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A Tale Of The Estranged And The Just Plain Strange In 'New School'

Dash Shaw is a graphic novelist and animator whose previous books, including Bottomless Belly Button and Bodyworld, seethe with dark, mischievous intent. He sets out to unsettle, using the unique tools the comics medium provides to expose discomfiting truths about relationships both familial and romantic. A proud experimentalist, Shaw often shuns tidy narrative conventions in favor of raw emotion.

His latest graphic novel, the striking and enigmatic New School, finds Shaw tempering his most outsized art-comix impulses, and if the result seems less ambitious than his previous work, it also seems like the product of an older and less self-indulgent artist.

It doesn't take long for us to sense that something about the world Shaw constructs in New School feels a bit off-plumb. As soon as we meet Danny, our young narrator, he informs us that his beloved Father "publishes 'Parkworld,' the quarterly journal of amusement park industry news and analysis."

The year is 1994, but Danny's father's humorously stilted manner of speech harkens back to the late 19th century. "Listen closely, my children," he intones to Danny and older brother Luke, "I must tell you of a novel. It concerns a theme park where they have successfully recreated dinosaurs! The visionary author, dreamer of 'Westworld,' has a background in science and this informs the uncanny resurrection in this ... Jurassic Park!"

Shaw delights in showing us Danny's father shudder and sweat as he outlines Michael Crichton's tale of thunder lizards gone amok, until "I – I can think of it no more! It is far too horrifying to recount! ... DO NOT DWELL ON MY WORDS, INNOCENT CHILD!"

Dash Shaw is a writer and artist. His previous works include <em>Bottomless Belly Button </em>and <em>BodyWorld.</em>
/ Courtesy Fantagraphics Books
Courtesy Fantagraphics Books
Dash Shaw is a writer and artist. His previous works include Bottomless Belly Button and BodyWorld.

A few pages later, Luke is sent off to teach English to the denizens of a tiny island country where a massive theme park is under construction. The ambitious project, called Clockworld, will recreate various historical eras in the form of rides, games and gift shops. The departure of his beloved brother drives Danny to despair, but his Father is predictably sanguine: "Among the small community of theme park connoisseurs, [Clockworld] is the subject of much enthusiasm and debate."

Two years later, Danny travels to Clockworld to urge his brother to return home, only to find that Luke has changed. The conflict between the brothers is underscored nicely by the fact that Danny still employs their father's grandiloquent diction, while Luke speaks like the modern teenager he has become. And it's that conflict that drives Shaw's story, and allows him to poke at a host of ideas about foreignness, sexuality, and, obliquely, the making of art.

Shaw's linework here is notably thick, lending his figures and landscapes a naive quality belied by the expressiveness and control he brings to them. With every panel, Shaw sets out to remind us that we are reading a comic — his pages have the look of something scrawled in freehand, using a Sharpie — and that the tale Danny relates is one that has been carefully shaped, even if the connections Shaw makes belong to the pre-verbal realm of intuition.

Sparingly at first, Shaw overlays blocks of raw color across panels depicting scenes of heightened emotion – literally and deliberately coloring outside the lines. As the story proceeds, and Danny enters the hormonal jungle of adolescence, Shaw begins to saturate his pages with shafts of bold colors and patterns, producing images of stark and arresting beauty.

The book's climactic scene, an entirely wordless series of full-page illustrations in chromatic riot, does not necessarily surrender its meaning upon first read. I'm still turning it over in my head, frankly; for days now, I've been picking up the book to test the various theories that keep occurring to me.

It must be noted that Shaw demands more close attention than some readers will be willing to give. But at least in this case, that close attention is amply rewarded: New School is a defiantly odd, quietly gorgeous, utterly singular book.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.