“There are many types of genres,” declares the busy spine of Dash Shaw’s monumental 2008 graphic novel, “Bottomless Belly Button” (Fantagraphics: 720 pp., $29.99) “This is: family comedy/drama/horror/mystery/romance.” It’s as much taxonomical cheat sheet as it is a boast: in being so reductive, Shaw also broadcasts his ambition. Formally inventive and emotionally acute, “Bottomless Belly Button” indeed proves to be all those things: as fascinating and affecting a depiction of family ties as Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” or Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
Set at a beachside house, the story is centered on a couple’s decision to divorce, after four decades of marriage. Their three grown children (including one who sees himself, and whom we see, as a frog) visit to spend a final week together. But Shaw doesn’t jump right into the thick of the drama, comedy and the rest. “Bottomless Belly Button” begins with deconstructions and instructions. The book is “not for children"; it consists of three parts, and we are advised to “take breaks from reading between them.” A primer of draftsman’s terms shows us stippling, hatching and three-point perspective. “There are many types of sand,” states an omniscient narrator. “The cloud of sand when it’s poured out of a shoe. Spotty sand stuck to a naked back. Hard sand. Cracked sand when you apply pressure with your heel. Pee on sand: it suddenly goes dark. Sand sifted out of a bathing suit. Mud sand.” Each type is illustrated, a single panel per page; later Shaw will do a similar introduction to the types of water. Shaw calls attention to his artistry right as we are about to forget it, swept up in the story that follows.
For all its postmodern awareness of its status as a graphic novel (“File under: comic books,” reads the chatty spine), the actual story of “Bottomless Belly Button” is firmly grounded in what we commonly think of as realism. But there are many types of genre, as a spine once said, and Shaw’s latest book, “Bodyworld” (Pantheon: 384 pp., $27.95), is a heady immersion into science fiction. The time is 2060, sometime after a traumatic civil war; the place, Boney Borough, “a new, postwar experimental self-contained forest town.” (The book’s elaborate packaging allows for a cardstock map of the environs, embedded in the front cover, which the reader should “leave…open for easy reference while reading.”)
Squeaky clean on the surface, Boney Borough harbors an Outer Rim of scummy motels and bondage enthusiasts, and it is the birthplace of a strange game called “Dieball,” combining the fetishistic polyhedral dice of Dungeons & Dragons, the sweaty crunch of TV’s “American Gladiators” and the risky performance-enhancing drugs of the major-league sport of your choice.
And it’s the home to a mysterious black-leafed, white-veined plant growing in a forest near the high school. This undocumented flora attracts an outsider: “Professor” Paulie Panther, a participatory botanist whose job is updating “an encyclopedia of the hallucinogenic effects of North American plantlife.” Panther is, quite simply, one of the great messed-up antiheros of recent fiction, at once a man on a mission and the most chemically addled weirdo this side of Hunter S. Thompson. (With his sideburns and intense scowl, he actually looks more the way the late Harvey Pekar sometimes did in his “American Splendor” comics.) The first of many laugh-out-loud moments for me came during the prelude: An incredulous motel manager asks why he needs a receipt, to which Panther — cigarette smoke blooming, mirror shards stuck in his forehead, blood flowing down his face — responds: “I’m here on business.”
Smoking, shooting up, his arms perpetually covered by a dozen nicotine patches, Panther is in a state of constant stimulation — an occupational hazard, or the reason he’s in this occupation to begin with. At first, staid Boney Borough is seduced by his renegade manner and frenetic dancing; the townspeople will eventually turn against him, putting up Wild West-style signs for his banishment. (“This poster should be an irony-free synaesthetic experience,” says one of its designers.)
Though Panther upends the social order, disastrously, in his quest to pin down the plant’s psychotropic qualities, he wears his heart on his sleeve. “I just want to meet a nice girl who’s into ‘Tarnsman of Gor’ and settle down,” he explains, with helpless, hilarious sincerity. In one of many bravura backstories, we learn that a once-suicidal Panther fell into his line of work thanks in part to his aching response to some Viagra spam; ignoring its meticulously mangled language, he discerns a painful truth about his lack of bedroom prowess.
Almost by accident, Panther discovers, via assorted Boneyites (ice-queen teacher Jem Jewel; wanderlusting Pearl Peach; her ex, Dieball player Billy Borg), that the weed puts users into telepathic alignment. The book is full of broken mirrors, and the herb triggers levels of reflection that get vertiginous: “Pearl sees how Paul sees Pearl sees Paul.” Sometimes the results are blissful; mostly they’re extremely freaky, even disturbingly raw, and Shaw pulls out all the stops to show such complex altered states in a manner both intuitive and chaotic. Graphics and text overlap, the timeframes and layers of meaning there to be teased out; in this haze, bits of one body get transferred to another, and it’s tantalizingly unclear whose thoughts are being articulated. Most graphic novels are easily consumed at a gallop, but these sequences slow down the speed of “Bodyworld,” making for a rich experience (or should that be an irony-free synaesthetic experience?) that can’t be achieved through words alone.
But Shaw is a brilliant writer too, working in various registers, from delirious vernacular (“We had a thing, a hot second, but I had to ‘move-on.org,’” Panther dissembles to one set of persecutors) to bank-shot absurdist patter. (“We’ve got lots of small evidence,” says the sheriff. “What we need is bigger evidence, and evidence that’s more colorful. All of this is gray, or of a neutral palette. I prefer yellow or orange evidence, myself.”) And when Panther attempts to talk down a fellow experimenter from a dangerous place, there’s a heartbreaking purity: “This is how my head is clear. This is how my lungs breathe. This is how my heart is beating, how my body is awake and alive. Are you getting this?”
“Bottomless Belly Button” was the most sublime thing I read in 2008, in part because the cover design obscured Shaw’s name; I had no idea who the artist was. Though the family at its core was falling apart, Shaw told his story with pathos for all, with wit and tremendous ingenuity. (The title occurs only once in the text, but the context is significant: it’s amid a coded love letter from the parents’ early courtship, which the reader will either decipher or ignore.)
Though rendered in myriad color schemes outdazzling its predecessor’s brown-and-white, and though set in a wildly imagined future instead of a finely grained present, “Bodyworld” turns out to be another showcase for Shaw’s emotional generosity. Indeed, what better way to explore the limits of sympathy than with characters who can literally feel each other’s pain?
Park is the author of “Personal Days,” a novel. Astral Weeks appears monthly at https://www.latimes.com/books.