One of the great pleasures of being a comic book fan is that comic books are not, in and of themselves, a genre, so being a big comic book reader means that you’re opening yourself up to a wide variety of possible subject materials. Granted, a whole ton of it is superhero related, but there are plenty of other types of works out there and often you don’t know exactly what you’re getting until you “step into” the book, as it were. That was the case for me with Dash Shaw’s stunningly original graphic novel, Doctors, and the greatness of this work just solidifies for me how great it is to be a comic book fan. Doctors is a philosophical examination about the very nature of life and death through the lenses of a science fiction drama. Besides being a powerful and poignant story, Shaw’s artwork is imaginative and willing to explore new ways of affecting the senses of the reader.
Stylistically, Shaw reminds me a lot of another comic book creator that I adore, which is Michael Kupperman. Both men adeptly use iconic tropes as a sort of cultural shorthand. To wit, certain romance comic poses have become so iconic that you can use a simple familiar romantic pose to convey a good deal of emotion just by playing on what the reader knows about the iconic pose. Similarly, “zoom ins” on characters have also taken on iconic association with melodramas, so Shaw uses these tropes to great effect in his artwork (Kupperman, meanwhile, plays on iconic tropes with his Snake and Bacon series, which presumes already that the reader is familiar with buddy cop movies and detective thrillers).
The most striking visual aspect of the comic is definitely the way that Shaw uses color in his work. This is what I was referring to earlier about the new ways of affecting a reader’s senses. Check out these sample pages and notice just how much the shift in colors affects how you read the pages…
At the same time, notice what I was saying about his use of iconic poses to convey meaning. The zoom-ins on Bell in particular.
Anyhow, the main gist of the comic is that Bell soon embarks on a relationship with the young man at the pool. However, as it turns out, she is actually dead and she is in the afterlife, effectively dreaming of her perfect new relationship. She is visited by her daughter, who claims to actually be a woman named Tammy Cho, who was hired by Bell’s daughter and is using a device that her father has developed to access Bell’s afterlife and bring her back to life. So Tammy is appearing to Bell as someone she is familiar with and trusts in real life. That right there sounds like a cool story, right? But that’s just the beginning – because when Bell returns to life, she has to deal with the fact that her perfect relationship does not exist in real life. That’s a fate perhaps worse than death itself. What happens when she seeks out the young man that she used as the basis for her dream man in her afterlife? What do you do when you’re a regular guy and some old lady starts treating you like you’re her one true love? Do you take advantage of her love? What do you do when you spend a ton of money to bring your mother back to life and she’s all the worse for it?
And then we go to the Cho side of things – what kind of person builds a machine that can bring people back to life? SHOULD there be a machine where people are brought back to life? The whole thing progresses through our examination into the life of Tammy and her father, who was set on to this path after Tammy’s mother was murdered. The father/daughter relationship is absolutely fascinating (there is an excellent sequence where we see what kind of man Cho is when he explains how he always makes sure to get drunk when he gets on airplanes so that if anyone ever needs a doctor that he will be too drunk to help as, after all, doctors who help on flights are statistically more likely to miss their connecting flights. Dang, that’s cold).
Cho has a friend who is dying and he wants Cho to bring him back to life. This leads to a stunning coming together of the various characters of the book into one extended sequence that is so clever that I would be shocked if this book does not someday become a movie as this sequence just needs to be depicted on film.
This is one of Shaw’s best comics to date and is one of the best comics (perhaps the best comic) that I have read this year – it is a thought-provoking modern tragedy wrapped up in science fiction trappings with a brilliant visual sensibility.
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