Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bottomless Belly Button

This long, involved graphic novel reads very much like a Jonathan Franzen novel. By this I do not mean to say it is derivative but that it succeeds in experimenting with narrative form and also delivering quite powerful emotional reactions with economy.

Bottomless Belly Button follows the Loony family during a 6 day long family reunion. The cast of characters includes the grandparents, the matriarch and patriarch of the family, a couple who have been married 40 years and have decided they want a divorce. Also there is their oldest son, Dennis, who comes with his wife Aki and their infant son Alex. Dennis is the "good son" and his own marriage is not great. He takes his parents' announcement particularly hard. Middle child Claire is a divorcee accompanied by her teenage daughter Jill. Rounding out the cast is Dennis, the youngest son, a stunted, loner film school graduate. He is depicted cartoonishly as looking like a frog. Over the course of the 6 days, we get to see how the Loonies interact, look into their love lives, and share in their thoughts and feelings.

This graphic novel was made by Dash Shaw, a prolific artist, animator, and musician who has created a number of other sequential art works such as Bodyworld, Goddess Head, and The Mother's Mouth. His works push the boundaries of what comics can depict, and they have been published in the US and abroad. Most recently, Shaw has been working on an animated feature, The Ruined Cast. He speaks more about his life and career in this New York article.

Reviews have been positive, ranging from gushing to more measured. The New York Times called BBB engrossing and offered that the book "packs a wallop." Craig Taylor wrote that Shaw flirts with "navel gazing" but succeeds in depicting "small moments of change with the clarity of a novelist." Charles Hatfield opined that "Shaw's grasp of the family is admirably complex" and also wrote positively about how the book "is full of formal gambits that are meant to render legible things that are usually not caught by comics: dust motes sparkling in sunlight, the glare of fluorescent lights, what it feels like to immerse your body in seawater." I echo his conclusions that this BBB is "not perfect" but it is "a very strong, very cool book."

Bottomless Belly Button was published by Fantagraphics, who provide a good number of links and previews here. A video trailer and sizable excerpt is also available here at Shaw's website.

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