Body World by Dash Shaw

Categories:  Reviews

Body World
by Dash Shaw

bodyworldI never read Body World online.  I did try once, but found the experience tiresome.  To quote Brian HeaterHave you ever attempted to read a full-length graphic novel while hunched over your keyboard? I don’t recommend it.”

Printed, Body World is 384 pages.  That’s a lengthy piece of fiction.  Online, it is 14 chapters worth of “infinite canvas.”  The promise of infinity sounds great when discussed in theory, but in practice the method kind of fails me.  To take in the complete story of Body World, it helps to bookmark your progress for a break, it also helps to reference old images on past pages.  It is totally irritating to do this online, but far easier to do in print.

While it’s interesting that Body World was first serialized online, and its birthplace informs its print version in a big way, Body World is simply a better read in its new, book form.

I’ll admit, Dash Shaw’s reputation as an innovative must-read cartoonist made my ignorance of this story tough to bear while it was still just a webcomic.  I knew I was missing out on something special, but I just wasn’t interested in reading a fully-realized graphic novel on the web.  Apparently, I’d missed out on the news that Shaw was serializing a book online, so by the time I found out it was there, the story was complete.  By then, it was just too much to ingest.

I can imagine the anticipation those first readers must have felt as they inched slowly forward towards the meaning of Professor Paulie Panther’s botanical (and telepathic) discovery in Boney Borough. I finished after a couple days’ worth of intermittent reading, but if it didn’t drive me crazy to read at an author’s slow writing pace instead of my own zippier reading pace, it would have been pretty rewarding to see each installment come to light.  The story has a great momentum and is endlessly interesting for all its gorgeous colors and representative images that meld telepathic characters together on the page.  Shaw is in the habit of creating images that  you want to spend time with and think about.  My monitor-weary eyes are always glad to have images like that paper-ized and hand-held.

It would have been a different experience to read Body World as immediately as it appeared online, but the thrill of it couldn’t be replicated today.  Even if the content was removed, then re-released under the same time line, it would be difficult to find readers who could approach the work with the same naivety.  Reading it then would have been extra rewarding because on top of being great, it would also be unknown and completely surprising.

You can find it all online now, and read it for free, but I must persuade you instead to buy this new paper edition.  It is lovely and delightful and about a billion times better than the webcomic could ever be again.

Really though, as much as I envy those who were in on the day one reading Body World, I can’t believe my luck that I waited.  Pantheon has released the paper edition this week and it could not be more magical.

The print edition works to emulate the web edition in one very interesting way — the book is bound along the top rather than the side, and it’s a longish book.  It seems weird and problematic that the format would skew this way, but it really doesn’t feel problematic at all in the reading of Body World.  There were times I would lay it on the table next to my breakfast and read — I worried that the content at the top of the page would be too far from me and it would be irritating to my eyes — but it wasn’t so bad.  I didn’t even notice.

Then I thought, when I reached the end of the book, and all the pages were at the top, that they would start flapping back into place, but that wasn’t so bad either.  The book remained pretty flat and easy to read, even when I held it.  You’d think it would be bulky and hefty and irritating to hold all those pages up in one hand (what might seem like a more “active” style of book-holding since gravity would love to pull the pages down into your reading space) while reading the final chapters of Body World, but I hardly noticed they were there.  There’s something to be said for a story that lets the outside world just drop away, including the presence of a book in your hands.

I took it with me on the bus, that was fine.  If anyone had a question about what strange book I was reading, they never asked.  Likely because the title is advertised on the cover as well as along the side of the book’s pages (in a radical neon orange which I love by the way).  Interacting with the book really exceeded my expectations.  I was a top-spine doubter, but now I’m on board.  With this project at least.

I don’t know if the book design has been more likely to put off or intrigue people, but I loved it.  Like I said, the book read great no matter where I was, so the strange binding wasn’t an issue.  Then it’s got this unbelievably gorgeous partly metallic cover which must have cost a mint to print.  The answer to displaying the oh-so-necessary maps was original too — the maps fold out of the book from the front and back cover, so the maps display along side the material as you read.  This was very handy, because the maps are how Shaw frequently establishes the book’s setting.

You don’t even have to read the material before it absolutely dazzles you, which is something comics fans might appreciate more than anyone.  The story, like I said, follows Professor Paulie Panther who is a botanist specializing in researching and cataloging the hallucinogenic properties of plants.  A new plant has been discovered in the experimental community of Boney Borough which doesn’t seem to show much promise of becoming a drug…until…it does.

I’m aware that this book is kind of pricey, $28 is enough to balk at when you consider that the story can still be read online for free.  But it is worth it.  The attention to detail in the print job, coupled with the experience of reading the book in your hand, is the only way to go.  Pick it up from your local comic shop and demonstrate your own good taste.

Sarah Morean