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The Mother's Mouth
posted October 19, 2006
Alternative Comics, Softcover, 128 pages, September 2006, $12.95
For someone with his obvious facility, Dash Shaw's greatest virtue as an artist can be found in his decision not to make things easy for himself. The Mother's Mouth
is a short story about a woman named Virginia who returns home to care for her ailing mother. This experience and a relationship on which she embarks at the same time, combine to bring back a enormous wave of feelings about that relationship, the status of her own life, and the regret she feels over the loss of a childhood friend with whom she was briefly, seemingly as close as two children can become to one another. Shaw crafts an affecting portrait of someone going through an ordeal while not being able to let go of the inner editor that comments on whether or not what she's going through is proper or worthwhile.
Shaw tells this story through a variety of oblique strategies and applications of comics craft points that kind of fly past you unless you're paying attention. There are alterations in lettering, and unexplained panels, and shift is style and narrative that need to be held loosely in the mind of the reader like so much lake silt before the shells and rocks of value can be placed on the dock. Admirably, Shaw pushes his characters through these filters in a way that makes them unappealing or even off-putting, right down to their physical depiction, all expressive lines and exaggerated body parts. In the end, I'm not certain that all of these techniques and approaches cohere as much as my affection for them want it to. The project started as a combined music/comics effort, and if this were a suite of music we'd remember the songs more than the album, if that makes any sense. It's almost as if everything introduced in an emotional early on simply tapers out or goes away, save for a stab at a socially relevant reveal that doesn't feel as powerful as some of the smaller moments, anyway. I'm also not certain that the potential conclusions Shaw seems to be leading the reader towards are as interesting as the journey to get there.
But don't get me wrong: a lot of the criticism The Mother's Mouth
invites to itself is because of the level of expression at which Shaw operates, the complexities this work offers. Shaw would have to scale things back so far to get the kind of middle-of-the-road, manipulative, look-at-me maudlin crud that exists in indy comics these days in growing numbers I'm not sure there'd be any comic left. If nothing Shaw ever does transforms a work in the way that delivers on the promise of this approach, I'll still take character moments like Virginia breaking into tears over leaving her job or the way in which one small child breathes on another's neck as a evocation of physical intimacy over some entire cartooning careers.