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Bottomless Belly Button
posted May 28, 2008


Creators: Dash Shaw
Publishing Information: Fantagraphics, softcover, 720 pages, May 2008, $28.99
Ordering Numbers: 9781560979159 (ISBN13)

imageAlthough not a perfect book, Dash Shaw's ambitious The Bottomless Belly Button reaches so high and executes so much of what it does so well that it shames you into reconsidering every other book you may have praised recently. The massive, 720-page tome examines in detail the various members of the Loony family, as they're stuck at a long-familiar lakehouse following their parents' surprise announcement of a planned divorce after 40 years of marriage. The parents' decisions pulls and pushes at the adult children, getting under their respective skins, and drives them towards acting out. The eldest explores accrued ephemera of the house in an attempt to uncover the true reason behind his parents' decision even as he runs away from confronting shortcomings in his own marriage. The middle child struggles to connect with her daughter and any feelings she may have stored away for a life beyond her. The youngest starts a romantic relationship with a local. The emotional turmoil each experiences is largely understated and frequently hilarious. The youngest child's travails as he plods his way through a physical relationship are about as funny as anything you'll see in any medium this year. Mostly, however, the book offers an unrelenting look at the sadness some may feel over the fundamental disconnection between things and events to which we may pretend to be close.

Shaw is a tremendously skilled visual artist who rifles through styles and approaches in a way that I think may have caught up to him a bit here. The art doesn't always look as confident as Shaw's skill set indicates it should be, and some of the choice in terms of design -- the youngest Loony's overall look -- may confuse more than inform the reader. However, these are quibbles compared to the insights and the perfect pitch he brings to his comedic moments and the characters overall. In fact, I felt near the book's end that a work this humongous, this idiosyncratic and this almost totally devoid of pretension towards the novel form as a marketing mechanism, is sort of a miracle. If there are better books this year, it will be a very good year, and I hope that there's a way to support Shaw in this kind of endeavor so that we may one day see another like it.