Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Mother's Mouth
by Dash Shaw

This has to be one of the more interesting comics I've seen in quite some time. Less a traditional "graphic novel"* and more of a multimedia entity, it's a book filled with multiple approaches to narrative, different techniques and styles assembled to try and tell a cohesive story. Actually, "story" is an inadequate term -- the different chapters and digressions mostly seem to skim around the perimeter of story, illuminating the subject matter through inference and suggestion without ever really casting a direct spotlight.

It's an interesting effect, certainly, a particularly literal translation of postmodern literary technique into the visual / verbal format. The effect here is similar to that of a puzzle: the reader is given enough information, but the job of compiling it is unfinished. It's actually a pretty canny use of the comics form. Anyone who reads comics is already accustomed to receiving and interpreting visual / verbal information at a brisk clip and pretty much simultaneously. Shaw goes a step further by dissembling his narrative almost completely, with disjointed anecdotes interspersed by children's drawings, diagrams and photographs, all constructed in an elaborate metaphorical interplay. The effect is undeniably effective, if melancholy: there's a lot of room in between the thoughts and feelings on display here, a lot of room in which unfortunate inferences can grow into towering disquiet.

The Mother's Mouth is an interesting book in many ways, but perhaps the most interesting factor to me is the way in which Shaw leverages mediocre-to-poor draftsmanship with a canny and engrossing sense of design to create something better than the sum of its parts. It is certainly possible to be a deft cartoonist without knowing how to draw particularly well: Marjane Satrapi has rose to eminence in the cartooning world not in spite of the simplicity of her style, but because she knows how to use that simplicity to benefit the types of stories she wants to tell. Whereas a more refined artist could struggle to achieve a similar affect, sometimes an unschooled and raw style is able to more accurately communicate certain concepts. Shaw is about as raw as it gets: sometimes his drawing is downright ugly. But you get the feeling that this is how it's supposed to be, and that the crudeness of the drawing is every bit as crucial to the effect as the exquisitely paced photographic interludes and restrained computerized graytones.

The first thing the reader sees upon opening the book is a quote from Gary Panter. The endnotes reveal that Panter was instrumental in shepherding the book from its rough draft to final form. It's also worth noting that the project was conceived as one half of a diptych, an accompaniment to a musical project by Shaw on the same subject. Both the relationship to Panter and the musical component place The Mother's Mouth on a solid continuum with the post-Fort Thunder generation of cartoonists, artists with perhaps less of an adherence to the rigors of craft than their immediate predecessors, but a theoretically limitless understanding of the thematic possibilities of form**. If I were Shaw, I'd maybe work more on my basic drawing ability, but as it stands now he's in good company. There's a strong foundation here on which to build a genuinely interesting career.

*Whatever that means.

**Craft and form being in this conception not necessarily diametrically opposed but by no means purely complementary either. You can go a long ways without being able to draw perfectly feathered brushstrokes like Hal Foster, but on the other hand it doesn't necessarily hurt. Everything a visual artist learns is just another tool to be placed in the metaphorical toolbox. One of the most basic and important things I think any student of art learns about modern art in the 20th century is that, contrary to generations of armchair art critics, folks like Picasso and Matisse and Pollock knew how to draw perfectly well. There's no way they could have made the conceptual breakthroughs that they did unless they already knew the rules they were breaking inside and out. Sometimes in comics you get the sense that, because of the "Wild West" sensibility still prevalent in so much of the field, there are a great many "avant garde" artists who get by without anywhere near the formal rigor necessary to pull it off (not that these kind of wildcat artists don't exist in every field, but they are more prevalent because comics is still a relatively small-scale world). I think the most important "rule" in art, at least from my admittedly biased perspective, is that you have to understand a rule before you can break it -- and sure enough, I find that to be generally true in almost every field. Even with the most violent and untutored punk music you can imagine, the good stuff is leavened by a musical sensibility that knows exactly what it's doing when it does what it's not supposed to be doing. Iggy Pop is an extremely well-read man. Oh man, this is a long footnote.

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