Leaving the family drama and introspection of his highly acclaimed Bottomless Belly Button behind, BodyWorld takes indie darling Dash Shaw into a wild, dystopian, psychedelic sci-fi romp. Set in year 2060, we see the aftermath of a second United States civil war that’s never really explained. The main story focuses on “Professor” Paul Panther, a skeezy little man whose sole job it is to seek out, use, and record the results for newly-discovered psychotropic substances. His newest find is an oddly-shaped plant that only grows in the woods behind a private high school in the fictional town of Boney Borough, Virginia. It turns out that when two or more people smoke it the users’ minds forge a deep telepathic link. This is not the Professor Xavier mind-reading kind of telepathy but a merging and mixing of the two minds allowing the user to feel, see, hear, think and feel everything in the other’s brain. The sensations reflect each other back and forth like mirrors in a Circus Funhouse, creating a powerful, personal, erotic and highly addictive experience.
The setting of the high school puts Panther into contact with three colorful locals: Jem Jewel, a sexy (and sex-starved) science teacher at the high school; Pearl Peach, a nubile but melancholy teen and recent graduate of the high school; and her on again/off again boyfriend Billy Borg, the school’s champion “dieball” (a twisted version of rugby in which the ball is a giant 10-sided die) player. Panther’s experiments with the drug creates a sexed-up high school drama that mashes together a Charles Burns-ish phantasmagoria with clever, raunchy satires of Archie Comics that’s sure to appeal to adult readers of indie comics. As use of the drug spreads across and beyond the town it magnifies the jealous, negative feelings and presses the delicately balanced peace back towards the pit of another violent revolt.
Visually, it’s stunning. Shaw mixes ink, paint and digital effects to create an odd, slightly off-kilter, often disturbing look. He uses it to particularly great effect in the abstractions representing the drug-induced states. The simple, often blocky character designs seem crude but are purposeful in their look to satirically play off our expectations of character and appearance. The layout sticks mostly to a 12 panel grid, creating a grounding framework in what otherwise might be a wild world careening out of control.
Originally produced as a digital serial comic (and still available for free on Shaw’s own website), the book’s overall design forces the reader to turn the book on its side and read from the top down, creating a reading analogue very close to that of the original digital experience. But the physical book is more than a simple replica of the digital comic. From the reflective, colored-mirror cover to the Chris Ware-inspired fold out maps and character sheets, both Shaw and Pantheon create a full experience similar to but unique from the digital version.
This is far from a perfect book. Many readers will be put off by the disjointed narrative, the heavy drug use and the rampant sex. Some will look at the art and see it as sloppy. The influences on it — Charles Burns, Gary Panter, Philip K. Dick, Philip Jose Farmer, Terence McKenna — weigh quite heavily at times. In a blurb on the back of the book David Mazucchelli (Batman: Year One, Asterios Polyp) heralds Shaw as “the future of comics”. The trouble with running so quickly towards the future of new ideas and new styles is that it often causes you to stumble. And while Shaw stumbles a good bit in BodyWorld, when he does run he runs fast and he runs beautifully.