New School by Dash Shaw
Writer & Artist: Dash Shaw
Release Date: July 5, 2013
Dash Shaw is a relentless experimenter, never content to rely on the processes and approaches that garnered him acclaim the last go-round. Bodyworld began as a webcomic, making full use of its scrolling online medium while employing mysterious section markers with colors and coordinates. Bottomless Belly Button, Shaw’s major debut and most praised work, dealt with family relationships in neurotic, off-beat Royal Tenenbaums-fashion (one character had a frog head, uncommented upon by anyone within the narrative). Shorter work and animation followed. Now we have another brick in Shaw’s evolving portfolio with New School, a speedy 340 pages the size and proportion of a yearbook.
The story concerns a teenager named Danny who idolizes his older brother, Luke, to the extreme of wanting to be him. Not only does Danny trace over Luke’s drawings, but he also follows him on a journey to a strange country developing a historical amusement park. Raised in isolation, the pair enjoys its freedom: drinking, vandalizing, pursuing girls, and embracing all manner of impulse. New School presents conflicts of language, not only between the native Xians of the new world our English-speaking heroes visit, but between Luke, who speaks like a contemporary teen, and Danny, who avoids contractions to communicate formally. The dialogue breaks yank the reader out of the text to contemplate these rifts before submerging them back into the narrative, like being thrust in and out of a swimming pool.
Also discordant, Shaw’s visual technique embraces thick, clean Sharpie-esque lines overlaid by translucent coloring that may or may not have anything to do with the content beneath it. Sometimes these colors resemble Chartpak markers, the hues nestled closely alongside one another like an architectural grid. Other times, a brown watercolor square obscures some panels while splitting others in half. Rapturous gradations sit alongside colorful checkerboards, giving way to landscape photographs in vintage tints.
What all these unique visual choices have to do with the story is anyone’s guess. There are moments when the coloring suggests emotional import or signifies prophetic vision, and the colors become progressively wilder as the narrative speeds toward its climax. But, like many of Shaw’s decisions, these ones seem to derive from his gut more than his head. Shaw’s ability to confidently follow his muse without justifying any artistic approach is part of what makes him such an exciting voice, and one that continues to refine itself with this excellent book.