Bottomless Belly Button

Posted by @ 1:32 am on October 31st, 2008

I was going to fold my laundry, but my cat is sitting in the basket on top of it. I think it’s warm still, and he seems to like that. Instead, I’ll post something about Bottomless Belly Button, a graphic novel from Fantagraphics that I read a few days ago.

It’s pretty darn good.

(Hey, why haven’t we been writing about graphic novels more? I mean, as we have established, I am the member of the group who’s a little longer in the tooth than the rest of you, but aren’t people in our “age category” still supposed to read lots of graphic novels?)

Here’s the thing I hate about graphic novels. I hate graphic novelists. That’s what I hate about graphic novelists.

Okay, so, specifically, I hate how many graphic novelists have decided to use their work to fetishize their own self-loathing. Crumb did it, but Crumb did it first, and Crumb did it well, and Crumb did it funny. But then it became an all-too-familiar theme in the genre. It’s a part of the playbook. It’s a default mode. And it’s empty.

An extreme is, of course, Ivan Brunetti. Ivan’s illustrations are quite good. Those historical biographies he does are brillient. The early Schizos, though. Man those are tough to read. I have some trouble with some of Joe Matt’s work, too.

Bottomless Belly Button is about a group of older siblings who return to their old home, and are told by their aging parents that they (the parents) are getting a divorce. One of the children is artistic, and a reader might assume—I did, anyway—that he is a stand-in, a proxy for the author. The author draws him with a frog’s head even though everyone else looks like a human. He’s kind of passive. Awkward. Vulnerable.

So I thought, fucking hell, here we go again.

But no. Dash Shaw, author and artist, has figured out a trick that a lot of fiction writers haven’t figured out. We follow many of the story’s characters around, in a graphic novel’s equivalent of a kind of moving close third person—he does this, she does that, he thinks this, etc.—but return often to the frog-man. And all these people around him are active, and they push and press and pull and poke at him. He can’t go passive. No one lets him.

The book has a sad ending. It veers very close to a stagey bit of sentimentality, but it manages to pull it off, and I really did feel kind of sad reading it.

Check it out.

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