Dash Shaw started making comics when he was four-years-old, and one might assume he spent all of the ensuing 20-plus years crafting "Bottomless Belly Button," his new 700-plus page opus of a graphic novel from Fantagraphics Books. The book, which actually only took two and a half years to write and illustrate, marks a new creative high water mark for Shaw, and examines the splintering of the fictional Loony family with microscopic acuity.
In "Bottomless Belly Button," the elder Loonys decide to divorce after decades of marriage, and their children and grandchildren gather for a last weekend together. Using stripped down illustrations, Shaw examines each character's reaction to the traumatic news.
Shaw recently spoke to CBR News about "Bottomless Belly Button" and how he worked as a figure-drawing model to support himself during its creation, as well as his Webcomic "Body World" and the several other projects he's taking on.
Dash, you've been creating comics for quite a long time.
I've always been into drawing, since forever. When I was in high school I used to go to the figure drawing classes at ECU. I would sit in on that. And then at SVA [the School of Visual Arts] I would do nonstop figure drawing classes and painting classes. When I got out of school I went down to Richmond and worked as a figure drawing model. Drawing's super important to me. I was doing mini-comics in high school, then I majored in cartooning, and I self published some books. "The Mother's Mouth" was my senior portfolio, and it was published by Alternative Comics.
When did you start on "Bottomless Belly Button"?
I started working on that while I was in college. It took me about two and a half years to do, which is not very long to do 720 pages. However, I put myself in a good situation because I did a lot of things to make it easier. I lived in a place for $200 a month rent and worked 10 hours a week as model. I'd spend the rest of the week on the book. A lot of people live where the rent is higher and there's a lot of distractions. I was working on the book like 14 hours a day all the time.
The way the book is, there's not a lot of locations, so there's not a lot of adjusting to drawing different things. I wanted it to feel like a TV sitcom. You know, in "The Simpsons," they sit in front of the TV the same way in every episode. Very limited, and that would allow me to focus on what the characters were saying and the story. I didn't want to distract myself with drawing crazy unusual things.
The book ended up with a lot of interesting and odd visual aspects, though.
My plan starting out was to be really flat, cartoony. But I kept wanting to do these three dimensional angles. I really like perspective panels, so then everything became more three dimensional and I had to change the character models. There are a lot of unusual angles. And then in "Body World," I tried to create limited locations, but I changed it quite a lot too.
You don't see a lot of artists who hold back their art for the sake of the story.
If you look at the stuff I was doing in school, I did not restrain myself. It's baby steps. "Mother's Mouth" had all these weird facing pages and experimental stuff. In "Body World" I just wanted to get rid of pages entirely, so it's an endless stream of same-sized panels. I'm trying to create restraints for myself to put my focus on what I want to be focused on. Make a sandbox for yourself and stay in the sandbox. But I'm open to changing the rules for different books. Shape the box to be what I feel is appropriate for the world I'm making.
How did you end up deciding to make "Bottomless Belly Button" such a substantive work?
I think of a comic as a place I go to, an imaginary place. And so I wanted to spend a lot of time with these characters in each house setting with kind of a thick atmosphere. I just like surrounding myself with these imaginary characters and seeing what they do. I draw different scenes with them. I have an outline and a story but I try to put scenes together and form it intuitively.
A family story is exciting because you have a lot of different characters that are in contact. I'd been thinking a lot about families because I got to spend time with other people's families. I spent a lot of time with a friend's family. I realized all these families are different from each other. My family is extremely mellow. And when my friends visit they don't know how I can stand it. And then I visit other families and they argue and I'm like, "I don't understand why they're yelling." So I kind of created a situation where these characters have different ideas of family.
But then I also spend a lot of time with other characters outside the family. The way you are around your family isn't necessarily how you are. The book I wanted to be like that. Each part of the book has a scene at the beginning like at the dinner table where they're together, then they're mostly apart through the section, and then they come back together.
One thing that's really interesting is how you don't ever get into the cause of the divorce. The parents are always pretty vague and mysterious.
For me, the book is about the children and how they react to this. And I didn't want it to be about the parents, because I didn't want it to be us trying to think about why they'd get a divorce. They're doing it, and the story is about how the characters are reacting. They have some characteristics, though. The mother is this mysterious type woman. The father's this sailboat captain type guy... I don't know any sailboat captains, but he seems like he could be one.
I felt like if i was going to give information about them, it would change what the book was about. The love letters [found by son Dennis] to me are about Dennis being excited about discovering these things. I have that kind of weird sequence in there because it was the only thing I could do to push myself to Dennis' level. Like he's really onto something. Personally, I would think they made their decision, like it's not any of my business. I wouldn't feel like there's this big mystery there, but a lot of people would. So I created this sort of magical way of finding out things about your parents. But even when I did that I tried to not give away too much. It's just mystery, mystery, mystery. I wanted people to feel what it would feel like to be inside the character. I would do whatever it took so I could feel that way.
Another thing you include in all your stories are things like floor plans of settings. What does that add to the story?
I want to know where the characters are. I want it to be in a defined place. Sometimes when I'm reading a book or a comic, the people are in these weird environments and I don't know these places. I want to know these things. In "Body World" there's a lot of that, and it's important later in the book when things spread through town, and you need to know where everything is. In "Bottomless Belly Button," the second part almost entirely takes place in this house. There's a long scene in part three when the characters are maneuvering around each other doing their own thing. I wanted to create that to let people know how the characters could do that.
The comic is a vacation that you go to, and that's what it feels like. The maps and the diagrams help me create that world. Or, the place has a logic that I understand, or a logic I can follow. Like in "Body World," if the character wants a soda I know he would go to this gas station place across the street, and meanwhile Pearl is at her house here. My girlfriend likes to play "The Sims" a lot, and I feel like comics are my way of playing that.
The title "Bottomless Belly Button" comes up in the story in one of the love letters. Does it have a larger significance?
It has kind of a rhythm to it, and the comic feels like a sequence. I thought it was appropriate. And I like the word bottomless, because it feels very scary and strange. And belly button is very cute, and together I thought it was too cute. So that's why I wanted the cover dark, to balance it out. There was like a year where I didn't like the title, but I'm starting to like it again.
You talked about illustrating the book with a fairly plain style, but then one of the children, Peter, is drawn throughout as a frog, which is how he sees himself. Why did you single him out to make so different?
I wanted the characters to look very different, and I like when different drawing styles are interacting. I think it's really graphically exciting to have these juxtapositions. For Peter, who feels extremely removed from the family, I wanted to draw him in a very removed way. I also wanted to establish that these characters are drawing themselves. They're all the star of their own autobio comic, and they're meshing together. And he has this romanticized view of this outsider, loser guy. And the joke is, he is a loser. He says he looks like a frog, and he does look like a frog. He says "My dad doesn't like me," and then later the dad says "I don't like Peter." He gets in this relationship with Kat, and anyone in their right mind would think this girl is messed up. I've had friends who are very similar to Peter read the comic and think the girl isn't really strange, or think this could be a healthy relationship. But I think Peter's a sucker. Every line signals to me this girl is trouble. Of course, it's also humorous to have this cartoony guy. It turned out he started to take over the book, because he's so much more symbolic looking, so I tried to tone it down, and I didn't want to put him on the cover.
Despite the simplicity of the art, there's a lot of visual complexity to the story and how the panels are arranged. How much design went into that?
The atmosphere is really important to me. I wanted to get this magical thing going on where the drawings weren't atmospheric, but the sequences were. The drawing is kind of plain and dumb looking, but there's a lot of atmosphere in the sequences. That's where I get really excited. It's intuitive work, because it has to feel right. But obviously I think about that stuff a lot. I kind of combined these scenes with these more arty sequences that are more observational comics. I was sitting on an airplane looking out the window and thought that was a nice sequence, so I put it in my sketchbook and put it in the book.
The arrangement of the panels, the density or lack of density in a page can create a feeling that's hard to define. It's hard to explain why I think something is beautiful done that way.
Now that "Bottomless Belly Button" is finished, most of your focus is on "Body World," right?
"Body World's" a lot of work, man. It's so much work. And I'm on like chapter five, and it's 12 chapters, and it's 12-panel pages. And I'm doing between 30 and 35 of those a month. Other than that, I worked on the "Cold Heat" special for MOCCA and I'm doing short stories for "MOME." I have some ideas for other things, but "Body World" is taking up most of my time.
Is it going to stay online, or will you look to print it eventually?
I think it'll be printed eventually, but I haven't talked to anyone. It would definitely be nice to have a book out of it, to format it to have the same feeling as a Webcomic. Right now, I'm just trying to get it done. I'm enjoying it a lot.