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Dash Shaw
BODYWORLD
Pantheon / Random House
Format: Hardcover
Release Date: April 13, 2010
By Nick Dean January 10, 2011

The graphic novel BodyWorld is a peculiar and engaging read. Everything about the book is a little off, from the way it’s plotted and drawn to its vertical layout. Of course, none of these things are inherently bad. In fact, as the story slowly unfolds, BodyWorld proves interesting because of (and at times in spite of) its quirks.

From first opening, it’s obvious that the book is going to be something different. To read it, the book has to be rotated so that the left page becomes the top page. Picture the way a copy of Playboy is turned to view the centerfold. That’s how the whole book is oriented. Referencing an adult magazine wasn’t something I’d planned on doing in this review, though it now seems oddly appropriate for more than just the centerfold comparison. That is, BodyWorld can be kinky in places. However, to see such an element in this book isn’t all that surprising. Many of the graphic novels put out by Pantheon Books are collections of alternative comics – meaning it’s mature audience material.

The book begins by introducing us to our anti-hero, a botanist and drug researcher named Paulie Panther. We meet Paulie on his way to Boney Borough, where the bulk of BodyWorld takes place. Boney Borough is a bastion of goodness in the year 2060. It’s wholesome in an idealistic, classic American way and seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. Plot-wise, BodyWorld is technically a post-apocalyptic story of sorts – though it’s equally a coming-of-age tale, a take on two different mid-life crises and an existential drama.

Before going any further, though, I should say that the book’s not as pretentious as I’m making it sound. The story is set a half century after America’s second Civil War. Through Paulie, we meet a class of high students just about to graduate. Their generation is the first to come of age having never known the Civil War firsthand. Shaw’s story is equal parts satire, science fiction, and relationship drama, involving both adults and high school students. It’s drawn in a unique cartoon-meets-comic-meets-acid trip style, which serves to simultaneously make it both odder and more satisfying in a way. Readers looking for something more traditional should probably skip this book. For the rest of us, though, BodyWorld proves a thought-provoking and, at times, quite funny read. Within the first few pages, there’s excessive drug use, profanity, and a sort of suicide – all played to comic effect.

As I mentioned earlier, BodyWorld can seem sort of kinky at times. That’s just one element of its story, however. It can also be really endearing in places. What strikes me about the book is that underneath the odd plot points and social commentary are these characters who just want to love and be loved. At its core, BodyWorld is a story about people, and that’s really what makes it work. The book’s plot involves Paulie researching a new, alien-created form of plant life. Of course, as a botanist and drug researcher, Paulie has to try smoking it. However, the plant is a weapon of sorts, and as a drug it begins pulling people’s lives apart, taking down society one person at a time.

Odd stuff. Surreal stuff. But a surprisingly enjoyable read. My only complaint is that as the book picks up pace and begins posing some really interesting questions, Shaw rushes toward its end. The farther one gets into the book, the harder it is not to pick up on Shaw’s commentary about everything from drug use to the dangers of hive mentalities. It’s not preachy, it just poses a lot of questions – and, as science fiction so often does, uses its futuristic “otherworld” to hold a lens to modern society.

Dash Shaw is the author of several other graphic novels, including Bottomless Belly Button, published by Fantagraphics. BodyWorld was originally a webcomic and is still online at Shaw’s website.

Visit: Dash Shaw | Pantheon
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