Dash Shaw is one of my favorite artists, hands-down. Readers of this column may recall my review of his previous collection of stories, GODDESS HEAD. Many of the same themes are explored in his newest book, THE MOTHER’S MOUTH. Shaw digs into sexuality, memory, the possibility of connection and communication, the relationship between childhood and adulthood (not to mention children and adults) and the nature of identity. This time around, his narrative centers around the device of regression. The four main characters all experience regression in different ways and for different reasons, and this allows Shaw to explore his themes in the context of compelling characters and a more linear narrative than usual. The resulting story is another candidate for best comic of 2006.
The story is simple: a librarian named Virginia has to quit her job in Chicago and drive to New Orleans in order to take care of her mother, who is dying of Alzheimer’s disease in an assisted living home. She is haunted by the death of a boy that she loved as a child, a death that has held back her development into adulthood and left her resistant to growth. In New Orleans, she meets a musician named Dick and falls in love with him. Dick has his own issues with identity, but immediately feels a bond. As the book unfolds, we see each character regress in different ways, with the end giving us a portent that Virginia is finally ready to move forward.
While the book is dizzyingly clever and often formally challenging, in many ways it’s his most accessible work. Shaw eases up a bit on the dense layers of symbolism that were evident in GODDESS HEAD, but still displays his fascination with language and the language of comics. The physical and formal qualities of words and images, their phenomenological properties, fascinate Shaw. He breaks them down and builds them back up to not only form his narrative and breathe life into his characters, but also charge each page and image with raw, visceral emotion. Shaw never lets the reader forget that they are in the act of reading and interpreting text and image, but at the same time focuses on the moment-to-moment activities of being human. It’s why breathing, eating, sex, sleep and tactile sensation are so prevalent in his stories: Shaw is simultaneously distancing the reader and drawing them in.
Shaw loves mixing media and subverting reader expectations. On the first page, there’s a blurb for Shaw (“Praise for Dash Shaw, cartoonist”) with comments by Zak Sally and Gary Panter. Then we see “Praise for Hasben Toy Trucks”, with a seemingly random quote from someone named Virginia Miles, children’s librarian. Then Shaw gives us “Praise for Virginia Miles, children’s librarian” with comments from her boyfriend and mother. It’s a neat trick that puts the reader off guard. The next page is series of panels as we follow several ambulances speeding along their way. The four ambulances all pull up to a four-way stop simultaneously, and no one knows what to do next. This is a nice set-up for the crises faced by the four main characters in the book.
After we see Virginia driving backwards from Chicago to New Orleans (symbolic of her regressing to a past life of sorts) Shaw then introduces each of the characters as though they were plates in an art book. It’s another distancing technique, as Shaw comments either directly or obliquely on each character. It provides the reader with key information in deciphering what’s going on without giving them too much data.
Another device Shaw uses is showing us an image, and then mimicking that image to produce another meaning. After introducing Richard, the child who died at an early age, we see a drawing of a child’s house (along with an excerpt from an essay that posits the universality of how houses are drawn by children worldwide). The next page is a realistic drawing of the assisted living home where Virginia’s mother is dying. Shaw notes that this is an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s famous shot in 2001: A Space Odyssey of the ape-man triumphantly throwing a bone in the air after learning how to use it as a weapon, and then in the next shot we see a space station where the bone once was falling. On the next two pages, we see Mary (Virginia’s mother) tucked into bed in an image drawn by Shaw; then we see a photo of an older man wrapping a child tightly in a blanket. In both cases, the full power of this transition and these images won’t become evident until later in the book, but we still get a sense of their importance because of the way Shaw juxtaposes them.
After this initial barrage of imagery, the narrative becomes a bit more transparent. We see Virginia with her mother as she talks to her. Virginia is a wreck as she tries to come to terms with her mother dying. It’s clear that she’s not close to her mother, or to anyone for that matter. The focus shifts to Mary as she’s lying in bed, processing what memories she has left. Shaw uses a device where we see Mary laying in bed at the bottom of the page. At the top of the page, we see photographs–images from Mary’s life. She narrates each photo, with the memories of people whose names she’s forgotten being xxxx’d out. Whole parts of sentences simply disappear and become more and more fragmented until the memories disappear and we see the moon go from full to new and simply disappear. The reader then sees a clock in three consecutive panels–except the clock is moving forward. Mary has completely lost touch with her memory and the regression here has ended.
Shaw then cuts to the first date between Virginia and Dick, the musician she met on the street. Virginia is all curves and roundness while Dick is sharp angles–a complementary pair. As they go on a walk after a sometimes-awkward but still sweet dinner, Shaw shows us images of a fossil being created over time, which then segues into Virginia talking about digging up what’s buried and time capsules. Again, she is obsessed with the past. Finally, she admits to Dick that she reminds him of Richard and gets him to act out things they used to do on the playground with each other–little acts of intimacy that she had clearly not allowed herself to experience since.
When Virginia goes to see Dick perform the next night, she hears a lot of awful things about him from the audience. In particular, she learns that Dick has reinvented himself time and time again and hears two hipsters disparage him for “desperately trying to be someone else”. Virginia decides all at once that these revelations don’t matter. Everyone wants to be someone else at some point, and even though Dick is cycling through older personas and influences (“Michael Jackson meets the Pixies”), Virginia finds in him someone who’s willing to at least move forward.
After Virginia and Dick have sex for the first time, Shaw then goes back to his theme of regression as the pair lay in bed, Virginia wondering about the possibility of growth. The tangled sheets turn into the branches of a tree as we slowly go backwards on the evolutionary scale: human to reptile to insect to fish to amoeba-like shapes, a recapitulation of the book’s tropes. We then dissolve from that image to the sandbox where Virginia and Richard used to play.
As Shaw relates the sad story of Richard, his art simplifies and becomes more childlike. We see the joy of his brief time with Virginia contrasted with the abuse he’s suffering at the hands of his mother (we simply see the word “bruise” on his face—another instance of Shaw transposing our understanding of word and image and interchanging the two). He simply shrugs that off as he’s sent to therapy, and we return to the child’s drawings–this time, it’s an analysis of his drawings and what it could his symbology means from a child development perspective. It’s another distancing technique as Shaw manages to convey to the audience the pain of Richard’s awful life through a clinical filter. Then he distances us even further, switching to a news story of a child dying in therapy. It is of course Richard, who is accidentally smothered in a type of therapy meant to mimic and hence resolve the trauma of birth itself. We then see the photo of the older man with a child wrapped in a rug once again and we now have the horrible realization that this ultimate form of regression is what killed Richard.
Of course, Virginia has done nothing but regress herself since the death of Richard. Earlier in the story, Virginia tells her mother that she’s thinking of cutting her hair for a fresh start, but was hesitant because “I just get so attached to things”–especially memories. Virginia hasn’t changed her hairstyle since Richard died. As she’s lying in bed with Dick and her mother has died, they discuss the future. Dick, as always, is optimistic–”I could become anything”. Changing is as easy for Dick as it is difficult for Virginia–which makes him her perfect match. Virginia understands this and knows that she’s going to be the anchor that Dick needs–and that she’ll be able to change herself, as evidenced by her last line of the book: “I’m going to cut my hair tomorrow”.
While I’ve examined the major themes and motifs, there are other, smaller images here and there that reflect and magnify the overarching ideas that Shaw explores. It’s a true pleasure to delve into a book so rich with ideas, so worth studying its every word and image. Shaw continues to get better with each passing work, smoothing out the rough patches in his art and refining both his ideas and his ability to express them.