Reading Dash Shaw’s Bodyworld for the first time in years, it’s the backgrounds that strike me the most. Composed in an aggressively inventive and always fluctuating palette, and often with just a scant number of confident shapes and marks, they seem a lively reflection of the story’s interest in ideas of hallucination, telepathy, and subjectivity. It’s only right they should shimmer and flicker by in ways that feel improvised, even flashy, and frequently erratic.
Bodyworld's story is rarely conventional, but it's always surefooted. The whole thing maintains a strong sense of integrity and balance, largely because the space in which Shaw's flourishes occurs is premeditated, and, from the looks of things, largely mapped out. Ample thought clearly went into the story's initial web-based publication—most every panel is composed around verticals, often pointing towards the strip’s center and providing a central core, a move designed to serve the way you’re bound to read it—that being in a vertical scroll. This makes the story’s recurring forest setting convenient, the vertical shapes of foliage and of the story’s figures offering the narrative a kind of spine—and moving outward from that point the artist is free to improvise quite liberally.
And yet that use of verticals isn’t the most rigid of strictures. When Shaw needs to put on the brakes, whole tiers and sequences will shift to horizontals, drawing what was in the background suddenly to the fore and smoothly ensuring the story’s key points are well-absorbed. The design of the characters serves that same end; since each panel’s white space are likely to direct you to what most requires attention, it’s no coincidence that the key characters aren’t filled in with flesh tones (the background actors, meanwhile, are often drawn or painted in color). The result is that you’re directed to the story’s white spaces—those of the character’s words as well as their forms—in a manner that seems derived from animation, and those two elements work in careful concert within the strip’s gridded structure, together guiding the eye through the story, making reading of this strip seem effortless—like in these next panels, in which the white spaces draw the eye in through a series of bobs and peaks. The strip’s bound, though, to the continuum established by its own aesthetic. The characters’ designs are by necessity somewhat minimal, their features and colors, working in the service of clarity, often quite flat. They aren’t often allowed to be attractive in ways that perfectly translate, but Shaw still carefully manages their their gestures and posture so that they read to us, bringing them to life in a way that we can easily understand. That move, away from more obvious forms of prettiness, isn’t one a lot of artists would likely make—but but it gives this strip a sense of feeling that runs deeper than its surface, pulling the design elements of the strip in with its broader thematic interest in empathy.
I’m making the conception of this story far less organic than I’m convinced it likely was. But I’m convinced, too, that most of the pieces here wouldn’t quite work if Dash didn’t have so authoritative a vision about his own process, or if he weren’t so dogged about what is he’s pursuing. There’s a good number of artists working who will exhibit a flourish—reducing it to a gimmick—only to subsequently back down. But the pieces of the story here, many of which might be jagged and individually noisy if they didn’t form so thoughtful an ensemble, are instead all strengthened by their association with one another. The result is a sense of harmony in a strip which hangs uncommonly well together, that still holds up beautifully and that many artists are still catching up to, even after this long while.