[ITA/ENG] [Esclusiva] C4 Chiacchiere with… Dash Shaw
Born in 1983, at the age of 25 years old he already imposes in the elite of the comic auteurs through the epic Bottomless Belly Button published by Fantagraphics Books. His experience with comics led him to collaborating with some of the most important magazines of comics criticism – including the New York Times and The Comics Journal – and anthology magazines of the world. In his career there is also place for transmedia experiences, he has in fact collaborated with the icelandic band Sigur Ròs and he has recently created his first animated feature film My Entire High Schools Sinking Into the Sea. Recently Dash Shaw made his official debut in our country with Cosplayers, published by Coconino Press in the Warp Collection. We contacted him to talk about his career, his many works and his future projects. Have a good read.
C4 Comic: A recurring technique in your art is the “superimposition”: drawings, painting and photography mix seamlessly and often without a clear meaning connection (on the contrary, the image plans often contrast with each other and create a singular destabilizing effect). Is there a particular will behind this stylistic choice? This expedient seems for example to have a lot in common with some Dadaists expressive techniques (collages and assemblages of heterogeneous materials), or with image studies made by some exponents of experimental cinema of the past century (Stan Brakhage and Jack Chambers’ painting on the film and superimpositions).
Dash Shaw: It started with learning about pre-photoshop coloring techniques and how magazines and comics used to be laid out using acetate sheets. Celluloid, like what animators use. When you work on acetate it’s natural to lay it over different images and see what happens when one image peeks through the other. That was exciting. I’ve used it in a lot of different ways. In New School I thought of it as a film score, in that it’s an abstract element that’s colliding with the narrative component. Before that, in BodyWorld, it was used to communicate telepathy where someone would be sensing two things at once, usually a feeling juxtaposed with what is happening in the physical scene. Comics are a lot of images beside each other, so it made sense to me to utilize images on top of each other– superimpositions as you say– as well. Only after I started doing it with acetate did I see that it relates to film dissolves and dadaist drawings. I started looking at Fernand Leger a lot after someone pointed out to me that “New School”, with its thick lines and bold blocks of color, looked similar to Leger.
C4C: In “New School” we follow the story of Danny, who undergoes a temporary loss of hearing as a result of an accident and who will then also have to deal with life in a country whose language he doesn’t know. In the first case there is a form of unilateral incommunicability (Danny cannot receive auditive information), in the second the lack of communication becomes reciprocal (Danny and the locals speak different languages). In both cases he faces with the loss of a communicative channel, a lack that, however, seems to open up paradoxically new possibilities for understanding and an unprecedented, lateral and more authentic approach to reality. When Danny loses his ability to communicate the classic channels, he seems to acquire a new awareness, a pure and crystalline vision of the world, as if by the darkness of meaning and ignorance he could finally come into contact with the true nature of all things (unlike the normal “positive” forms of language in which misunderstanding and hypocrisy dominate). Where you stand in regard of it? Do you think a “negative path” of language is viable? Are common forms of dialogue merely a place for misunderstanding and falsification?
DS: Obviously, I’m writing in words to this interview with you, so language is very necessary! However, I do think that art allows the opportunity to move into the non-literal, the abstract, and that’s where the beauty/poetry lies. I understand what you mean regarding “New School“, but I also want to point out that it isn’t just language he loses, but sound, and so it brings it a bit closer to a book experience, since of course books do not have sounds.
C4C: In your graphic novels “Bottomless Belly Button” and “Doctors” we assist in two different ways to the same phenomenon. In the first one we follow the profound crisis experienced by the members of an apparently normal family afterwards a traumatic event, the inexplicable separation of the elderly parents who will reveal by domino effect a certain inability by the protagonists to manage their love life and emotional sphere. Also in “Doctors” the base science-fiction element of the story (the possibility to resuscitate the dead and manipulate the afterlife projection of the latter) allows to uncover the deep cracks in parent-child relationships, in a context where the characters prefer to flee and not accept the reality of the facts instead of processing traumas and faults and taking responsibility for themselves. How much do you think this form of “emotional illiteracy” is a widespread and relevant problem in the contemporary world? What do you think is the best way to tell it, face it and eventually overcome it?
DS: I can’t answer this question. I think about this question, and the books are wondering about it. I guess one thing to point out is that I’m making drama. Meaning, I’m making a web of relationships and problems that have to unfold in a dramatic way. If everyone was communicating well with each other, the story wouldn’t be interesting. I’m trying to make a network of conflicts between characters that amounts to something larger.
C4C: You can try to imagine a link between your graphic novel “Cosplayers” and “Ghost World” by Daniel Clowes. In all three works a couple of young girls is the medium for the authors to tell the current society, with which the protagonists feel in contrast but from which however they cannot escape or leave (and maybe they don’t really want to do it). What do you think this narrative expedient can offer to the story? Do you think adolescence can allow a “flight” from the world that has been imposed on us, or is it just an “antechamber”, a preparation for the irreversible inclusion of individuals into society?
DS: Cosplayers are short allegorical stories about how people relate to and use popular culture. Those women are based on people I knew from going to anime conventions as a teenager. I don’t think the flight from reality is necessarily only in teenagers– I think of that as being what popular fiction offers the public, the masses. There are lots of older people in fan culture, and obviously men. I guess I chose two women because I knew those people and I was always buzzing around them. The connection to “Ghost World” wasn’t obvious to me when I started, but then Eric Reynolds (the Fantagraphics editor) pointed it out to me. That made me more conscious of it as I continued. However, Eric pointed out that the differences were more interesting than the similarities, in that the “Ghost World” women hate popular culture, they mock it, while my characters absolutely love pop culture and want to participate in it. Of course, Clowes is a master.
C4C: In tribal cultures the use of drugs has been a widespread practice over the centuries (we think of the cult of peyotism) as a medium to reach the intangible, the magical and the divine. In “Bodyworld” this theme seems to be recurrent: Paulie obsessively searches for a plant that promises to open its doors to a reality different from what we know it. How much do you think we can “manipulate” our mind to find happiness or something greater from our mind? Is this the real (or the only) way to reach a full consciousness of the world and of itself?
DS: Well, this is another heavy question. Emotions are chemical. You can find medication to make you feel however you want. We all know this by now. I don’t know how to reach a full consciousness!
C4C: How did your collaboration with the Icelandic band Sigur Rós (for which you made a music video for songs “Rembihnútur” and “Ekki Múkk“) is born? What was the creative process behind the choice of the movie subject? How did you experience the creation of the video?
DS: That came about through the producer, John Cameron Mitchell of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” fame. John knew the band and suggested I animate a video for them. John also wrote that story. I got a co-writer credit by making some changes to it. Basically, I just took all of John’s words out and tried to tell the story visually. That was a fun project. I did the drawings seen in John’s movies “Rabbit Hole” and the forthcoming “How to Talk to Girls at Parties“, based on the Neil Gaiman story.
C4C: How did you experience with My Entire School Sinking into the Sea? Starting from the concept proceeding up to technical and assembly choices, we felt a lot of the the motion picture “vibe”. Try to think for example to the choice of the diagonal frames of the cartoons, a type that you rarely use in your stories and that in some tables guide the narration.
DS: I’d wanted to make an animated feature for a decade, but it felt impossible… I didn’t have the money or access to the people or resources to make one. So I just decided to start drawing one on my own. I wanted it to be hand-done and painterly, similar to the animations I loved as a kid, and also like my own work in independent comic books. I had a scanner and basic software, and my girlfriend-now-wife Jane was trained as an animator, so she could pencil the more complicated, timed body animation. It was very labor-intensive, and we did not have a studio space, so we spent years drawing and scanning mostly in our kitchen. I was concerned I’d spend years working on it and it’d just be something that would play on YouTube, or Vimeo. I wanted it to play in at least one “real” theater, so when I decided on the ratio, I made it the widest possible ratio to communicate “movie-ness“. I knew my level of animation would be associated more with television, since a lot of the main inspirations were TV: Speed Racer, or the Charlie Brown TV specials. Anyway, that’s why I used that wide horizontal frame.
C4C: In many of your stories the narration is punctuated by maps (Bodyworld), sections of objects and buildings (My Entire School Sinking into the Sea) and specific spatio-temporal coordinates. How much does contextualization and worldbuilding contribute to your narration? How much is this operation calculated and how much is it spontaneous in your creative process?
DS: For some of the books it starts with a place. BodyWorld was partly about the fictional town it took place in, Boney Borough. Bottomless Belly Button was about the mysteries around a beach house. High School Sinking is obviously about the school and moving up through the floors and the video-game-like “levels” of the school. So, for those it made sense to provide maps to situate the viewer. However, some of the books like Doctors and New School take place in less literal, more abstract, spaces.
C4C: In the stories we have mentioned, you often appear as a self-proclaimed protagonist. Is it an autobiographical operation or just a narrative pretext? How much of the real Dash Shaw is there in your comics?
DS: Usually it’s in an obviously ironic way. I grew up in the 90s where the majority of alternative comics were autobiographical. So, I had to make fun of it. Now, there are cartoonists younger than me who make comics that are autobio and are completely sincere. I guess it goes in waves.
C4C: We close with a ritual question. Which projects (if you’re allowed to reveal something to us) are you currently working on? Are new animated works in the pipeline, or new comic stories? Or are you rather going to explore new expressive ways?
DS: Right now I’m working on my second animated movie. It’s about a cryptozoo, a zoo that rescues and houses mythological beings. Also I’m working on a couple comic projects. I have a book almost done, called Discipline, but I’m not sure if it’s ready. I need to make changes to it. Then I have a second graphic novel I’m plotting out. Thanks for your interest. I had a great time in Italy!