Sitting in Silence: A Conversation with Dash Shaw




DASH SHAW MADE a splash in comics with his 2008 graphic novel, Bottomless Belly Button, which goes beyond telling a tale about a dysfunctional family coming together at a beach house, providing a visually dynamic story that is dark while also playful. That book was followed by The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century AD, BodyWorld, New School, Doctors, Cosplayers, and Clue: Candlestick, among others. He’s contributed to anthologies like Kramers Ergot, MOME, and Now, though Shaw is perhaps best known though for writing and directing the animated film My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea. Each of these projects is different from one another in nearly every way, including their tone, their approach to color, and the material Shaw uses. To consider his work, he doesn’t initially seem like a formalist, and yet he clearly is — one interested in collage and in finding ways to remix and rethink tropes and ideas in different new ways.

2021 was a big year for Shaw as New York Review Comics released his graphic novel Discipline, and his animated film Cryptozoo premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. He was also the subject of the book New Realities: The Comics of Dash Shaw. Shaw and I have met and spoken a few times over the years, during which he’s mentioned a book project centered on Quakers fighting in the Civil War — a project he admits that he quit a few times, but which would eventually become Discipline. It’s been exciting to see how Discipline came together, and we had a chance to speak recently about what the project required, using comics to convey the loaded silence of the meetinghouse, as well as about his experience making a new zine last year.

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ALEX DUEBEN: Where did Discipline begin?

DASH SHAW: Well, the very, very beginning was being raised Quaker in Richmond, Virginia. Growing up in Richmond surrounded by Civil War history, I knew about this moment in time where there was a disagreement inside Friends about whether or not to fight for the Union, because Quakers were famously pacifist but also antislavery. That seemed like an interesting subject matter for a book, especially a comic, which is the only thing I know how to do. I carried the idea around forever as maybe something to do down the line. It was very intimidating for every reason that you can imagine: just drawing horses is very difficult. The most basic parts about it were very hard.

One thing that made it seem more possible was that The Met had a Civil War art show in 2013. It had the Winslow Homer painting of the sniper in the tree, and pretty much all of the paintings and drawings in it were small scale. Something about that made it more approachable. They weren’t giant David paintings. The Civil War–era journalistic illustrators’ work was comic-like, with crowquill lines. I thought that maybe it could be drawn with a crowquill and done small, and something about that made it seem less impossible. I applied for a fellowship at the New York Public Library, the Cullman Center Fellowship, and they had an archive of Quaker letters and diaries from this time. When I started going through all of that material, that’s when the project got more confusing and my idea of what the book might be had to change.

I remember that show and yes, so much material from that period is small photographs and not grand, sweeping images.

It’s such a grand sweeping event. Seeing it small scale somehow helped me get over that. A problem with so many Civil War stories is that they try to cover all of these different things, the epic scale. I always thought of my book as a Quaker book first and foremost, because I know what it’s like to sit in silence and be in those meetinghouses. I’ve done that for 30-plus years. My way in was through that. The Civil War backdrop is about people willfully doing something that they believe is wrong. Also, I found the disagreements inside the meetinghouse really interesting. It’s all stuff that is dramatized in my book through different appropriated texts.

I think the book is very much defined by silence.

Totally. With everything that I’m doing, I’m trying to make the form and content support each other. I realized that the negative space of the page was like silence. Everything emerges from the silence and that it should be like silence in meetinghouses, which is more activated than normal silence. It holds more than normal silence. It felt like the form and the content were together. That’s a big part of cracking it. Another part was shaping it into a beginning, middle, and end with texts that are a little bit unknowable because it’s coming from another time and you’re not quite exactly sure what they’re talking about. Those were the letters that I liked the most. A lot of historical comics have a piece of text saying, This person did this thing on this day, and below that is a drawing of that person doing that thing on that day. Some of those comics are great. But when I started reading all of the journals and letters, it was a mind warp. We’d know there was an epic battle on a particular day, but the diary would just be about the weather or what they ate. We know all this stuff about what a person did in their life, but their letters are completely different. I realized that the book would have to be in the dissonance between what people are writing about or thinking about, versus what their bodies are doing physically. When I realized that, it made it less of an educational book. There are a lot of things that I don’t explain about Quakers, which is maybe going to bum some readers out. I thought by not doing the educational thing that many books do well and instead doing this other thing that was informed by the research and trying to grasp something a little bit more abstract it would make Discipline a unique book.

At what point in your time at the Cullman Center did you start thinking of using actual letters and texts to shape the book?

That’s a great question. Somewhere in the middle of it. I knew that I couldn’t research something for a year and sketch it all out and then try to ink it. I just knew I wouldn’t finish it because then I’m basically giving myself an illustration assignment where I’m laboriously executing something that I wrote two years before. Then I realized that I could read a little bit, research, and then break for lunch and then draw. I was drawing the soldiers building a pontoon bridge or a lot of stuff that was really outside my wheelhouse, so I had to figure out how to draw this stuff. It required a whole extra brain. So then I realized — it sounds cheesy to articulate — that a text about X placed next to an image of Y could equal something more than the sum of its parts. That happened in the collage-like nature of making the book. The very first page of the book is something that I couldn’t figure out how to fit into the book, but it seemed to summarize the book so I just stuck it at the very beginning, before chapter one. They’re making “Sherman Neckties” to mess up the railroads. They would break the tracks and then heat them, so they could wrap them around a tree. It’s this crazy thing that the people are doing, and the text is something like the weather and wondering what we will eat. Anyone who’s read Civil War–era journals and diaries knows that that is what so many of them are like. I didn’t want to put a block of text saying, Sherman neckties are blah blah blah. I felt like these people doing this bizarre thing with their bodies coupled with what we know they wrote and were thinking about felt like it was interesting and also tapping into that feeling of when you’re looking into the past and something about it is mysterious and you don’t know how much these people are like you or not like you. That seemed to summarize the book, so I put it at the start.

You mentioned collage, and I kept thinking that throughout the book that it was collage of different elements — letters, images you researched, of other elements. And comics are the juxtaposition of images and words, but this was a different kind of process and a slightly different result.

I think of comics as collages that have rules — you start in the upper left-hand corner and you go to the bottom right. But a lot of the other rules are the same. Like if something occupies more space, that means it’s more important. That’s both a comic rule and a collage rule. Words are very different from pictures. They seem to operate on totally different parts of the brain when you put them next to each other. This book probably leans into the dissonance more than a normal comic that’s trying to maybe get them to stick together a bit more.

Related to that, how did you decide how to the text should look and how you should letter the book?

I second-guessed and third-guessed that a lot. When you look at diaries from the 1860s, their handwriting is incredible and tiny. I don’t know anyone who can handwrite like that. They had craft classes; now they don’t even teach cursive in schools. The handwriting in the book is mine, but then I thought, a lot of this text is from the sister, so she should have a different handwriting so that we know it’s from the sister. I asked my mom (who has great handwriting) to do the sister’s handwriting, but you could tell that someone else did a part of it and it looked too much like a collage. It took you out of it. Then I thought, I’ll do it, but I’ll tilt it in a different way — which you can learn how to do — so it would signal that a different character wrote that text. So I did that, and then I stared at it for a long time and it felt too much like a “clever” thing. That’s the best word I could think of to articulate why I didn’t like it. Just that split-second of you thinking, That’s the sister, took away from the spell of the book. We’ve been talking all this time about how formally complicated the negative space and these arrangements are, but my real hope is that someone can pick it up and just read it intuitively. The text being different disrupted that. So then I went back to it being my handwriting for both characters. I’m sure someone else would look at it and say, That’s wrong, because I don’t know which character is writing what. But I decided that little bit of confusion was worth it feeling like an uninterrupted flow of text and pictures.

As far as that idea that comics have rules and reading them in a specific way, I kept thinking that so many of your pages — maybe all of them — are more designed to be read like a painting in that you can start wherever or whatever catches your eye first instead of upper left to bottom right.

I know what you mean, but at the same time, I did try to make it very legible and direct the eye where I wanted it to go. Maybe if you haven’t read comics before it might give you a slight advantage because then you’re just looking at whatever you feel like looking at. I tried to lead the eye because if you compare it to a sketchbook, which is also a bunch of floating stuff, my arrangements are very deliberate to give a reading experience.

That’s true. I said before that this book was defined by silence, but I think that silence has defined so much of your work in different ways.

I’m not sure. I think comics can do silence really well, and stillness. Obviously there are silent movies, but there’s something about the frozen moments that comics can be exploited for. It’s something the medium is great at.

You mentioned the book taking a while; was that because other things kept getting in way? Was it because you were changing your approach to it? Or did it just take a long time?

I could name a million things. [Laughs.] I didn’t want to draw it in a pastiche of old-timey drawing. I didn’t think that would look good. Other artists mimic sometimes, and I always think that it doesn’t work. It has to be “mine,” something I do naturally, but tipped to be appropriate for the subject matter. So it took me a while to just get the pen to do what I wanted it to do. A huge thing that took a long time was second- and third- and fourth-guessing everything. Just the fact that there aren’t many books about Quakers and here I was making one, but I was not explaining anything! It’s from the perspective of the people involved. Just getting to that point was hard, and I wondered if this was a good idea. There’re so many potential political landmines in approaching this material. That fed into me triple-guessing everything and looking at everything four times in different ways. I started this before Trump was elected, and some people look at this book as maybe inspired by things going on in the current world, but when you start to research the Civil War at any time, you realize that it’s still being played out. Not just after 2016, but at any time. When Trump got elected, I got depressed, and I was not excited to get to the drawing table. It definitely made me not want to be in the headspace of the Civil War, and I didn’t want to work on it. I drew a Clue comic.

I quit this book many, many times. Two things that helped me finish it was one, there’s a chapter in the middle of my book that’s all about the main character’s sister at home. It’s a mostly wordless chapter. When I gave myself permission to draw that and imagine things going on with the sister that she’s not putting into her letters, that felt like a key that unlocked the book. It became more of a story and less of a long collage or a single tone that’s being maintained for 200-plus pages. Another thing that made it feel more like a book was when I found articles in Friends’ journals about whether or not to pay taxes going to the military. Disagreements in the meetinghouse where some people said, We know that this money is going to the sick and the wounded and so we should pay it. Other people said, No, once you pay it, you’re supporting the war. Or other people said, We pay our taxes and so the government lets us do all these other things that don’t follow them. When I figured out how to lay that through the book, it felt more like I had a beginning, middle, and end. In Virginia, I found a document of someone being asked to rejoin a meetinghouse after fighting. I used that text near the end of the book. So, in many ways Discipline felt like editing a documentary. Some documentaries take a long time because you’re just getting footage and pieces slowly fall into place and finally you have a beginning, middle, and end. The book was a bit like that.

There’s a scene in a meetinghouse near the end where one character slowly stands and gives this impassioned speech about there is a murderer among us. As you said, there was argument about what Quakers should do because they were both pacifists and abolitionists, and that tension of our actions and our thoughts being in conflict is there throughout the book, and that scene demonstrates that the end of the war was not the end of that particular argument.

A couple things popped into my head about that. The Quakers were not progressive in many, many ways, but there’s something totally amazing that in 1860 a woman could stand up in a meetinghouse and a bunch of people would listen to what she had to say. Even if she was speaking out against the war. Many of the Quakers on record for speaking against the war were women. The other thing that popped into my head is that after she says that, the sister speaks and says basically that her brother should be allowed back into the meetinghouse and it’s something like, A diseased arm shouldn’t be cut off. An arm needs the whole body to heal. Part of utilizing these texts is that I just found the writing beautiful and strange. I’m sure that someone could look at this — particularly just that it’s a graphic novel — and point to it being a 2020 book, but I didn’t want to put 2020 thoughts into the heads of these characters. I was more interested in grasping what they might have been thinking about from the texts that exist.

That said, my presence is absolutely in the arrangements and the drawing. I’m choosing a piece of text and pairing it next to an image so that of course is a decision made in my time and place. There’s a piece of text that’s from the 1860s that basically summarizes the whole book — “Compare the bloody deeds of the present with our professions of love and mercy. The future loses sight of our professions and judges us as we are.” — that’s juxtaposed with them building a bridge across water.

That juxtaposition is there throughout and by having silence dominate the book, it allows people to enter the story in different ways. Which maybe makes it more and less 2020.

I have no idea. So much stuff has happened in the past five years that I can’t even say. [Laughs.]

I understand. [Laughs.] And you’ve been making the book on and off over a period where you’ve been very busy.

I love this impression that people have that I’m so productive, because it totally doesn’t feel that way! You’re not the first. I’m glad I’m creating this illusion.

Since 2016, you’ve written and directed two feature films, you’ve made two books, this one and Clue, in addition to however many short comics and mini comics. You may not be the most productive cartoonist, but you’re far from the least.

Clue was just three months! It was done as a monthly comic. I’m proud of that, because so many “monthly” comics are not done monthly and I thought if I’m going to do a pamphlet comic, I want to know what it’s like to be like Steve Ditko or whoever and have to execute pages quickly. Doing Clue helped me with Discipline because with Discipline I had no contract because I didn’t know if I would be able to do it, and it would be horrible to put out this book and not be happy with it. That would be the worst thing imaginable. For Clue, it was like, well, I need to come up with Miss Scarlet’s backstory now and I need to come up with it today. [Laughs.] So I would sit down and come up with it. It helps you realize that you do have a lot in you if you force yourself to do it and not just stare at the wall or lapse into self-doubt.

It forced you to work in that old-school comics way of drawing a page a day, or more, and move on.

And so many great comics are made that way. Which is wild to think.

But you have been busy, and you’re always very focused on doing different kinds of projects and working in different ways.

The movies and the comics don’t feel that different because I always liked a kind of animation that was rooted in comics. A limited animation, whether it be Speed Racer or the Peanuts TV specials. I always thought it was a unique kind of cinema that was comic informed. It wasn’t like I was trying to be a live-action filmmaker or go work for Pixar or something. There’s this one mode of cinema that I know really well because it’s based in comics. And my projects look different from each other because the story comes first, and then I think about how to draw it. I know other cartoonists doodle and a story emerges from their drawing. For some reason I think of it like, Okay, Quakers, this time, I can’t do it with this pen that I’ve been using, I should try to pick up this other pen and try to figure out some way of drawing this story idea …

You’re always giving yourself some challenge. Like with Clue, spending one month making each issue. Every project has some limitation or structure you’ve set up.

Again, it’s from the story. I just thought a Clue comic should look a particular way that is game-like. It should have lots of squares. It should be a little cartoony. Not totally realistic, but not totally cartoony. Clue is a murder mystery, but it’s also funny. So I tried to find some sweet spot that was appropriate to the subject matter. IDW at that time sent me a list of properties that they had and I was like, Clue! That’s the one!

What was it about Clue as opposed to, I don’t know what else IDW has the rights to … GoBots? Transformers?

If it’s Clue, you know that it’ll be a little bit funny — but have death. A dry humor is in the board game itself. I liked the idea of a serialized mystery. Because it came out as monthly comics, I wanted to make sure that people could potentially guess who the murderer was before the last issue. Also, I really don’t have a Transformers or a Spider-Man story in me. Even as a kid, I always liked the weird side properties, like a Clue comic. So it being a B-side in culture but an A-plus for me was appealing. I really enjoyed doing that.

It was a fun, bizarre comic that I don’t think anyone expected. And didn’t expect from you.

I like finding a surprising space that feels like it has some juice in it. I don’t know if many people who go to a comic shop every week wanted a really weird Clue comic. It might be more for people who aren’t going to the comic stands. But it was exciting to put something in that space that was unexpected. I think similarly with the animated movies that I’ve done. Inside the context of an independent film festival it makes sense, but when it’s playing at the multiplex, people are often confused about what it is. It has movie stars in it, but it doesn’t look like these other animated movies. I like the idea of someone who just sees the Cryptozoo poster with the woman on a pegasus and says, Sure, I’ll watch that, and then they see this movie that I think would genuinely surprise them. When I did BodyWorld it was pretty unusual at that time to do a webcomic from a more artsy or alternative comics perspective. Most of the alternative cartoonists then did not do webcomics. I guess it’s just finding a surprising context.

I think that’s all your work, really. I think about My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea in terms of all of those bizarre movies I discovered in school or at film festivals and I don’t know exactly what they are, but they take up mental space long afterward. They’re strange and hard to explain, and that’s their appeal.

That feeling where you’re not sure if it’s good or not. That’s a huge piece of what attracts me to things. Like, that’s all of Francis Picabia. I’m the number-one Picabia fan in the world. All of his work is surprising and amazing and often I’ll look at them and wonder, Maybe I’m crazy and this is terrible. Or I’ll go, What is this? What am I looking at? What was he thinking? If it was quickly locatable as “good,” it would lose some of its attraction.

One recent project is a zine that you made with Michael Robbins. This is a year where you premiered a movie, you have a book coming out, so why make a zine?

[Laughs.] I’ve known Michael for many years. I used to live near him in Bed-Stuy, and I would watch movies at his place. John Ashbery made a rare book with Alex Katz drawings, and we always thought that was super cool. Now it’s on eBay for high prices. We’re not so pompous to put ourselves in that category, but we thought it would be fun to make a zine and just make 500 copies of it. He has a box and I have a box and we just give them to our friends. Maybe they’ll show up on eBay later for crazy prices. I love his poems, and the middle images in the zine are for his poems, but the first and last ones were just collages that I already had done that seemed to work well with his poems. It was a fun thing.

You mentioned that you hated drawing horses.

I got horse dolls in my office so I could try to get the legs right every time. That’s very hard. I’m sure someone who knows this time period inside and out could catch lots of errors in my drawings, but I couldn’t photo reference everything. It would look stilted. I wanted it to feel like something’s happening in front of you. In order to get that feeling, it has to be from my head. Even faces. And you have a limited range of faces when you’re drawing out of your head. I draw my mother, my dad, my brother. You only have like four faces that you draw without photo reference and you’re just remixing those features in different ways. A cartoonist’s work is the universe inside of them being projected.

I guess the question is, if you have to draw a car, do you get photo reference and stick it in and trace it? Because you can do that. Many great cartoonists have done that. Or do you just draw a car out of your head, and it looks like a weird box? Many great cartoonists also do that. Maybe it’s that mysterious quality in the drawing where something is being made with enough sense of purpose or power that it is convincing. Nothing in Jack Kirby’s work makes sense at all. The bodies don’t make sense, the spaces are all very exaggerated, but it’s being done with such conviction that it’s very, very moving. And also totally understandable.

As far as reference, do you draw from life a lot? Do you keep a sketchbook?

I really loved figure drawing in school. I even worked as a model when I got out of school just to stay in the figure drawing space. It was the best thing that I got from college. Even if I don’t use it very much in my books, it still kind of informs everything. In Cryptozoo, we video recorded actors. For the hippies at the beginning of the film, I have video footage of Louisa Krause and Michael Cera. Even though the characters don’t look like Michael or Louisa, I drew it like in figure drawing class. I didn’t trace it, I didn’t rotoscope it, I just tried to look at their bodies and have that inform what the bodies are doing on screen. My sketchbook stuff looks more like those collages that I did for the zine with Michael Robbins. That’s exciting because it’s unexpected synchronicities between things, like in his poems. Often Michael is funny, but something I like about his work is that you feel there’s a lot at stake. Even though they’re funny, he’s got some personal demons that he’s addressing.

They can be very funny. Which must have been nice after making Discipline, which is not funny.

I don’t think there’s any humor in the book. At all. Maybe I’m delusional, but I don’t think so. It’s rare to see a graphic novel that doesn’t have any humor in it. Usually there’s some humor that’s a defense or just inflected. It was a heavy, hard thing to work on. The exciting parts were when it was coming together and a drawing I did in 2014 I placed next to a drawing done in 2018 as a transition, and it worked as a transition. And of course being able to use all of the years in silence and feeling like I had a muscle I could use in the silence of this book was exciting. But a lot of this was grueling. I hope — I was going to say that I hope this isn’t a huge downer, but even if the subject matter is difficult, I feel like the book has a beauty to it. It can be an enjoyable reading experience even if it’s about heavy stuff. And the language is very, very beautiful.

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Alex Dueben has written for The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, The Comics Journal, the Paris Review, The Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, and many other publications. More of his work can be found at alex-dueben.com and @alexdueben.

 

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