specifically it can be a lot of different things. Like when Danny arrives on the island, it’s in full color. I feel like that’s when Dorothy arrives in Oz. We’re in a new space and that’s a very common trope of moving from a black and white world to a color world. In other instances it can be more like a metaphor in a literary sense. Or it can just be explosions and then that’s sometimes difficult and should be difficult to explain. Like when Danny’s running and there are these giant blocks of red to yellow to green. You could say, “Why green there?” The answer is, it felt right, but more than it felt right, it’s that something else would feel incorrect.
In “New School,” there seems to be a tendency toward red and yellow for a lot of the intense, emotional scenes, but even that’s not a constant.
I thought it worked best when there was something really surprising about it. Like the cover of “3 New Stories” — this man laying this woman down with the red of that Circuit City and the lines of the building and the photo as it’s traveling back in space but that it also has this light airbrush-y glow over it. There’s something about the collision of that particular drawing, drawn in that way, with that particular image lined up in some way that is surprising and unexpected. I wanted to ask myself, “why does this make sense?” If it felt too obvious, that glow or that spark wasn’t there. It had to be exciting for me, and it was exciting.
Your first major book, “Bottomless Belly Button,” which was more natural with black-and-white art, but since then, your stories have been less bound by realism and you seem to use color similarly, seemingly not wanting to be constrained by reality.
I know what you mean, but at the same time, “Bottomless” was brown and white and there is a whole lot of really unrealistic stuff in that book, too. There are tunnels in the house, there’re all of these surreal elements — this house existing in the middle of nowhere, characters are drawn differently from each other. So there were a lot of unusual things about that book and comics that I had drawn before that. I had drawn a lot of color comics before. That one, for some reason, the unusual aspects of it didn’t draw as much attention to themselves. I don’t know how or why.
Do you think that idea that like your rejection of that naturalistic, Chris Ware color palate, there’s a relationship between that and your rejection of realistic narrative?
Well I love Chris Ware, so I wouldn’t say rejection — or of naturalistic language. “Naturalism” is a really hard word to use in relation to any art, but in particular comics. Some people think of naturalism as being really illustrative drawing and so much about Chris Ware is extremely non-naturalistic, if you think about it. I think it’s all about somehow getting at real feelings or experiences. The things like color and the language in “New School” came out of trying to translate this sixteen-year-old boy’s experiences and perspectives of the world. I wouldn’t use that same language or do a book in the same way about something else.
Your approach to color is definitely dependent on the story, but in “3 New Stories” you use color in some similar ways to “New School.”
They were made around the same time. I think that’s true. I don’t know. I think of them as being very different stories but obviously I’m the same person.
In the middle story where you adapt the “Girls Gone Wild” sequence, I was reminded that you used to adapt episodes of “Blind Date.” What you find interesting about doing these adaptations.
There’s something about these people improvising their way through very artificial scripted situations. I think it’s very moving and in some way it resonates with me. I relate to it in that I know that when I go to the corner store I have to say certain things to people that work there, or I have to go to school or I have to get a job and it’s a very scripted situation. My entire personality is just based on the specifics of me improvising through this play. In “Blind Date 2,” he says, “We should go into the hot tub now because it’s the best thing for a lower back after dessert.” I think this is so funny because he knows he’s on “Blind Date” and that people on “Blind Date” go into hot tubs, but he found his own way to get there. That’s what all of those reality shows are. “Girls Gone Wild,” too. It’s two people where they know what is supposed to happen and they’re just going through the motions in their specific ways.
With “Blind Date” they would have these comical pop-up texts on the screen that would mock the people throughout the entire episode. Every episode of that show was just mocking humanity. When you take those out — which I would do in the comics — suddenly they’re about all these really different kind of things. There are episodes about race and class and so many things. It was this gold mine of stories about people. That’s the thing that I really liked. It was also a really tight basic story structure. Two people meet, they go on a date, and then they leave and they either like each other or they don’t.
Something about the fact that we know what’s going to happen, suddenly the specifics of it really matter. And the specifics are where art is. It’s those specific things that people say to each other or the way that I chose to draw this specific panel, this specific sequence. That’s where the magic is happening. So removing the “What’s going to happen?” question, I think, amplified parts of the comic that I thought were interesting. In most comics and most stories, so much of what you’re thinking about is, what the fuck is going on? Why is this person talking to that person? What does this person want? What’s happening? In “Wheel of Fortune,” you know what’s happening. The story is just about money and chance and that’s it. Other stories are theoretically about money. Heist stories are about money theoretically, but then they become about the two friends that are getting together to rob the bank and the core money-ness of it is drowned out in favor of other elements. It seemed like if I could do “Wheel of Fortune” correctly, it would really just be about money and chance and that’s it.
In these adaptations, it seems you get to focus on certain elements as opposed to your original stories.
That’s kind of true, but I also cheat a whole lot. I am cutting out a lot of things and choosing very specific things that people are saying. I think there’s a whole lot of myself in them. I think that “Girls Gone Wild” one is very much related to the “New School” story because it’s about someone in a foreign place being exploited and simultaneously kind of wanting to be exploited and those two things bouncing off against each other. She’s from Finland and now she’s in Texas and he’s saying things like, “We strongly urge women to be happy free take something off.” It’s almost like the dialogue is too good. [Laughs] I’m picking the best parts. There’s incredible dialogue. In “Blind Date 3,” this guy is on a date with the girl and the girl thinks that he’s gay the whole time. He says, “No, I’m not gay, but if I were gay, hey, I’d be gay all day,” or something like that. No writer can write such good dialogue. [Laughs]
Where did “Object Lesson” in “3 New Stories” come from?
It was a combination of things. One was that I had a friend who said that his dreams always took place in high school. I felt like that was a common feeling or nightmare that something happened and now you have to go back to high school. I hadn’t seen a story about that. It felt like that there should be a story about that because I think it does connect to something real. And then also that story and this minicomic I did “New Jobs” are kind of similar in that it’s people living in the present day.
I just loved the idea that education is a con — it’s definitely my experience of some of my education. Or am I taking the metaphor too far?
I don’t think so. There are all these comics that came out of Japan in a really turbulent political climate like “Screw Style.” There’s this dream of all these things that were going on in Japan at that time and they’re politically informed personal nightmare kind of stories. I really like those comics, but I didn’t live there then. But I do live in New York when all of these things happened — 9/11, after 9/11 — and seeing all of these things going on, it felt like all of that could be reflected in these stories “New School” and “Object Lesson” and “New Jobs.” It felt like an obvious thing to make comics about what’s going on with you and your friends and what’s happening around you.
Do you enjoy short stories?
Oh absolutely. I really love it. The way I work is I just do it and I think about where it’ll go after. I drew “Object Lesson” and I didn’t want to just send it to some anthology and I didn’t want to just post it online. I thought I would hold onto it and so it just sat there for a long time, over a year, and then eventually I had two other stories and I thought now this could be its own 32-page comic. It wasn’t really a plan, it just kind of eventually formed into itself.
If you had a consistent outlet like “Mome” would you make more short stories?
I don’t know. I try to do the ideas that I have. “New Jobs,” I thought I was going to do as an animation and I just couldn’t get it to work story-wise. It just wasn’t making sense and then it transformed into a comic and eventually it transformed into that minicomic. I love reading short stories and I guess it would be nice if “Mome” was still around, but I feel like there are a lot of anthologies around. There are a lot of people putting out collections of short stories. I feel like there’s a ton of short-form work on the internet so I think we’re in a good place basically. I think there are a lot of venues for short form work and a lot of venues for longer form work.
You mentioned animation and you always seem to be working on some animated project.
I’m working on an animated feature that I’ve been working on for a very long time.
Is this the one that John Cameron Mitchell is producing?
Yeah. I used to blog things about it but then things would change and I thought I was kind of fucking up talking about it. Now I decided that I won’t say anything about it and it will come out when it’s done. I did the same thing with “New School,” really. I didn’t serialize it anywhere, I tried not to post sketches from it. I think it’s maybe better to just wait until it’s done.
“New School” is available now from Fantagraphics Books.