Article originally written by Steve Ponzo
Bottomless Belly Button is a 720 family drama filled with neurosis, romance, mystery, comedy, fond memories, bad parenting, teen angst and sexual awakening. The book is big but not overwhelming, and sad with out being tragic. This is a graphic novel of tallest order, from one of the most unique voices in the medium today.
The story starts when Maggie and David, the parents of the aptly named Loony family, decided to divorce after 40 of marriage. Their children, now fully grown with children of their own, converge at home for one last week together as a family. Over the course of the visit they, reminisce, argue, fall apart and reconnect. Dash Shaw’s graphic novel is a slow-paced character study of the three Loony children’s reactions to the news of their parents’ divorce.
The reason for their divorce is simple: they fell out of love. The story’s complexity is found in the reaction of the Loony children. Each responds differently to the news. The eldest son, Dennis, struggles with his parent’s decision and refuses to accept it. He digs into his parents’ history trying everything he can to understand why this is happening. Believing that his parents are hiding the real reason behind their divorce, Dennis tries to discover the truth as his hunt becomes more and more obsessive and crazed. Claire, the middle child, is too distracted by her own life to really focus on her parents. Recently divorced herself, Clair struggles as a single parent raising Jill, her awkward 16-year-old daughter. Peter, the youngest of the Loony children, avoids his parents for days at a time while drifting through life awkward and lonely. He suffers from paralyzing insecurity until he establishes a strange romance with a local girl. In the week spent together, the Loony children stumble through their lives consumed by their own conflicts. This is a story of a divorce that brings the family together, but never truly unites them.
The characters, illustrated in a stripped-down expressive cartoony style, each struggle with self-image though none more than Peter. He feels completely removed from his family, someone unlike everyone else even in his own home. Shaw’s way of showing this disconnect is odd yet perfectly executed. Peter is drawn as an anthropomorphic frog. Aside from the constant visual reminder, this fact is largely ignored throughout the book, because we’re just seeing how Peter perceives himself. It’s the baggage of being the only outsider in his family, a frog in a room full of humans.
What makes this massive book work so well is the pacing. Shaw draws out emotional moments, slowing sequences down to single beats. A single panel sitting on a page gives way to multiple pages spent on a simple mundane act. Shaw knows when to subtly stretch a moment to build its importance.
Shaw’s storytelling is so firmly rooted in subtly. From the smallest gestural detail and nuanced expressions to rich atmospheric sequences. Shaw is able to create a wide range of conflicting emotions through the simplest of line work. His innovative visual narrative techniques are what make this book truly unique. He uses Wes Anderson-esque architectural layouts, match-cut style flashbacks, a point of view flip through a photo album, intricate diagrams and even pie charts. All of these details add up to a family that is neither fully dysfunctional nor completely in sync.
These seven hundred plus pages showcase Dash Shaw as one of the best narrative and graphic talents working in the scene today.