Review: ‘Bottomless Belly Button’ by Dash Shaw
Bottomless Belly Button
By Dash Shaw
Fantagraphics, June 2008, $29.99
Wrapped up inside Bottomless Belly Button is the realistically-depicted story of a family – aged parents, three grown children, and few others – coming all together for one last time as the parents divorce after forty years of marriage. But Dash Shaw is in no hurry to tell that story; he wraps the three sections of this graphic novel in metaphor and metafiction, graphically depicting the Looney family and their world in various forms – as water, as sand, as maps, as diagrams and lists. Shaw takes the time and space to tell his story slowly, to circle around it from all sides, and to focus on each member of the Looney family in turn.
David Looney is the patriarch: his word has always been law. We see the least of him in Bottomless Belly Button, but he’s clearly diminished from the authoritarian, demanding man we see in flashbacks – he’s no longer in charge. The divorce probably isn’t his idea.
Dennis Looney, the older son – the good son. Married, with a baby. Somewhere in his mid ‘30s. Dennis can’t accept the divorce – in the Looney’s view of the world, families always stick together, because families are the core building blocks of the world. Something must be wrong – something he can fix. So he gets angry inappropriately, takes long runs on the beach to think through things, roams restlessly through the house, looking for clues and reasons for something he can’t accept.
Claire Looney is the middle child. She’s been divorced herself, so she has the easiest time accepting her parents’ announcement. Her story is almost secondary in Bottomless Belly Button, along with those of Aki (Dennis’s wife) and Jill (Claire’s teenage daughter). Claire goes out for a night in the city with Aki early in the book, but otherwise is mostly seen in her relationship with her daughter.
Peter is the third child – Shaw draws him as a frog-headed man throughout the book (except for one panel). He’s never quite grown up – no steady relationships, apparently no steady jobs. He’s mildly self-loathing and aimless – very much the typical protagonist of so many independent comics. And he does get a lot of page time here, as he meets a younger woman, Kat, and spends most of several days with her. I’d like to think that he grows up somewhat over the course of those days, but….
And then there’s Maggie Looney, their mother. She seems to be behind the divorce, but she’s hard to know. Bottomless Belly Button views her from the outside, as if we’re eavesdropping on her life. The book is from the point of view of the three children, so the parents are somewhat distant, seen from below – and Maggie was always second to David, so her image in her children’s eyes is just that bit fuzzier.
Those are the characters. Shaw drops them in one house on the beach – a house he knows every inch of, and shows us that several ways. (Shaw’s art is deceptively simplistic, all loosely defined faces and backgrounds made of a few, almost haphazard lines. But this story is very carefully crafted, with panel layouts that move and change size both subtly and completely to fit the mood and tone of the various scenes.) And then he lets them run, each their own ways, for a few days. Bottomless Belly Button has seven hundred and twenty pages – one of the longest original graphic novels I’ve ever seen or heard of –plenty of room for all of the characters to both have their own stories and to interact with each other.
Bottomless Belly Button is holistic in a way few stories in any medium are: it takes the godlike perspective of a very assured creator, and then runs that perspective around all sides of its story and setting. It’s expansive in the way of the best prose fiction, creating a world that encompasses everything the Looney family has done or could do, and gives us that world in a microcosm. It’s one of the best and most accomplished graphic novels of 2008, with Shaw telling a story in a way that bears almost no similarity to “mainstream” comics. The artwork might put some readers off, but it’s much more carefully composed than it first appears – this is a book of little details, in the art as well as the story.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.