I have never reviewed a Dash Shaw book despite his impressive achievements over the course of the last few years. Few young cartoonists have produced a more substantial body work in such a short time, and fewer still have garnered such overwhelming praise. But despite appreciating Bottomless Belly Button (2008) and Body World (2010) I found myself sitting on the critical sidelines, unable to rise to the rhapsodic praise of the comics press and uninterested in playing the part of the contrarian. After all, I didn't dislike Shaw's work, I just couldn't bring into focus a clear response, one way or the other. With New School, I found myself for the first time tipping the scales from relative ambivalence and its accompanying writer's block towards a small rush of prose and its accompanying adrenaline. And yet now, having made the mistake of not quite getting around to the review for several months, I find it hard to easily summon up my initial enthusiasm after finishing the book.
Part of the problem I confess comes from the physical space that New School has occupied on my cluttered desk for these many weeks, where it has been waiting for me to prose some prose and the find it a permanent home in the library shelves. With each passing week, as my initial buzz of reading New School faded, it seemed increasingly that the book was occupying more real estate than it had earned. Twice I started the review, as I usually do, by writing out the author, title, etc up front, only to stumble over the price of the oversized hardbound volume. Did it, too, demand too much in relation to what the book ultimately had to offer?
My second-guessing, of course, was due to my failed attempts to try to recover the initial burst of energy with which I was infused after reading the book for the first time, it does not quite deliver a repeat performance. The playful humor of the over-labored Victorian diction that had so delighted me when the father gave his dramatic synopsis the plot of Jurassic Park—"I can think of it no more! It is far too horrifying to recount!"—didn't seem quite so funny now. Nor did our protagonist's Cassandra-like vision from the early 90s of a future live-action version of X-Men starring Patrick Stewart as Xavier. The humor turned out to be a one-time gift, as humor often does, but so did the story. The tale of two brothers and their shared but ultimately very different transformations during their pilgrimage to Clockworld turned out to be less loaded with buried possibilities than the narrative's tonal resonances with Ben Katchor's work had led me to expect.
But a second time through and months removed from the initial reading, the book now captivates for different reasons and in different ways. Now, instead of turning the pages to find out what happens next, each two-page spread commands a pause, a different reading, one that leaves the narrative—such as it is—behind in favor of other pleasures and rewards. Now I find myself transfixed by the colors, the patterns and rhythms of the panels and the negative space colonized, often violently, by what at times feels to be a Sharpie deployed by a gloved hand. The characters, their absurd concerns and ambitions, seem to recede in the background, trading places with purely visual elements and something closer to abstract comics.
Now, and only now, I get the reasons why this book is produced as an oversized hardbound volume, more closely resembling an exhibition catalog than a comics volume. This is a comic that transforms, as if by magic, into an art book, closer to an exhibition catalog than a graphic novel. Unlike almost any graphic narrative I can think of (outside those collected in Andrei Molotiu's 2009 volume), I want to see these pages on a gallery wall. I find myself tempted in a way I have not been since I first encountered a cut-out paper toy in Acme Novelty Library many years ago to pick up a pair of scissors and start cutting this book up and pasting it around my office walls. Thankfully, the good folks at Fantagraphics made a book that costs (and whose printing and quality in every way justifies) forty dollars, so the scissors stay in my drawer and the book remains intact. All of which is a good thing, because who knows what this book will become the next time I sit down with it?