It didn’t take long for reviewers to begin lavishing praise upon Bottomless Belly Button. Before Dash Shaw’s 700-odd page tome was released, back in June, critics and artists alike were already heralding it as the graphic novel of the year, the subsequent six months be damned.
Even at that length, the book is deceptively simple, thanks in a large degree to what Shaw refers to as a “dumb line,” as he quietly discusses his art in an bench-lined alcove downstairs from the chat of Bethesda’s Small Press Expo.
It’s a surprisingly frank assessment of his own work, but like book it describes, the comment is far more complex than it initially lets on. Shaw is an artist who prides himself on putting a good deal of thought into even the dumbest of lines, constructing an image and subsequent book that can read and enjoyed in no time flat, but require repeat visitations to be fully understood, which, of course, assumes—perhaps falsely—that they can ever be understood fully.
Halfway through October, the book still seems a likely candidate for a good many year end lists, and Shaw, for his part, while still happy to discuss the intricacies of the book, has long since moved on to his next masterwork.
Have you been doing a lot of interviews over the past few months?
Over the past few months, yeah, but this is the first that I’ve done at this show.
Was there a big push when [Bottomless Belly Button] came out?
Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics really pushed it. For the past couple of months—June, July, August—there have been a lot. Because once you do one thing with one magazine, other magazines want to review it and other people want to pay attention to it.
When you were working on the book, did it feel like a turning point, in terms of recognition? Having Fantagraphics on your side must have helped a lot.
But I didn’t know that Fantagraphics was going to do it. I had more than half of it done, and then I showed it to Fanta. They said that they were interested, but they wanted to see the rest of it. I finished the rest of it, and then, maybe half a year later, they said, “yes.” In that time I edited a bit and redrew a lot of stuff, but the only things I did after I knew that Fantagraphics was going to publish it was stuff like the cover. Knowing that Fantagraphics was going to publish it and that it was going to be in bookstores did inform my decision about the cover. I wanted it to be the comic in the bookstore that looks more like a minicomic, and not have the author bio and the picture and the coverflaps, and all of these things that it seems like people who do minicomics get in the bookstore market and immediately do. They want their stuff to look like every other book. So I wanted to be the person who gets into the bookstore market and has something that looks like what I was doing before.
You approached Gary [Groth] with something like 300 pages. Isn’t there a point when it’s hard to go back and edit, to make major changes to the work?
Well, I did make a lot of changes, and you can tell. If I pointed it out to you, you could tell.
But you don’t really want to point them out?
If you had it here, I would point it out to you.
Were there any major character changes, or was it all aesthetic choices?
Well, a lot of it was trying to keep the drawings consistent and changing story things around. The way I drew it, the quality of the drawings was such that, if I had an idea for a scene, I could just do it and decide whether or not the scene goes into the book. Body World and some of these other comics I do, if I draw it, I know that it’s going to be in the book, because executing a Body World page takes so much time and work and effort. A Bottomless Belly Button page is easier. It’s more like how you would write a paragraph of text. So I drew things so that I could move them around. And the brown ink kind of helps everything look more consistent. But the drawings are pretty inconsistent. I had to redraw all of the Jills for the first 200 pages of something, because she morphed.
Were you keeping it simple because you knew it was going to be such a massive book?
Well, I wanted to do something where I could really edit it. For that book, I wanted to do something where I could do a scene and have it come together in the editing and the redrawing. Body World is more like executing one solid piece slowly forward. What I do after Body World, I want to have it so that I pencil the whole book and then I ink the whole book—I spend a year just doing these big layouts. For these different projects, I want to try these different things, because there’s usually these things that make sense for the material. I like trying something. I don’t think any of these methods is better than another one—it’s just more appropriate for what I was doing. I just think of myself as experimenting.
But it’s not the sort of thing where, if you find something that works you’ll keep doing it forever, is it? How important is it that things look different from book to book?
Well, it’s more like, when I do something, I just don’t want to do that again. I just there’s something more exciting—I’m chasing these different styles and aesthetics. I don’t know if people can tell that Body World is done by the same person as Bottomless. Maybe they can, and to me there are a lot of similarities, but the surface aesthetic is different, but the things underneath are me, and obviously what people recognize of someone’s work is that one top thing. Like Paul Pope, he’s brushy manga, but I don’t have that one top thing. I think that’s good. I don’t want to have that top thing. I think the thing that are like are people like Bruce Connor who do a lot of different things. I think comics should have people who aren’t applying their illustrated style to different stories, but maybe are trying to tell the same story with different illustrated looks.
How would you describe the style of Bottomless Belly Button, versus the other works you’ve done?
I would say it’s kind of dumb looking. I was in [David] Mazzucchelli’s class, and I was really obsessed with Batman: Year One. And I still love Batman: Year One. I was looking at this drawing of Catwoman, where the lines were shading her face, but they didn’t wrap around the curvature of her head. They weren’t hatch marks. They were just straight, horizontal lines. He said, “this is a dumb line. The style of Batman: Year One is that the line doesn’t know what it’s describing.” I would just look at this Catwoman drawing, and I was mesmerized by this idea of a dumb line. So the style of that book is using a lot of the same angles and a lot of the same repeating setups. A single drawing is not beautiful, but it fits into some kind of a beautiful sequence.
Is there a reason why you chose that style for that text?
Well, they came at the same time. I don’t think, ‘this is a good way to draw this story.’ I pictured a beach, and stippling for sand is very dumb. There’s no space in it. It’s just flat dots and the water is flat, wavy lines. And the people are kind of these Simpsonsy people, and they’re all drawn different. I didn’t have a story and thought that I should draw it this way, it’s more that I just kind of pictured flipping through this book that looked like this.