Exploring the worlds of far-future science, artistic inspiration and practice, the stages of romance, the political implications of robots and more, cartoonist Dash Shaw’s “The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D.” arrived in comic shops last month and book stores January 6, courtesy of Fantagraphics. The book, an anthology of Shaw’s short comics created over the last few years, is released to coincide with the four-episode animated series of the same name on IFC.com. CBR News caught up with Shaw to discuss “The Unclothed Man,” its assorted characters, and the thought process behind his illustrations.
In a future in which robots are employed for any number of tasks formerly occupied by humans, the Unclothed Man poses as modeling droid to infiltrate an art school on behalf of an anti-android organization. Shaw himself served as a figure drawing model while working on his previous graphic novel opus, “Bottomless Belly Button.” “I did it because I thought it would improve my drawing, not because I was particularly confident in how I looked. I wasn’t expecting it to make me as insanely self-conscious as it did,” Shaw said. “And holding still, feeling different parts of your body go through all of the stages of numbness is a truly strange, disorienting experience. You become hyper-aware of one section of your arm filling with blood. It isn’t like meditation. It isn’t calming, or at least it wasn’t for me. It’s more like taking a psychotic trip into your own head, nude in a cold room being stared at by bored people. And that’s on top of the obvious sexual undertones to the whole figure-drawing process and history. It’s such an absurd thing, like when you pick up old ‘how to draw the figure’ books and it’s all pin-up girls in reclining poses. But the atmosphere of it is very academic, repressed. It’s a very funny thing and I hope the humor of the situation is in the Unclothed Man story.”
He added that, though the creation of art itself is largely automated in the universe of his story, it is not the technology but the thought behind its use that is worthy of criticism. “I use a lot of tools that I didn’t invent, outside of the computer: things like acetate sheets, paint, pens, whatever. So people will always use tools at their disposal,” Shaw said. “I don’t use the computer as much as other people today. I have a limited knowledge of Photoshop and don’t know any other programs at all. But that’s because sitting at the computer feels too much like a day job to me. I’d rather be sitting at a table with a bunch of markers and paint and whatever. That feels more like ‘playing.’ But the people who are younger than me now were growing up using the computer to draw, so using the computer feels more natural and playful for them. They were using Photoshop when they were ten years old.
“The computer drawing in ‘Unclothed Man’ comes from people bringing Wacom tablets into classrooms combined with a philosophy of drawing which is all about plotting points, charting the figure, which is a much different approach than what I was doing at SVA in McMullan’s class,” the artist continued. “The idea of people drawing from robots instead of human beings comes from foundation year drawing classes. They’re the same in every school, I think; everyone’s had to do a pencil drawing of a bust sculpture and spend hours and hours rendering the fucking thing. Those drawings never look like an actual person, an actual head. Apparently someone at some point decided that it’s necessary to do one of those to learn how to draw. But, of course, it just pisses off the students and makes drawing seem like an arduous, boring, machine-like activity.”
The print edition of “Unclothed Man” was released to coincide with a series of four short animated episodes on IFC.com, though Shaw said that the comic was finished three years prior to the animation’s production. “I chose it because it’s about someone staying still, and drawing. Also Jane Samborski, who worked on it with me, wanted to do a sci-fi story,” Shaw told CBR. “I was considering doing something else for an animation, but Jane was adamant that it be a sci-fi world. Animation’s collaborative, so that matters. I want everyone involved to be enthusiastic about what we’re doing. Jane and I drew it and James Lucido did the sound and music. Jane and James both brought a lot to it.”
At points, the art of the animation diverges from what is seen in the comic, which Shaw said was entirely according to his choice. “The motto for IFC is ‘uncut, uncensored,’ so they wanted me to just do my thing,” he said. “That’s pretty amazing if you think about it. I’d barely done two minutes of animation before.”
The future of “Unclothed Man” takes in some of the trends and fears of modern times, but is presented from somewhat of a retro perspective featuring things like 8-bit graphics, mentioning turning knobs to operate the art computers and so forth. “The 8-bit title cards come from varying how the text is presented in the animation. Because it’s almost all ‘silent,’ or in text form, I wanted to create a variety of how the text is presented so it can be like a voice depending on what the text was,” Shaw said. “So the 8-bit stuff is the narration voice, as opposed to the word or thought balloons or silent film title cards.
“I think I’m attracted to that kind of past/future mix, because it’s in some in-between zone that feels like the present time. The past is always with the future. ’60s architecture is still in the present time, and cultures or ways of thinking carry over to the present and future,” Shaw continued. “Any future world would contain remnants of the past. It’s maybe more present in ‘BodyWorld’ and ‘Unclothed Man,’ but this unclear time zone was also in ‘Bottomless Belly Button.’ It’s just how I see things.”
In addition the “Unclothed Man” comics, the book also includes a storyboard for the animation and another of a different story, which Shaw explained is not exactly a storyboard at all. “The comic at the end, which looks like storyboards, will not be an animation,” he said. “It’s a comic. If you compare it to the first storyboards in the book, ‘The Unclothed Man’ ones, you’ll see that they’re very different.”
Of the current Hollywood trend to use comics as storyboards, notably with Frank Miller’s source material in the “Sin City” and “300” films, Shaw said, “I realize that some people think of comics as being storyboards, or as some kind of preliminary work for a movie, and that’s very funny to me. But usually the people who think that are film-industry people who think EVERYTHING is preliminary work for a future film! A book, play, whatever! Ha!
“But, for me, it’s complicated because I like movies, and I find movies hard to ignore, and I also like storyboards. I’ve always collected animation art books. So I included those storyboards because it’s something that I would like to see. If someone else did an animation, I’d want to see their storyboards.”
In addition to the adventures of its titular character, “Unclothed Man” includes several other comics, including one focused on the culture of art in a far future as witnessed by emerging “galactic funnel” artist Stan and his mentor, Dak. “That story, to me, is about trying to see a natural form clearly and trying to fight through all of the haze and bullshit around the form,” Shaw said. “So, to go back to figure-drawing, you’re looking at someone’s leg and you’re trying to draw that leg, you’re really trying. But there’s a fog of other people’s drawings of legs, or some kind of stylish perspective of that leg, or even the way someone holds their pen or favors a certain kind of mark-making. But everyone’s still trying to draw the leg and trying to see through that fog to get to the leg. But the fog is so vast! And it’s littered with personal relationships and other things that are like a hundred generations away from the leg as it actually is. So the ‘Galactic Funnels’ comic is an extremely negative, pessimistic way that that struggle could play out.”
“Satellite CMYK,” as the title suggests, brings color to the forefront of a story about love, espionage, and escape, and serves to distinguish different time periods within the narrative. “Because it’s one person’s life split up to recreate his perspective, and the color divides those timelines. And, of course, the colors combine at the end when he reaches the final level,” Shaw said. “I guess it’s a simple graphic metaphor for the story, although I wasn’t thinking of it as that when I was drawing it. I just made that up right now, since you got me to think about it again.”
Later in the book, “Cartooning Symbolia” tells of a romance’s rise and fall while explaining comic art emanata, the speed lines and expressive tears and sweat that fly off of characters. “Those, for me, came from a book called ‘What’s What: A Visual Glossary of the Physical World,’ published by Shogakukan, that I got in Japan in high school. It catalogues everything; all of the names of the parts of a shirt, boat, whatever,” Shaw told CBR. “The cartooning symbols came from there, and I later found out that they got them from a Mort Walker book. All of the cataloguing of objects and sensations in ‘Bottomless’ mostly came from the ‘What’s What’ book too, along with a small pocket guide to Japanese onomatopoeias. There are very specific words in Japanese for different sounds and sensations that they use in their comics, and I’d try to read manga while looking at this pocket guide. Anyway, that way of cataloguing information is interesting to me.”
Shaw noted that, despite any cataloging, there may not be a universal language of cartooning symbols, as American conventions diverge from those seen in manga, and other variations exist, as well. “I guess what’s exciting about manga is that what seems normal to them is unusual to me, because I wasn’t trained to learn their language as a child,” Shaw said. “So the idea of a word representing the sound of ‘water hitting the inside of a sink’ makes me think about that specific sound more than the word ‘drip.’ I’m talking about ‘Bottomless’ now because I drew ‘Cartooning Symbolia’ the same time as I was drawing ‘Bottomless,’ in 2005, so they’re connected in my mind. They’re very similar.”
A story toward the back of the book, “My Entire High School… Sinking into the Sea,” is pretty much exactly what it says, with Shaw himself taking center stage for a “Titanic”-style adventure. “Like everything else, that story comes from a combination of things: autobiography as myth-making, dramatizing your past,” the artist said. “I think even more straightforward memoirs are about capturing and heightening reality into an emotional reality. Even if someone does a comic about going to the grocery store, they’re dramatizing the event to some extent. That’s where the background colors come from, too, a drama. Those are done with bleeding markers through paper and I sort of arrived at these dramatic Mark Rothko-like shapes. It’s a monument to that time.
“And that same high drama connected to ‘Titanic,’ which came out when I was in late middle school or early high school. I loved that movie, and I still love it, and I remember pretending that I didn’t like it because it wasn’t cool,” Shaw continued. “If you’re into ‘alternative’ media, you’re not supposed to like that kind of drama. It’s usually deemed false, and a ‘too cool for emotion’ pose is still prevalent in a lot of ‘alternative’ books, movies, comics, whatever. But, of course, reality is very emotional. And ‘Titanic’ captured, in my mind, a shift in male heroism and sexuality. DiCaprio was a girly guy, you know? He wasn’t a sports star or anything. It seems like the nerds and girly guys are taking over the world now. It was a mind fuck for a nerdy kid who drew comics and assumed girls or heroism was out of the picture. But at the same time, it’s all a fantasy and very silly. So that story’s about capturing that high school feeling, freezing it and storing it away.”
“The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D.” is available now from Fantagraphics, and the animated series can be seen at http://www.ifc.com/unclothed-man-in-the-35th-century-ad/