Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw

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Bottomless Belly Button
By Dash Shaw
Fantagraphics

Even without all the fanfare—without all the proclamations of “book of the year” six months into 2008, without all of the softly lit black and white photography of mainstream magazine profiles, without all of the message board threads that delve into non-comic-centric fascinations with the author—even stripped of all of this, its clear upon first glance that Bottomless Belly Button is, at the very least, one of the most ambitious books of 2008. At a jaw-dropping 702 pages, it’s also one of the longest—in terms of Dash Shaw’s ambitions, however, the book’s girth is merely the beginning.

Taken as an abstract back cover plot summary, the premise is simple enough: the tale of an older couple seeking divorce late in life, after their children have long since gone off and begun having children of their own. Early on, however, it becomes fairly clear that Shaw is not content to merely scratch the surface of story so rife with emotional possibliities. Rather, while his story does indeed largely maintain a linear narrative, save for an expositionary preface, the author is focused on delving as deeply into the lives of all involved as he can manage in his self-allotted space, which, as one can imagine, is fairly deep indeed.

The drawing style employed for Bottomless Belly Button is rather crude, with neither the flow of a Blankets, nor the geometric absoluteness of a Jimmy Corrigan, and while it doesn’t paint Shaw as the most technically proficient cartoonist around, the book showcases its creator as one of the most graphically-minded artists to arrive on the scene in some time. Major events in Shaw’s story opt not to unfold through text heavy scenarios—there’s little or no over-explanation on the part of the book’s cast and no third-party narration present, save for brief bursts of poetic object-labeling in between scenes—rather far more is written into those in-between moments, brief panels of silence which speak volumes, be it through quiet character reactions or by way of the objects that populate the world that the book’s cast inhabits.

Bottomless Belly Button is the story of memory in the face of loss, and ultimately the objects that occupy it are every bit as important to the this pursuit as Shaw’s characters, a fact alluded to early on, when the artist opens the book with an examination of the different states of sand. Sure in each case the state is somehow the result of manipulation at the hand of man, be it sand pouring out of a shoe or hardened sand cracked under the pressure of a human heel, but, as the book seems keenly aware, long after the souls who inhabit our memories are gone, and long after the memories themselves have faded, the objects that retain their significance remain, painting a far more vivid portrait than our dull minds alone ever could.

The tale of Shaw’s Loony family ultimately unfolds through these objects, both indirectly, as in the aforementioned case of the lone panels of sand, and more explicitly, when the characters uncover mementos of their lost past like keys with long forgotten locks and letters, which the author lovingly crafts in the style of their writers, inhabiting their mindsets with graceful technical ease, spilling out keys to character development amongst heated correspondence. Sometimes the author’s overt symbolism feels a touch heavy handed—tactile metaphors like lost keys and loose teeth can certainly be unpacked on a fairly surface level. But the majority of Shaw’s storytelling is so firmly ensconced in subtly—slight variations in otherwise repetitious panels—that one begins to expect that even the most overt of moments contain some deeper level of truth. And if they don’t, all the better—it’s important to find some solid ground in amongst the ever-deepening subject matter.

Belly Button’s other sources of grounding stem from moments of comic relief, the clearest of which arrives in the form of the Loonys’ youngest son, ostensibly an anthropomorphosized frog, a fact which, aside the constant visual reminder, is largely ignored throughout the majority of the book, the baggage of being the only talking amphibian in a family full of humans taking a backseat to his more traditional social ineptitudes, perhaps the clearest illustration of a family who, despite gathering together to commemorate the end of a marriage, is primarily hung up on the seemingly more immediate issues that crop up in their lives over the course of the book.

It’s an important distinction as, like in life, it’s a bit too easy to become entangled in the book’s more abstract details. Shaw has done such an effective job in layering Belly Button both graphically and in terms of character that one can easily get lost in the details. And at the end, even after 700-odd pages of the Loonys, even after all of the sentimental goodbyes, it seems that far more questions have arisen than have been answered, the locks for a handful of discovered keys never having been found and turned.

Such mystery is for the better of course, as it guarantees that new pieces of the ever-enlarging puzzle will arise with each subsequent reading, and while, on a personal note, I might hesitate to list Bottomless Belly Button as my favorite book of the year, the keys unearthed in a revisiting of the Loonys’ world may certainly cause such hesitations to fade away.

–Brian Heater

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