Every year, a few sophisticated, sprawling comic books make their way out of the alt-comics echo chamber and into the ;mainstream. Although it won't replace the great American novel anytime soon, the great American graphic novel has risen in stature the past 20 years. April alone saw the release of Daniel Clowes' Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly) and Dash Shaw's BodyWorld (Pantheon).
Both Wilson and BodyWorld are graphic novels in the loaded, fancy sense of the term, but each book also subtly defies expectations for the kind of smarty-pants comics that get write-ups in magazines and, well, free alternative weeklies. Clowes' collection of depressive joke strips – a parody of the Sunday funnies about a middle-aged, out-of-touch douchebag – shuns the comics world's recent ;fascination with the grand statement, opting for a terse take on America in the aughts. It feels like a relic from an earlier indie comics era when every release didn't have to swing for the fences. Shaw follows up 2008's Bottomless Belly Button, a 720-pager about divorce, with an erotic, pulp-obsessed, 384-page book about a strand of weed that makes you psychic. It's a new kind of comics epic.
Nearly every Wilson strip plays along as follows: Wilson reaches out to somebody, ;grows annoyed with them and acts like a huge dick. The first strip starts with Clowes' McTeague-reading curmudgeon introducing himself as "a people person" and ends with him asking a complete stranger, "For the love of Christ, do you ever shut up?" The strip is titled "Fellowship."
Along with his scruffy, pop-art illustration style, this type of cruel comedy has been a Clowes' staple since his pre-Eightball book, Lloyd Llewellyn, but there was always something else to the story besides cruelty; eventually humanity cracked through. Characters Enid and Rebecca from Ghost World snicker at a classmate who now has a tumor wrapped around her neck, but it's one admittedly loathsome aspect of their complex personalities.
Wilson isn't supposed to be likeable, but he's not complex either. He's insincerely sincere, a loudmouth who thinks calling people on their bullshit is the same as honesty, and no one else in the book comes off much better: An ex-wife, a daughter he didn't know he had and random strangers he accosts for being rude, boring or resembling Frankenstein are all schlubs, leading lives of quiet, ignoble desperation. ;Wilson's a jerk, but everybody else who wanders through the book – all fat, ugly and American – isn't any better.
But it's really funny – like the "Property of Sir D.A.D.D.Y. Big-Dick" tattoo on his ex-wife's back. In "Vampire," Wilson suggests his dying father would suck the life from his own damned son if it were possible, and in "Hard Time," a new-to-jail Wilson prattles on to a dead-eyed, white supremacist cellmate who responds, "You shut up fo' I gon' turn yo ass'ho' into a pussy!" The cracks are nonstop, but Wilson still feels like a regression; once it's clear the picaresque narrative is going nowhere – it ends with a mock epiphany – the joke's on the reader.
BodyWorld sits somewhere between mainstream comics and insular indie fare, and unlike Wilson it challenges and confuses in a good way. Originally serialized online (and still free on Shaw's website), it reads vertically – an attempt to make print reflect the online reading experience. It also merges pre-'60s high school melodrama and sci-fi action with of-the-moment text-speak, slang and references to the Internet.
At the center of the wobbly action, set in the year 2060, is stoner botanist Paulie Panther. Following a tip from a student's science blog, Panther travels to Boney Borough, Va., perhaps the last bucolic suburb in a futuristic world of smoggy decay, to study a plant that, when smoked, induces psychic powers. Panther becomes involved in the drama of the nearby school, first with Jem, an aging hipster science teacher, and then with student Pearl. Inevitably, her meathead boyfriend shows up too, and there are rumblings of an alien attack.
BodyWorld's tangly, bat-shit crazy story pulls the narrative along, but it's surprisingly casual, more focused on character and emotion than typical comic book build-up and payoff: The story only sort of wraps up and feels like it goes beyond its own pages – very much like Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
The most immediate feeling emanating from the book, however, is Shaw's genuine love of comics. In sharp contrast to Clowes' funny-book mockery, Shaw grabs from the haphazard style of diary comics and Clowes' own character studies, then employs his art-school training (silk-screening, abstract painting, Photoshop) to smoosh it together with Jack Kirby–style conceptual craziness.
Particularly inspired is the way Shaw visualizes the pot-inspired mind-readings. It's done with discordant doubling and tripling of images and panels. A mental threesome between Paulie, Pearl and Billy is erotic and unsettling at the same time and raises the stakes.
Soon enough, it's revealed that aliens planted the psychic weed and a forest full of the plant catches fire and turns every Boney Borough citizen into a clairvoyant. Shaw responds to his story's tension by growing visually darker and more daring. The blurry blobs of paint and marker used for backgrounds begin to bleed into the foreground; a police shootout takes place under a Francis Bacon–like sky.
Almost every comic read by Shaw and every skill he picked up in art school wedge their way into BodyWorld. Unlike Clowes' style, which appears cramped by his own comic-strip conceit, Shaw's visual narrative knows no bounds. Wilson is purposefully minor, a quiet response to these critically acclaimed comics tomes everybody's doing now, but ultimately it's just slight. Clowes made a book about a grumpy asshole that doesn't have a narrative and lacks visual continuity. In a way, it's genius; at the same time, it's disappointing.
BodyWorld is an affront to sophisticated comics as well, but it one-ups the arty graphic novel and forges something newer, weirder and harder to categorize. Intellectual and visceral, smart and silly, Shaw's sprawling dope-from-space tale sustains itself, while the latest slim volume from Clowes, the creator of sensitive snark, merely underwhelms.
(This story originally appeared in the Baltimore City Paper.);; firstname.lastname@example.org