Dash Shaw goes to college

Every so often a co-worker, family member or acquaintance will look at me blankly when I talk about my hobby/obsession and say to me "Wait, you mean they make comics for adults now?"

It's a stubborn reminder that, despite the seeming advances being made every week in mainstream media (hey, did you see that Tatsumi review in the New York Times?) most folks are unware of the strides that have been made over the past 30 years and have little regard for the medium beyond something that can eventually get made into a movie starring Christian Bale.

Still there are pockets of encouragement, most notably in the upper echelons of higher learning, where you may find librarians, teachers and college professors that are not-so-secret cheerleaders for the sequential art form.

Case in point: Last week I was back at my old alma mater Franklin and Marshall College for their ninth annual Emerging Writers Festival. I hadn't heard of the yearly event up till now, but I had a particular interest in checking out this one as one of the invited artists was none other than Dash Shaw, author of last year's acclaimed Bottomless Belly Button and just got an Eisner nomination for his excellent Webcomic BodyWorld.

The mere fact that a private college like F&M would deem it necessary to include a cartoonist in a festival line-up devoted exclusively to prose and poetry says much for me about how far comics have come, both aesthetically and in terms of general recognition and acceptance.

The college certainly made an excellent choice in picking Shaw, one of the most interesting and experimental new voices in the field today. His work so far has combined a unique visual flair and restless sense of experimentation with an interest in exploring deep emotional themes and resonant -- if somewhat broad -- characters.

I attended two events that Shaw spoke at. The first was a reading he did with two other authors. The second was a more intimate presentation Shaw gave about his work. Both were entertaining, revealing and well worth the short drive from the comforts of my home.

Shaw was the last to get up and speak at the first event. He was visibly nervous as he took the stage and I don't think the frequent problems with the microphone helped calm him much. At one point while narrating a sequence from BodyWorld, he said rather apologetically (and I'm paraphrasing) "You know, I never thought when I was drawing this that I'd have to go up on stage and talk about it."

Talking to him after the event, I got the impression that he felt a little bit like a fish out of water at the festival. He was quite happy to be there mind you, but surprised, as though someone was going to tap his shoulder any minute and tell him the joke was over and he can go home now.

Still, his nervousness proved to be unwarranted as he kept the audience in rapt attention with his loose, off the cuff demeanor and laconic sense of humor (it didn't hurt that BodyWorld is very funny; Shaw's voices for his characters were hilariously fitting). In addition to reading from the comic that was projected against a screen behind him, Shaw riffed on some of the story's influences (Disney's original plans for Epcot Center, how Lee's dialogue didn't always match up with Kirby's art) and delved into his art process (apparently it involves lots of acetate). While there was a good deal of laughter during his talk, it was all in appreciation of Shaw and his gifts -- I think it's pretty safe to say he stole the show that night.

The second event was held at the college's Writer's House, a rather stunning structure that wasn't around when I was attending (dagnabbit all). There was a nice crowd parked in chairs and staring at the ceiling when I got there, as Shaw was projecting slides from some of his recent work for the Mome anthology as well as a new story he's working on called Terror Hospital.

Again, Shaw was an entertaining and garrulous host, discussing his artistic influences and going into great detail about how and why certain stories came together (A side note: It strikes me that Shaw is one of the few contemporary cartoonists who openly draws upon the fine art world for inspiration as he does comics history. Off the top of my head I can come up with only a few other artists who do likewise, like Frank Santoro and Gary Panter. Are there others I'm forgetting about?)

Shaw talked about his years spent at the School of Visual Arts, the importance of melodrama, how the movie Titanic had a significant impact on his high school years and his misgivings towards the current success of comics ("Everyone wants you to do a memoir now. I'm a Quaker and everyone asks 'When are you going to do your Quaker book?' "). Conversely, he also joked about the financial poverty most comics artists faced in choosing their career and how that rarely led to lasting interpersonal relationships. ("Most cartoonists' [significant others] keep waiting for them to have their big break.Then they realize they never will. They already had their big break.")

Throughout it all, Shaw was friendly and amiable. Process junkies would have had a field day as Shaw explained in detail how many of his stories came together, citing a variety of inventive methods to achieve the desired results. For example, he got the coloring effect he wanted on the image above by letting marker bleed through a piece of paper, then scanning it and an acetate drawing together into the computer.

After both of these events, it was nice to see how many people came up to Shaw to congratulate him on his talk or just pick his brain in general. A few were actual bonafide comics fans, but most were just curious folk who knew next to nothing about comics but nevertheless regarded Shaw as an artist equal to the other authors who had come to present their work. That acknowledgment may have been the most significant facet of the event -- Shaw didn't once have to defend his inclusion.

Including a cartoonist, especially someone of Shaw's calibur, on the festival's program was an inspired choice and I hope the college decides to pick another one for next year. May I suggest Gabrielle Bell?

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