Review by Nate Derr
When most people hear the term “avant-garde,” there are probably some words that come to mind: strange, inaccessible, over-intellectual. There’s no denying that in many cases experimentation can take precedence over forging a genuine emotional connection with the audience, that in the effort to create something truly new, the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. Dash Shaw has a broad portfolio of comics that push the envelope in terms of form and style, and New School is his boldest work yet. It’s a dense, idea-heavy work with a visual style that may alienate some readers, but is nonetheless beautiful. It’s a reminder of what comics can be when preconceived notions are abandoned, but none of that would matter if he couldn’t get you to care about the thing. But Shaw succeeds on this level as well, filling his book with characters that truly live and breathe. In Shaw’s view, radical experimentation and traditional storytelling methods are both just tools in his kit, and his deft use of both make New School a book to truly be reckoned with.
Right from the get-go, Shaw sets a high bar for himself with the story: Danny, a sheltered and conspicuously innocent teenager leaves home in search of his older brother Luke, who two years earlier went to teach English to the residents of x-shaped nation X, which is the future home of a history-themed amusement park, Clockworld. Upon arriving in X and seeing the changes Luke has gone through in their years apart, Danny begins questioning his own life and values while struggling to adjust to life in a foreign society. The story traces the beginning of Danny’s transition into adulthood, but there’s so much presented and explored in NS that to call it a coming-of-age story would be reductive. Shaw seamlessly weaves together ideas surrounding the formation of identity, the expatriate experience, sibling relationships, America’s global influence, and the determination of personal values into a stunning whole. As I mentioned, all those ideas could be a bit much if the characters weren’t so darn likable. Though a bit strange, Danny’s innocence and earnestness are endearing right from the start, and watching the nuances of Danny and Luke’s relationship sometimes feels unsettlingly familiar. Even in their less-than-flattering moments, the characters never lost my sympathy, and most of the book I was right in their shoes.
Shaw has always explored different ways of using color and the various storytelling devices unique to comics, and his visual style has really hit a new high with New School. As a result, he’s created a work of art that simply couldn’t exist in any other medium. His spare, 1950s-inspired black line-work is overlaid on painted blocks of color and photographs. One block of color will go behind several panels or the whole page, which gives the effect of distancing the color somewhat from the events of the individual panels; it’s not a “background” in the traditional sense, but it influences the reading of the panels. The pages are best viewed as a whole, but the disconnect between the black ink and the colors is nevertheless there, and allows the colors to function more abstractly; his colors direct focus, influence the emotional tone of a scene, and in some memorable cases directly correspond to the action in a scene, highlighting moments of wonder or beauty. Conversely, in moments of tension and confusion, the “background colors” clash with the story’s action and enhance the disorientation the reader feels.
Viewed on its own, New School may seem like it sprung fully formed from the void, but Shaw has been working towards this for years; it’s just that he’s finally thrown down the gauntlet. Without stretching one’s imagination too much, New School’s title could be seen a call for a new breed of comics, a breed that takes only the bare minimum required from the past as it strides boldly toward the future. The New School is here, and Dash Shaw may just be its headmaster.
Details for this:
Book Author: Dash Shaw
Dimensions: 8.75″ x 11.25″
Colors: full color
ISBN-10: n/a ISBN-13: 978-1-60699-644-7
Art courtesy: Fantagraphics Books