Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Review: The Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw

Yesterday I picked up a copy of Dash Shaw's Bottomless Belly Button. I've just begun to read it, so this is not a review in the traditional sense. I just want to comment on a couple of Shaw's innovations.

I've been told that it is nearly impossible to translate manga into english because the breadth and depth of onomatopoeia in Japanese has no equivalent in western languages. For example, Japanese has many "sounds" to represent different types of silence, which cartooinsts use to texture scenes. These are often dropped in translation because we lack the exact words to describe the idea that the cartoonist was conveying. Reading Dash Shaw is the closest I can come to understanding manga without becoming fluent in Japanese. Shaw understands that comics are not film storyboards or illustrations to a text; that they are text themselves. He uses his drawings like words and, conversely, uses words as details in his drawings. When a character steps out of a shower I see the words "steam, steam, steam, foggy" and I know exactly what that sensation is, better than any drawing could convey. By writing out those describers he adds time to the image. I read the image longer because of the text. It's an intelligent way around the problem of a reader seeing, but not really reading a comic with few words.

Bottomless Belly Button is over seven hundred pages long, and it feels like an epic American novel in your hands. It also, unlike many recent attempts at "the great American graphic novel" (here I am thinking of Blankets, Bone, Jimmy Corrigan), reads like a novel. It is legible and engrossing without spoon feeding the story to the audience or fluffing up empty ideas with pretty drawings. Shaw's clumsy but effective cartooning reads not like "artwork" but like ideas set down in concrete lines. Like words beyond the capacity of words. Like comics.


  1. i'm excited to read the comic. i think this is a well written mini review.

  2. "By writing out those describers he adds time to the image. I read the image longer because of the text."

    That's interesting—when I first started reading graphic novels I had this problem, I didn't really understand/appreciate the visual (I was very textually-based) and I would fly through graphic novels and not absorb everything that was there. At some point something clicked and it was really interesting to experience everything differently when I started to spend as much time "reading" the images as I would have with words. Any novelist who understands that and can point the reader in the right direction (especially an inexperienced reader like me) is onto something.

  3. Incidentally (and unfortunately), the phrase "bottomless bellybutton" makes me think of this thing I saw earlier today: