At the age of 26, graphic novelist Dash Shaw has already delivered a genuine masterpiece. And not just any masterpiece: Bottomless Belly Button (EW’s #5 book of 2008) is the kind of delicately observed, funny-sad multi-generational family saga that you expect from a maestro in the full flowering of their late-life artistic powers. Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander, say, or Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
Shaw’s nimble skill for storytelling and characterization is more than matched by his eclectic drawing style, which is simultaneously cartoonish, realistic, and impressionistic. Every page, every panel of his work combines the composed photographic detail of an early Chuck Close portrait with the tossed-off flair of an idle classroom doodle.
Now, Shaw is making the leap to animation. His new web series, The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century AD, is a gorgeously hand-drawn tale about robots, dystopian insurgency, and figure-drawing classes. It looks completely unlike anything else. (Fantagraphics is releasing a tie-in book, which combines original storyboards for the web series and collects several of Shaw’s short stories, all of them unique gut-punchingly wondrous.) EW spoke with Shaw about the personal inspiration for Unclothed Man, his animation influences, and the brilliance of James Cameron.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Unclothed Man is a science-fiction story. Do you like working in that genre?
DASH SHAW: I did a comic called Body World, and that was more science-fictiony, but I actually don’t know what genre it falls into. Like, comedy, sci-fi…
Body World kind of had that Philip K. Dick feel, crossing over various different genres and never going far outside the realm of contemporary reality.
Right. Body World, to me, is about telepathy. It’s about being inside of another person. That has a science-fiction aspect, but if I had to pick a genre, I’d say it’s some kind of a relationship comedy.
And Unclothed Man, to me, is about figure drawing and figure drawing classes and what it’s like to be a figure drawing model. If you pick up an old How to Draw the Figure Book, it’s always Pin-Up girls. Like, How to Draw This Reclining Hot Chick. The sexual undertones are obviously there in the drawing, but the classroom is such a weird academic repressed environment.
And what’s really exciting, for me, is all the different schools of figure drawing. When I went to SVA [School of Visual Arts], I studied under James McMullan, who wrote a book called High-Focus Drawing. All of his drawings were about capturing the gesture and the movement of the body. They’re all based on very short poses.
Then, when I was in Richmond, I worked as a figure-drawing model. I would pose for a very, very, completely different way of drawing: long poses, months and months of the same pose. The drawing is… more like a computer scanning: slowly working on one drawing, and piecing together how all the elements work. There’s a million different figure-drawing styles.
Unclothed Man sounds very personal to your life experience.
It’s practically autobiographical. I wanted to be a figure model because I thought it would improve my drawing, not because I was super confident in how I looked. You get extremely self-conscious. You’re picking at your face. I would go into class with weird bruises on my body where I was picking at myself. That went into Unclothed Man..
If you have to sit still for hours and hours, you’re mind goes to very unusual places. It isn’t like meditation, you know? Your ass cheek is going completely numb, and your body is going through different tingly numbing feelings, and you’re losing blood in some weird spots. You become really conscious of your body.
There are so many different styles in Unclothed Man. Some of those intermediary scenes almost seem like they come out of an old Ninja Gaiden video game.
The 8-bit text cards, yeah. I wanted to use text on the screen, and I wanted to vary how I used the text as much as possible, so that it constantly felt…enthusiastic, I guess. Unclothed Man has a lot of different styles, but it moves so fast that I wanted it to be like you’re swept away with it. You’re making connections with all of these things, because you don’t really have time to question it.
I really like ’90s American cartoons, like Batman: The Animated Series. And MTV’s Liquid Television, like Aeon Flux and The Maxx.
It’s so weird to think of those cartoons being on MTV, looking at what MTV’s original programming is now.
I don’t get MTV now, so I don’t know what they run. But I know that I haven’t really seen anything that looks as exciting as those shows did. Except in Japan. I got into animation because I liked drawing and narrative. So all of these new Flash or CG animations, maybe they’re okay. I dunno. I’m just basically not interested, because I want drawings. That’s what I go to animation for.
What attracts me to working on animation is: you have to be able to draw really f—ing well, you know? To figure out how someone moves back in space, or sits down, or takes off a robe. You’re just sitting there at your drawing table trying to figure out how this person does this, and break it down into all of these small drawings.
And if you’re not doing a simplified Flash version, and if you’re not rotoscoping it, if you’re really sitting there trying to figure it out, it increases your awareness of the human body, and your sensitivity to how things move. It’s a really emotionally moving thing to do.
You said in The Making of Unclothed Man that you don’t want to hide the fact that it’s animation, that you want people to see the drawing-ness. Is it fair to say that you’re trying to engage your viewers in the process more?
It comes from what I like. I can watch a [Hayao] Miyazaki movie, and I can follow the story, and simultaneously be conscious of the fact that [the animators] figured out how all of these people moved. This is all drawings on acetate. These backgrounds are painted. It becomes a super-incredible experience, more than just being conscious of the story. You’re kind of in awe of the care and devotion and creativity and imagination and everything that went into it.
What’d you think of Miyazaki’s latest, Ponyo?
I really liked it. I loved Ponyo. I think he’s the greatest artist working in film. I was reading something where the director of Millennium Actress [Satoshi Kon] said that Ponyo isn’t even a movie, it’s a series of hallucinations. And I loved that. It is! You just go with it.
What was it like working on the Body World, which was published in serial form on the internet?
I loved how immediate it was. I could just draw something and press a button, and it would be done. I started Body World before Bottomless Belly Button came out, so no one was really interested in what I was doing. I liked that I didn’t have to sucker someone into printing it, and then losing a lot of money.
Printed comics work like this: The person does the work. They talk to some publisher. The publisher likes it, but they don’t know if people are going to like it. And then they publish it, and they usually find out that people don’t like it. By the time it comes out, the cartoonist doesn’t like it either, because it’s a year and a half later and they’re doing something else now.
In web comics, I can just do it. I don’t have to deal with anybody. It’s very immediate. If people like it, then someone can publish it. The order of events makes more sense. It’s not as much of a gamble, I don’t think. Also, I like it that it’s participating in an important thing: the Internet! It feels like the present day. I’m really tired of comics feeling antique and old, you know?
And there’s going to be a print version of Body World, right?
Yeah, it’s all done. It’s going to come out in April. It’s a vertically oriented book, with a top and bottom page instead of a left and right page. So it keeps that scroll feeling. It has a lot of new material in it, and I made a lot of changes to the colors.
I read another interview where you said that you prefer the immature filmmakers who are always trying to reinvent themselves, even if they fall flat on their face sometimes. Have you seen any films recently like that?
I thought Antichrist was great. I liked it that [Lars von Trier] just f—ing made some Japanese horror movie. I’m really excited about Avatar. I really, really want to see that. I think [James Cameron]’s a really great filmmaker. He’s got a big heart, and he creates an environment for himself, a full place.
I really like Titanic. He said something about how he wanted to make a documentary on Titanic, but instead have the audience feel what it would be like on the Titanic. I think he just totally created that world.
It’s funny how Titanic gets such a bad rap now. When it came out, it seemed like everyone felt like it was a new mountaintop in the history of cinema. And you’d think after it made so much money, there would have been all these imitators.
They can’t top it! They tried to do Pearl Harbor. (Laughs) Avatar is gonna be the next one, I think. It looks like Edgar Rice Burroughs does Dune.
If I watch something, I want it to be visually stimulating and exciting. I can’t watch people talking for an hour and a half. That just feels like a lot of independent cinema.
What projects do you have coming up?
Right now I’m working on Slobs and Nags, an animated feature, and a comic called Torture Hospital, which is about a bunch of children whose parents have been taken away. Maybe it would be a children’s book, but it’s too dark. It’s not like Lord of the Flies, but it is a children-in-danger story. Not for kids.
So you’re always in motion on one thing or another. Are you perpetually doodling on things?
I’m probably like most cartoonist-artist people. They’re working on projects, and they have a sketchbook, too. But I don’t have to doodle on a napkin when I’m in a restaurant. I’m actually really excited to get away from the drawing board and not draw, because I draw all the time. I want to take a little break from it.
Where do you go for breaks?
I like to walk around the city, and just wander in places. I like to just start downtown and walk uptown. There’s so much energy in New York, all these people doing things. When I lived in Richmond, I used to walk to the corner store, and people driving by would yell at me, because I’d be the only person walking on the street.