Devil’s Lake


Interview with Dash Shaw

Q: How did you come to comics? Were you led there by fine art and/or writing? What was your artistic practice before you committed yourself fully to Bottomless Belly Button?

My dad read comics and so they were always around the house when I was growing up. I started making them very early, before I could read, and then just kept doing it, all my life. So I came to them as comics, rather than through writing and/or drawing separately. What keeps it being continually rewarding, as a practice, is that it engages all of these different things: writing, drawing, character design, "acting" and on and on. It activates so many different parts of your brain.

Before Bottomless, I was just drawing different comics, mostly mini-comics, zines, or things that weren’t as widely distributed as Bottomless was.

Q: Bottomless Belly Button has a very unusual panel formatting. How did you decide to lay out the book like that?

It’s different depending on the scene. I designed it in spreads, meaning the right and left pages of the book as it lays open. It’s just a simple thing. Like, if you have a surprise, you want it to be on the upper left hand corner of the left page of the spread, so that it’s the first thing you see when you turn the page. If you have it on the right side of the spread, your eye will naturally glance over to it and you’ll see it coming. That’s just a quick, easy example of designing in spreads. Also, I wouldn’t do scene changes in the middle of a page—I’d use the pause of when you finish one page and start at the top of the next page as a transition moment. And, more generally, I wanted it to have an open, fluid feeling, where your eye moved across, as opposed to up and down and up and down. I like that flow, like water, or looking at a folding screen. That’s why there are all those sequences with just a few panels across the center of the page. It propels you forward, rather than having to stop-and-start like a lot of comics. Bottomless flows across and the next comic I did, Body World, flows down, like a long scroll.

Q: The coloring in Body World, your comic available on the web and in print, is absolutely gorgeous. How did you lay out the color scheme for it—which seems to change from chapter to chapter but remain consistent within those units?

Yeah, the coloring was based on what was happening in a particular scene. The characters remain consistent, but outside of that, the backgrounds can shift. You see that in Warner Bros. cartoons, where the characters remain the same and sometimes the backgrounds are naturalistic or expressionistic or whatever. Paulie, the main character, mostly wears grays and whites because grays and whites make all other colors on the page stronger. Grays go with everything. I sort of combined animation techniques with comic coloring techniques, with the line art on acetate sheets (like an animation cell) and painting behind it or on a separate layer, and doing color separations, like pre-photoshop comics coloring. It’s all too boring and uninteresting to explain fully.

Q: What is your studio and writing practice like? How many hours a day do you work on comics? Do you have a consistent method for when you are penciling, inking, writing? Do you break up each step in the process and work on everything a little at a time or finish all the pencils before you ink?

Right now, I’m working on an animation and a comic. I alternate between the two. The animation is a big (for me) collaborative thing and the comic is a solo thing. I have two floors of a brownstone in Brooklyn. I live on the top floor and the bottom floor is my studio space. Each of my comics has been done differently. Right now, I wrote scripts for the animation and the comic and so mostly I’m drawing what I spent the past year of my life writing. Bottomless was more free-form, where I’d draw a scene and edit it into the book, shuffling it around. I could do that because the drawings in Bottomless are very basic, dumb, and so I wouldn’t feel bad cutting thirty pages of drawings if I had to. But the drawings I’m doing now take a lot of time and are much more complicated, so I script it all out beforehand. If I have to make a change, I will, but I’d rather have it planned so that I don’t have to throw away a week’s worth of drawing.

Q: Are your comics influenced by any prose authors? What novels or short stories have influenced your work? What other comic artists do you admire?

This is always a tough question because I like a lot of different things, comics, books, movies, etc. But I don’t want to dodge the question because that’s disappointing, and rattling off a bunch of names doesn’t cover it. I got a pretty solid education of comics very early because my dad had things, Marvel comics, The Spirit, and underground stuff (Crumb, etc.) and I grew up in the nineties when Japanese comics and cartoons were invading America. I definitely caught that anime/manga wave. I’d go to Otakon, the anime convention in Baltimore, every year. The manga just looked so fresh and exciting to me. Then, in high school and into college, I got more of an education on comics, especially through a few of the cartooning teachers I had at SVA: Keith Mayerson (Horror Hospital Unplugged), Gary Panter (Jimbo) and David Mazzucchelli (Rubber Blanket). I love all of their work. And it’s only grown since then.

I like Don DeLillo a lot. Moliere was definitely an influence on BodyWorld, those kinds of dark sex comedy romps. Because I went to art school, I missed out on a formal education in literature, which is frustrating and something I’m always trying to catch up on. I have no idea what War and Peace is about, for example. And I’m usually only reading things related to what I’m working on; like, right now I’m doing a theme park story, so I’ve been reading a lot of (and about) Michael Crichton. He’s a fascinating, bizarre personality. War and Peace will have to wait!

DASH SHAW made numerous comics and zines while a BFA student at the School of Visual Arts. Since graduating in 2005 he’s done the telepathy comedy Body World (Pantheon Books, 2010) and the surreal family comedy Bottomless Belly Button (Fantagrahics, 2008.) His comic short stories have appeared in The Believer and Vice magazine, and as regular contributions to the quarterly comics anthology Mome. He is also the animator/director of IFC’s The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D. He currently lives in Brooklyn, where he’s working on another comic book and an animated feature, The Ruined Cast, which recently attended the Sundance Screenwriter and Director Labs. For more information visit