ISBN REAL Exciting news for the tangibility fetishists among us (digital space-children, just hum some binary code for a minute while we grasp at one more straw): Dash Shaw's serial Web comic BodyWorld (dashshaw.com) will be gracing the third dimension in (earth-) bound form some time next year, as a graphic novel published by Pantheon.
BodyWorld, now up to chapter eight of 12, concerns Paulie Panther, a botanist in the not-too-distant future whose job is to update an encyclopedia of hallucinogenic plant life. This assignment has brought him to the insular forest community of Boney Borough, where an unknown specimen has been discovered on the grounds of the local high school. Panther, the romantically hopeless type (in other words, charmless, unkempt, occasionally suicidal, and still somehow attractive to women), makes a scummy motel room the base of his operation, which consists primarily of nursing and widening the scope of his addictions. Stuck in town waiting for the demurring plant to reveal its effects, he passively falls in with the goings-on of the school.
BodyWorld is most affecting and formally adventurous in its drug sequences, which sneak up on the reader as the plant's effect the opening of a conduit to any neighboring consciousness sneaks up on Panther. Mind-melding and substance abuse (especially the romantically hopeless kind) aren't the freshest of raw materials, but plot twists that could have been boring are elevated by the effectiveness of their representation. The laconic panel layout (three equally-dimensioned squares across and as many squares as necessary down) is subtly subverted here and there to convey the altered state. Most notably, the confusion of amateur telepathy is rendered with overlapping panels.
A digital space-child out of financial necessity, I read what's available of BodyWorld before checking out any of Shaw's earlier, off-line work. I wish I'd read it all in order. BodyWorld is a little disorienting without some wider frame of reference. Its noirish coyness seemed possibly rushed and incommunicative, and the sudden spikes of concentrated empathy came off as conciliatory attempts at cohesion. But it's easier to trust that the comic's erratic emotional register isn't just a broken valve when considered alongside such tonally assured creations as 2006's The Mother's Mouth (Alternative Comics, 128 pages, $12.95) and Bottomless Belly Button (Fantagraphics Books, 720 pages, $29.99).
Shaw's engagement with human frailty hasn't fully shaken that tannic flavor of a detached exercise. I'm not sure what was preoccupying Dan Kois when he read Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, but Shaw has a way to go yet before his output's "emotional jolt" as Kois puts it in a recent New York magazine profile of Shaw out-zaps that of Corrigan creator Chris Ware. Still, we're talking about a 25-year-old who renders intimate character dramas that aren't obviously autobiographical. That endeavor in itself deserves applause. Viewed as part of an impressive and varied body of work (Shaw created thousands of pages before he could even rent a car), BodyWorld feels genuinely experimental instead of rhythmically wayward. It's an experiment moored by stimuutf8g visual syntax: shards of solid candy hues, evocative lapses in the coloring, those dreamy wandering panels. Plus, shopworn or not, drugs and ESP are just neat.