For a long time now, comics creators have tended to be divided evenly into two lines: strict formalists (like the meticulous work of Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware, whose line work always seems to be made by a robot wielding drafting tools) and messy naturalists (like James Kochalka, who couldn't draw a straight line to save his life, and Tom Hart, whose delightful Banks/Eubanks was a draughtsman's nightmare). The delineation goes all the way back to the two comic strips that created most of the concepts that still influence the medium today: Little Nemo in Slumberland is a symphony of delicate line work, and Krazy Kat is a beautiful mess.
One new artist seems to have managed to cross this strict border between painstakingly planned genius and slapdash brilliance. His name is Dash Shaw, and his newest comic book, the 720-page Bottomless Belly Button, has just been published by Fantagraphics Books. Even to look at the thing, one can tell that it's the sort of dense brick of a book that causes book critics to become insensate and throw around words like tour de force and magnum opus in a drunk-on-criticism daze. The feverishness will only get worse once the besotted literati fly through the thing. It's enough to make a grown-up reviewer swoon.
BBB is the story of the Loonys, a middle-class family whose adult children are called home when the parents announce that, after four decades of seemingly happy marriage, they're getting divorced. All the trappings for a whimsical Wes Anderson–style romp are here: There's a beach-resort setting, eccentric parents of a quirky family, and dozens of convoluted digressions from the main story. In a bravura move that could have destroyed the whole experience, most of Shaw's characters are represented as normal human beings, but Peter, the slacker son, is drawn, except for one tender sequence, with the face of a frog.
There are jokes about masturbation tossed out amid the love stories, and long passages of the book are about grocery shopping or making sand castles, but the entire thing builds into something more meaningful than just another family drama or summertime comedy. It seems to be about everything and nothing at all.
Of course, BBB is a big enough book—physically and conceptually—to be both. Depending on how you read the thing, it could be a work of improvisational genius or a perfectly planned dinner party of a book. Shaw can draw entire panels full of sloppy cross-hatching or clumsily structured pages, but he can also illustrate the floor plans for the Loony house and balance a story just so between pathos and melodrama. He's united two disparate families of comic writing and art into one seamless book.