“It’s a weird book,” says Dash Shaw, frankly, describing Bottomless Belly Button. The artist is delighted—if slightly baffled—about the book’s success. Soon after being release in June on Fantagraphics, the book was declared the graphic novel of the year but a number of fans and critics, with another six months still left until 2009.
Shaw’s own assessment is fairly apt, of course. Beyond its girth, Bottomless Belly Button seems a peculiar contender for the year’s best comic—it’s graphically simple—drawn with what the artist refers to as a “dumb line,” slow moving, and catalogs its own imagery with an almost obsessive compulsive drive. It is, perhaps, exactly these elements that make the book such a surprise hit.
Whatever the case may be, Shaw is very humble about the praise that has been heaped upon him in the last few months, working with his head down on the followup, BodyWorld, which is currently being serialized on the Web, and will soon be collected as a book by Pantheon.
In this second of our three-part interview, we discuss bookmarks, the compulsion to draw large breasted women, and what was in 13-year-old Dash’s middle school notebooks.
Do the characterizations of your characters arise from the way you draw them in your sketchbooks?
Yeah. I try to make it like the characters drew themselves. Why would they draw themselves that way? But I had to train myself to draw that way. This is kind of strange—I had to teach myself to draw that way, and with BodyWorld, I wanted the girls to be sexy, like Dan Decarlo girls, but I don’t naturally draw that way, so I had to learn to draw a big-breasted girl. But now it feels pretty natural.
It’s funny—I assume from what you said that you grew up reading superhero books—X-men and Batman—
Right, Rob Liefeld.
Exactly, and that seems to be the first thing that you’d start to draw, these giant-breasted women from the comics.
No, I was drawing manga stuff. You look at my middle school books, and it’s all Dirty Pair [laughs]. I’m serious. What’s funny is I read a lot of interviews with other artists and they say things like, “I wanted to draw Spider-man.” For me, I wanted to draw The Guyver. It was just a different time, and Japanese comics were the most exciting thing, when I was around.
What’s funny about this situation, too, is that artist had to draw, for the longest time, in a consistent style, so that they could get higher to draw different stories, or draw on different books. “X-men could use Joe Madureira’s style. It’s hot right now. It will give X-men his surface look.” But in alternative comics, there’s no money in that. No one will hire me to do this one thing. I don’t need to draw consistently. I can draw differently for every single thing, if I want to. I think that’s really exciting. That’s a huge new thing that should be looked at.
We were talking about Kevin Huizenga, earlier. Everywhere I looked at the show, I saw something by him. I was all immediately recognizable. Is there something to be said for having a consistent style?
Oh yeah! I think people should do whatever they want to do. People have styles that have a wide range. I think the way Kevin draws is perfect for the kinds of things he’s interested in. I’m just saying that this is the kind of thing that I’m interest, and I think that it’s what I should do, if that’s what I’m psyched about. But there’s people who have a really consistent look, but inside that, it has a wide range and can do whatever they want it to do, and those people are amazing. There are people who draw in a really consistent way, and it seems like they have one story, and the other things are drawing on that one story.
Like I love Paul Pope, but to me, Escapo is the best Paul Pope story, and there isn’t going to be another one like it. Everything else is kind of like him doing the same thing. It’s cool to see him do Batman, or whatever. Kevin Huizenga is a writer. He’s good with words. He’s one of the few people, I think, who can actually write a book and it would be good. My impression is that he’s unusual in that that’s what’s his focus.
Do you get attached to characters? Bottomless Belly Button is a long book. Is there a specific reason why it’s as many pages as it is? Is it clear when the story is over, for you?
The reason it’s long is because that’s the style of the book. People say it could have been shorter. No shit it could have been shorter! It has someone undressing over 50 panels, or this small thing happening over pages and pages. It’s a style that kind of comes from Japanese comics, but I went even slower, to just look at a naturally phenomenon. And they’re kind of cataloged, with other types of sand and other types of water. That is kind of the story. Atmosphere is the story. That’s why it’s long. It’s not long because I had 700 pages of something to say. I didn’t put page numbers on it, because I wanted it to feel like a long sequence of spreads. I didn’t want it to feel like, “I’m 50 pages into this book.” When I’m reading a book, I look down at the page number and say, “I’m going to stop at 75 today.” It’s just a straight sequence. It’s a weird book, you know? It’s cool that it’s getting good press, but it’s kind of strange that it kind of snuck in there [laughs].
In terms of where to stick a bookmark when it’s time to move on, there’s a note at the beginning of the book that says, very specifically that you should read it in pieces.
Right, because there’s no chapters and no pages numbers, and so I thought if I was reading something and I was 100 pages in and there was no chapter, I would just put the bookmark in there and stop. But if I said that there were three sections and that there was going to be breaks, that you would go to that section and stop there. I don’t know who follows that [laughs]. But it reads very fast. What’s funny is that people say that it’s a long book but they probably read it in under three hours. That’s a fucking short book.
Is that good or bad, when you set out to have this methodical, slow pacing on something—
But it reads quickly.
Is that an issue?
No, I think that’s what I want. It’s fast, it’s slow. It’s long, it’s short. It’s large-scale, but it’s extremely small-scale. I’m looking for these kind of juxtapositions. I’ve said this a lot of times—comics to me are about taking two different things and then creating some third thing that’s really great.
Words and art.
Yeah, or a picture next to a picture and then that creates some other thing. And then a picture next to a word. This style of storytelling with this thing creates a third thing. It’s always like creating this new thing that’s really where the meat is. You can’t really describe it, because it’s created of all of these different things that are at conflict with each other.
[Concluded in Part Three.]