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Review: 'New School' sets Keith and Jason into deep contemplation of an amazing work of comic art

A comic review article by: Keith Silva, Jason Sacks

Jason Sacks: Seldom has a revolutionary work of art had a more appropriate title. Dash Shaw's New School is the most beguilingly fascinating, smartly innovative, deliberately off-putting work of comics art that I've read in several years.

Shaw has always been a creator whose work has been thoughtful and inventive, innovative and intriguing, but New School is a fundamental leap forward from his Bottomless Belly Button and Body World. New School is a frothy book of abstract ideas and abstract cartooning, a seemingly boundless exploration of a thoroughly unique, completely idiosyncratic approach to every aspect of comic art that stands apart from any other work of contemporary comic art.

Keith, I've been reading comics of all kinds for most of my life and have spent a lot of time seeking out graphic novels and comics that people consider innovative. But it's been a long time since I had the complex mix of emotions and thoughts about a graphic novel.

Shaw gives us such a great gift with this book, with his new school thoughts on representational art and abstract coloring and overlays, with his story that careens between nonsense and heartfelt passion, with his seemingly deliberate attempts to distance readers from the plot of the story that he's delivering at the same time that he deliberately walks through a clear plot.

New School is the rarest of all great creations: a graphic novel of ideas in which the ideas are hidden and obscured, in which the reader isn't compelled to do some work to make sense of their thoughts about this book but to do much of the work to make sense of this endless panoply of fascinating images and ideas that float across on the printed page. It's profoundly disorienting and disorienting-ly sincere. It's a generous work of art that also hides and obscures itself from the reader. It feels loose but has a tight structure that reveals itself with rereading.

New School is a beguiling paradox. Help me make untangle the paradoxes, Keith!

Keith Silva: Impudent deliberateness. That's what I have for you, Jason. The audacity Shaw shows right up front to call his book New School means he's not burying the lead.  Nor is Shaw making a run at being coy or playful for the sake of idiosyncrasy. No. This is intentional, a statement of purpose, 'new school' through and through.

As critics we use the term unpack or the phrase still processing as shorthand for there's-a-whole -lot-going-on-here-and-how-the-holy-hell-am-I-suppose-to-explain-what-I-don't-fully-understand-myself. To read New School one holds the word 'parse' close-at-hand.

On a recent episode of the NPR podcast 'Pop Culture Happy Hour,' resident curmudgeon, the brilliant comic book critic and essayist (he's even written a book), Glen Weldon, says three things I am envious I am not as smart nor as clever as Mr. Weldon to say (or write) about Shaw and New School: 1. ''the meaning does not surrender itself upon first reading,'' 2. ''this book is smarter than me,'' and 3. ''I want to do the work this book requires.'' As it has been said, ''yes I said yes I will Yes.''    

New School is 'one of those books.' It is built around a simple albeit deceptive (of course) plot featuring the Andrews brothers, Danny and Luke, who travel to an enigmatic island, ''X,'' (of course) which is the future home to a part-amusement-park-part-monument-to-human history, the very un-Disney-like-but-Epcot-ish, Clockworld. Better is the summary Fantagraphics provides on the back cover: ''Two brothers on a mysterious island.'' Go.

New School by Dash Shaw

Before I can untangle any of the paradoxes inside this book, Jason, I have to get past the title and that latitudinally orientated drawing of a three-masted ship on the front cover! If I understood physics better, I would possess the confidence to describe the title (and therefore the narrative itself) as being like a Möbius strip. This bit of smart-sounding analysis would indicate I understand the important brain-bending characteristics of why a Möbius strip is important, -- it's a closed loop with one boundary, but the same surface -- however; that is exactly the description I want: one surface, two sides. Like the summation on the back, the illustration on the front explains as much or more than I can with mere words. Sometimes only art answers for art.

A 'new school' presumes an 'old school,' yes? So, besides everything and nothing, what's so 'new school' about New School and what does it say about its inverse, the 'old school?' New School is about the clash of cultures, the suburban mouse in a construction zone, exiles and natives, the present as it points to the future by way of the past, one big enmeshed, entangled and knit together imbroglio of time(s), people and places.

New School by Dash Shaw

The most 'no duh' statement about New School is the extent to which Shaw trucks in metaphor. From his specific use of color (is it a code, a pattern, a clue?) to how and what Shaw means by the use of anachronism and archaic language and what this form of expression says about verbal communication, to the sumptuous irony of a wordless word balloon; New School boasts a fugue of ironies.

Let me walk this cat back, Möbius strip-wise, to the beginning. To label a thing 'impudent' engenders a prescribed boldness, an attitude. Ascribe 'impudent' to 'deliberate' and what surfaces gets at the hyper-awareness and methodical approach Shaw takes to tell every aspect of this story. If in the pages of New School the reader discovers ideas about the juxtapositions of words and images, ignorance and knowledge, purpose and possibility or how it doesn't take a pre-cog to know that at the exact moment Patrick Stewart began to lose his hair, his shiny pate and innate veritas would make him the perfect choice to play Professor X. No matter how much work we attempt New School has more to teach, more to say, more, more, more …

Sacks: Yes, my friend, you're exactly right; New School is one of 'those books,' a book that alternately pushes the reader away and grasps him tight to its breast. It forces the reader to "do the work that the book requires" at the same time it welcomes and teases with beautifully simple, direct, often elegant illustrations that seem drawn quickly with a sharpie. It's a literary 'riddle wrapped in an enigma' but it's also one of those riddles that somehow immediately  seems exciting, innovative, fascinating; we want to attend the new school and unpack its mysteries rather than being pushed away. This feels a generous gift for the reader interested in sophisticated fun.

"Sometimes only art answers for art." But as a reader and a reviewer with pretentions towards being the guy who likes to answer the riddles, solve the equations, find the deep pulsing heart at the center of an innovative work, I'm also compelled to find out what answers this art has for us.

I found a few very interesting thoughts from Shaw about this book. Let's start by exploring the question of his linework because that's one of the most intriguing aspects of the book to me.

Shaw talks about the idea of a "dumb line" versus a "smart line." As Shaw describes it, a "smart line" is a piece of artwork that explains to the reader not just what is being presented but also what the reader is supposed to think about it. It's directly representational and specific to what is being presented -- a muscular line represents muscles and that's all it represents.

A "dumb line", on the other hand, is a line that allows the reader to place his own meaning into the item being presented. It does nothing to describe what should be thought about what is being presented, but instead allows the reader to bring their own thoughts and impressions into the artwork. This allows the artwork to perform on more of an interpretive level, to allow the reader to choose what he or she wants to think about it. A "dumb line" allows the reader to bring multiple meanings to a line if they want, much more like the way we deal with the world. We need to do the work the book requires

If we take Shaw's idea as a starting point, we immediately see that we are exactly right to strive to find meaning in the ambiguity that Shaw delivers to us. The characters in this book and the events they experience are intended to be real on the printed page -- the brothers really do go to the island of X and take part in the strange postmodern amusement park, Clockworld, and love and hate and do all the things we see on the printed page.

So with all that said, what are we to make of this, Silva? I fear I'm only asking questions and not providing any answers. Give me a smart line on this dumb line idea and help me answer some questions: is the postmodern world of Clockworld in some way a satire of the comics industry or of society? Is the dumb line an inversion of the subjective/objective dichotomy of comics? Are these characters literal or symbolic or both? If Danny thinks in this incredibly hyperbolic, absurd Marvel Comics style, then is everything in this book seen subjectively through his eyes, and if so, how does that change our reaction to the events? Do the events really matter? And what in the world are we to make of this cryptic conclusion?

These thoughts haunt me; put on your Glen Weldon hat and help me think about how to think about this book.

Silva: Glen Weldon hat activate! You've got questions and I've got more questions. So it goes with New School, eh?

You mentioned earlier, Jason, about you're interest (mania) when it comes to innovative comics and graphic novels and how New School is among such treasures. I would also point out -- to those playing at home -- you've been writing about comics for almost as long as you've been reading comics, lest we forget your 'APA salad days.'

I think what makes Shaw and New School such an objet d'comic is the art. Shaw's cartooning reminds me of Raymond Pettibon's cover to the Sonic Youth's Goo. The characters of New School don't look as hell bent for leather as Pettibon's images of Maureen Hindley and David Smith, but the same irreverence appears in both. I like the story Shaw is telling well enough, but the art … I love the art. To be more specific I love what the art does, what it says, its layers, its meaning(s).

Not to continue to draft off of Mr. Weldon, but … he points out the double-page images at the climax of the book which get at (one of) Shaw's intentions for New School. Weldon says ''what [Shaw's] doing there is very very smart he's making you slow down … he's sending every signal he possibly can to tell you: slow down, something is happening here.''

(I think) what Weldon is referring to are the three drawings of Danny's legs as he runs away from Clockworld at the end of chapter nine. Each drawing is a double-page spread of legs in motion set against solid blocks of color. Think about that: running to slow down; 'smart' or 'dumb,' it's genius.

New School by Dash Shaw

When I slow down and think about the first image and colors behind it, the message seems simple enough: the left-hand side is green and the right-hand side is red. Go. Stop. Danny's legs are in mid-stride, his left leg is down his right leg is up. He runs on his toes, a full-sprint. His left leg (his trail leg) is blocked off in green while his right ankle and right leg are bathed in red. Danny's foot is between stations and outside of the lines (blocks) of color. And yes, it comes as no surprise Shaw chooses to color outside the lines. If he is sending a message to slow down, red is always a good choice. Moving on.

New School by Dash Shaw

The image on the next two pages shows Danny's legs in full stride. Shaw chooses orange for the left and yellow for the right. Is this some kind of in-case-you-missed-it message: proceed with caution? I'm reminded of that series of photos -- and one of the first films -- 'Sallie Gardner at Gallop,' taken by Eadweard Muybridge. Imagine how 'new school' it felt to slow down motion and for the first time to see, really see, the poetry of motion, running to slow down.

New School by Dash Shaw

The final image is a reverse of the first. This time right is down and left is up. Is Danny slowing down, pulling up to a stop? The page on the left is red while the page on the right is blue. Blue is very New School.  It's the one color Shaw consistently uses to indicate a mood or setting. Danny's dreams and his precognitive thoughts all come in blue. Perhaps the message Shaw sends is: stop, dream.

Running runs all through New School, from the very first page and the opening sequence of Luke and Danny's visit to the museum to their escape from Clockworld -- and how about the silhouette on the back cover? -- New School is awash in bodies in motion. And since these are boys, it's always a race with one boy in the lead and the other trying to catch up. I'm sure there's a metaphor in there somewhere. Maybe this dichotomy hints at yet another theme (!) in this narrative: competition. As brothers Luke and Danny are in constant competition. And Otis Sharpe, the creator of Clockworld, is a competitor as well. So much so he has fired up his fellow Xians to make an island-wide effort to play catch up with Western Culture's whiz-bang amusement parks. In addition, the (perceived) chaste lifestyle of the native Xians is in competition and with the overactive pituitary glands and lax morals of the American teens who teach at the island's New School. Outside of the narrative, this could also be, as you suggest Jason, symbolic of the competition inherent in the comic book form itself: text vs. image. After all, what is Shaw saying with all those images of empty word balloons?     

Run, Sacks, run. Only, take it slow.

Sacks: Run hard but take it slow. How elegant and clever is that as a concept, Silva? How intriguingly relevant and how off-puttingly paradoxical, right? It puts me in competition with you and the estimable Mr. Weldon to wring some level of meaning out of a book that consistently seems to defy meaning at the same time that it begs for comprehension.

We need to slow down to really understand Shaw's points in this book, but on some level those key points are right on the surface, near to being grasped even if they're tantalizingly out of reach, like a dream barely grasped, ephemeral as the wind.

Dreams are a very important element in New School: Danny's precognitive dreams of Jurassic Park that capture the film as it actually was created, and the father's dreams of creating Clockworld in the equally dreamlike island of X. On the island, Danny and Luke have a series of dreamlike adventures involving surreal structures -- the pyramid of love, the almost mystically beautiful library that makes Danny almost rapturous with joy, the strangeness of the New School itself and the daydream-like way that Luke is able to get a girlfriend who would be out of his reach in New Jersey.

Everything that happens in this book feels like a dream, but more than that, it feels like the dreams of a kid, more specifically the dreams of a boy on the cusp of being a man, with a tremendously active imagination placed into situations for which he has no real grounding in experience. We see these experiences subjectively through Danny's eyes, through the eyes of a youngish teenager who idolizes his brother and who is having an incredible life experience. We watch the effects of Danny's drunkenness in one scene though his eyes (spooky and surprisingly realistic), witness the automaton-like workers at the theme park in perhaps the book's most intensely weird scene, and feel every moment in Shaw's book from Danny's subjective viewpoint. When Danny mutters "Damn it all to Hell" in a memorable red-infused two-page spread that feels like something out of a strangely distant Renaissance painting, that muttering takes on the sort of grandiose proportions that could only emerge from the mind of a character still battling puberty.

That also helps to explain why this book seems so completely suffused with movement; as you say above, my brilliant friend, this book begins with running and ends with running. In between we get fighting -- often exaggerated fighting -- and biking, and walking, playing, drinking, marching. Almost nothing ever stands still in this book. A young man is always in motion. His world never stops moving, and that movement becomes a kind of relentless, restless energy that drives this book forward at a surprisingly kinetic speed.

Seen as a subjective view of an objective world, I'm playing with the question of what to think about the colors. Your comment about the red and green pages is adroit and on-target, but I'm confusedly trying to find a pattern in the other colors in the book. Is there a specific meaning for the red-suffused panels and the green panels, or do the colors shift according to Danny's mood? No matter, they are certainly an extension of Shaw's "dumb line" idea that forces the reader to bring his own interpretation to that elusive idea.

Did I run enough with your idea, Mr. Silva, or do we need to run a few more laps around this book?

Silva: Given the context, this is going to come off as a ham-handed segue, so my apologies. Do you know the scene in The Silence of the Lambs when Starling first meets Dr. Lecter and gives him the questionnaire? He asks her to tell him why she thinks Buffalo Bill ''removes'' the skins of his victims and then says, ''Enthrall me with your acumen.'' Starling explains most serial killers take trophies. Lecter says he didn't. 'No,' Starling says, ''you ate yours.'' This truth embarrasses Lecter and he tells her to send the questionnaire through. After he wets his finger, winks at Starling and begins to page through the document, Lecter, almost immediately, looks up and in a delicious drawl, he says: ''Oh, Agent Starling do you think you can dissect me with this blunt little tool? '' I love that phrase, 'blunt little tool.' I think about it a lot as I tilt at these windmills we write about, Jason.

What I'm painfully trying to say is that Danny is a 'blunt little tool' of New School. He's a rube and without the ''good bag, cheap shoes and length of bone.'' Then again, weren't we all at that age -- like the reader of New School -- desperate to 'find the pattern.' Danny may be blunt, but, at least, he tries to search for answers. Luke, on the other hand, is blithe and happy to be a stranger in a strange land. His ambitions are far less about seeking truths and instead run no further than to 'punch above his weight class,' by dating the ironic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt wearing Esther.

New School by Dash Shaw

Danny acts. Luke (only) reacts. Danny's the studious one, he wants to learn, Luke wants to get laid. Two sides of the same raging-hormonal coin. Maturation thou art a cruel master. 

It's after the 'Damn it all to Hell' moment you point out Jason when Danny breaks bad -- in my notes I refer to this as his reverse-Saul-of-Tarsus moment. Danny's initial cockeyed optimism becomes perverted and from that moment on he spends the remainder of his time on X desperately trying to smash his way to some comprehension, some revelation. Such a boy.

These (e)motions get Danny nowhere, fast. X does not unfold its mysteries to the iron fist and neither Danny nor Luke have the emotional IQ to understand or to care. I found Danny's jerkification the most difficult section of the book to appreciate. Perhaps because it hews too close to my own pubescent 'Hulk Smash' moments, incidents I'd rather not recall. Such a boy.

New School by Dash Shaw

As you write, Jason, almost everything in this book is from Danny's point-of-view. Could it be possible Danny's interpretations and reactions are learned responses from what he's read and seen in comic books? The reader doesn't see Danny read superhero comic books while home in New Jersey or marooned on X. He is certainly aware of superheroes as indicated by his pre-cog dreams of the X-Men movie. Is it possible Danny's father, doesn't talk in the exclamatory syntax of 1960's Marvel superhero/villain and that that is solely Danny's interpretation? Is New School simply about a boy who wants to ape his comic book heroes, his 'X' men? Is Danny is a bit of a battling boy?

C’mon, Jason, enthrall me with your acumen.

Sacks: Oy, you want my acumen, Silva? Who am I but a rube, a clown, an amusement? Am I funny? Do I amuse you?

I don't think New School is simply about anything, Keith. This book is far too dense, complex and thoughtful to simply be about anything. But one of the many things that it's about for me is the whole idea of an interior/exterior dichotomy in the way that Shaw presents his stories.

Shaw has stated many times that he sees the events in this story to be literally true in the sense that theoretically somebody could go back and check Danny and Luke's passports and check that they did in fact travel to the country of X. But it's also literally true that "wherever you go, there you are" or "everywhere you go, you take the weather with you." Danny and Luke may be somewhere else, but they never stop being themselves.

In the case of Luke, that fact of him being himself follows a perfect narrative arc because the kid's 18 and there's nobody less predictable than an 18-year-old in a foreign land with a massive rush of hormones. But with Danny, the whole setting is much more complex because the kid is still a kid. He's a late bloomer. On X, he's not quite the person he will become. He's still under the spell of grandiose thinking and a bloated childish ego. He sees the world in exclamation marks!!! and not  in periods. His trip to the American Museum of Natural History at the beginning of the book is a giant, grandiose story element because Danny saw it as big and grandiose. His father talks like Odin because Danny imagines his dad talking like Odin.

It's emblematic of this idea that when Danny loses his hearing early in the book, we don't hear any words either. The noise of the book stops, word balloons are empty or nonexistent, we watch Danny's thoughts manifested as words on the page that are presented subjectively. We only start "hearing" this book when Danny starts hearing it. The same thing applies when Danny gets drunk – we see his drunkenness through Danny's internal eye. And at the end, when Danny is back in New Jersey, notice that people talk more normally because Danny's now more mature.

That also has resonance for the line that Shaw uses in the book to render figures. If the book is seen through Danny's eyes, then should we see these dumb lines as Danny's vague approach to the world, as illustrative of his focus or lack of focus on events that happen to him. Is Danny a blunt object that only can reflect events through his own two eyes? Are all of us blunt objects in that way? How often do you struggle to see life through the eyes of your wife or daughters?

Am I on to something here, Keith, or am I employing my own dumb line to try to make sense of this most elusive of books? Am I a blunt little tool?

Silva: You? A blunt little tool? Ha! No more than you are a diabolical cannibal, a willful FBI agent or a teenage boy.

As I've been re-reading our discussion, Jason, I've come to two conclusions. First, New School is all (and maybe only) about the act of perceiving, pure and theoretical perception. Second, it is a contemporary example of that oldest of old school attempts at questioning and understanding ourselves, the Socratic Method and subsequent Platonic dialogues.

Our writing about New School is an extension of our own talk to text, not necessarily answers, but questions and conversation. Like Danny, it's a search for truth(s) and how to make sense out of the interior and exterior amusement parks we build while stuck on this island Earth. Shaw wants answers too. New School is blatant (blunt?) in how open-ended it is, how open to interpretation and perception. Shaw wants the reader to 'show their work,' to ask questions and to dialogue with the text. Slow down, read what's on the page, even if, and especially if, it's an image, a dumb line. For me, the most emblematic images of New School are those wordless word balloons that pop up at specific moments of interpretation and perception. I'm glad you mentioned them in your last response, Jason. They are certainly another of your paradoxes and perhaps say so much about what this book is about.

Each time Danny loses his hearing, he is essentially sealed away (apart?) from his surroundings and is forced to guess at what's happening. At the same time, outside of the narrative, Danny's loss is the reader's gain. As his subjectivity loosens its stranglehold on the narrative the reader is allowed to slip in and to write their own dialogue, draw their own interpretation(s). Not to get too pedantic, but comics are, after all, a visual medium, first and foremost. We read the images as much as the words and I would argue the former carries more weight than the latter in New School i.e. Shaw draws more dumb lines than writes dumb dialogue.

After their escape from Clockworld, Luke and Esther have their final lover's spat in the tabernacle-looking sanctuary of the bath house. His ears again sealed, all Danny can do is ask questions: ''Is Luke apologizing? Is Esther forgiving him? Are they saying they love each other?'' Danny can wax poetic and wonder all he wants, but he is at a loss for understanding, a role he knows (and plays) well.

New School by Dash Shaw

Luke and Esther's giant empty word balloons are just that, empty. What the characters are saying and Danny's subsequent questions are superficial and unimportant, sort of. Yes, the words being spoken (and not heard) matter to the plot, to the characters and their relationship to how this 'summer romance' will play out. Later on in Danny's blue-hued pre-cognitions of the future, Luke mentions Esther's 'MySpace' profile, 'my space,' oh, the irony of that (!), which proves all of this happened, passports punched and so on. So what? That's the surface and this is a story which lives in the depths. New School is like the book Danny pulls off the shelf in the library on X. It speaks with empty word balloons: ''The books, all slightly water-damaged, crackle and speak as you hold them!'' New School crackles. It's in the emptiness of those word balloons where Shaw wants to communicate to the reader. What's the perception of an empty word balloon? What does such a thing say … in a comic book? 'Take a look//it's in a book//a reading rainbow.'       

New School by Dash Shaw

New School acts as a tabula rasa. Blunt tool or blank slate, Shaw puts the reader on notice, invites interpretations and draws dumb lines and makes smart connections to the slowed-down speed of the static image, infinite moments in timelessness.

Keith Silva tries to play off the dumb stuff he writes for Comics Bulletin as smart. Such a fool. Follow him @keithpmsilva or read his blog, Interested in Sophisticated Fun.     

Jason Sacks is the Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him @jasonsacks, email him at jason.sacks@comicsbulletin.com or friend him on Facebook.

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