Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Review: Bottomless Belly Button

Dash Shaw's Bottomless Belly Button (Fantagraphics, 2008, 720 black & white pages, $29.99) already has popped up on the "Best of 2008" lists of Amazon and Publishers Weekly, and it's going to show up on many more lists as the winter wears on. And here's the thing: it really is that good. So let me add my voice to the chorus and give you my two cents for why it deserves such high praise.

This whopper of a graphic novel is about a family that reunites at their beachfront home for a weekend before the mother and father divorce after forty years of marriage. It's packed with characters -- mom, dad, older brother and his wife and baby, middle sister and her daughter, and younger brother and his new love interest -- and it spends enough time with each one for you to get to know everybody and care about what happens to them. But by the time it works its way into the final third of the book, it's primarily the story of two of the characters: the older brother, who refuses to accept the breakup (causing his own crackup), and the younger brother, who ditches the family to spend time with the girl.

The spine of the book states that "There are many types of genres. This is: Family comedy/drama/horror/mystery/romance." That's not really a joke. The story zips between moments that are funny, dramatic, horrific, mysterious, and romantic. There are hints of deeper goings-on that are never truly explained, laugh-out-loud moments, and a heart-pounding scene of exploration and discovery that will attack and overwhelm your senses. It's powerful stuff. By the time you reach those last pages -- and you will reach the end quickly, this sucker does not want to be put down (and not just because if you put it down it'll break your bedside table) -- you'll find yourself completely invested in the well-being of these characters, and absolutely crushed when they leave that house and are gone from your life. The book is not a sprint, it's a marathon; you will be exhausted by the time it is over, but it's totally worth it.

(click to enlarge)

(Edited to add: For a fuller discussion of the book's art, please see my comment below.)

You can see a slideshow preview of this book here (be sure to click on that last picture in the show -- WOW!) and you can buy it here: Bottomless Belly Button

Note: due to nudity, sex, and other miscellaneous adult content, this book is not for children or for people who like to read comics on the train during their commute.

Disclaimer: This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.


  1. How did you feel about the drawings? Did they enhance the content? From what I saw they are rather unappealing.

    It seems to be quite like a classic-style novel in construction etc. Why is comic book form the best choice for this? Just curious what your opinion is. Thanks

  2. Your response is not that different from what I thought upon first glance. The art is not "beautiful" and the people depicted are not the most appealing. But over the course of the book, it really grew on me, for a number of reasons. First, Shaw does a terrific job getting his characters to "act": facial expressions and body language are spot on. Second, the art communicates the story well -- it's good comic book storytelling where both the words and pictures are vital components. There are several almost wordless sequences that are among the most powerful moments of the book because of the strength of the art. And Shaw also plays around with his art and takes advantage of the form: he draws floorplans of the house, when a character is looking at a photo album he draws fingers right on the page holding open the book (effectively putting the reader in the shoes of the character), his drawings become more abstract when a character starts seeing visions, things like that. By the time I finished it, I was completely won over.