I usually use this space to highlight new, or at least newly-in-print comics and collections. But I just read something great, and I want to tell you about it. THE MOTHER’S MOUTH by Dash Shaw is a deeply moving story and a stunningly original exploration the unique capacities of the comic medium. Everyone should read it. We have one copy at Locust Moon. Come and get it, lucky reader, and be enriched. It’s no longer in print, so everybody else is shit out of luck.
Much of Dash Shaw’s brilliance lies in the way be brings his ravenous appetite for innovation to tender, human narratives. Though he seems to be devising his approach in the moment, restlessly mining his inventiveness page by page, the stories are old and the characters familiar. His books are small, well-observed and subtle, but his themes are huge and unmanageable, the stuff of great literature — brotherhood, envy and crumpled desire in NEW SCHOOL, for instance, or loneliness, obligation and loss here in THE MOTHER’S MOUTH. These pure evocations of human longing are the emotional backbone of his work, powerful pulsing centers that guarantee that these stories, for all their obfuscating experimentalism, will never buckle under the weight of their own ambition.
The plot, slight as it is, concerns Virginia Miles, a children’s librarian who must return home to care for her elderly mother. She falls into a cautious, uncomfortably intimate relationship with Dick Lucido, a damaged, gentle musician. They blunder towards some kind of guarded love, fingers pushing through the bars of their shame, fear and isolation, as Virginia’s mother fades and dies. But somewhere over the course of all this you fall under this book’s weird spell, and start receiving Shaw’s urgent, befuddling transmissions.
Virginia’s story is told in a clunky-clean traditional narrative style, with thick marker lines and brushstrokes, her mother’s face layered, shroud-like, with clean black wrinkles. But just as much space is given over to old photographs, scientific and psuedo-scientific schematics, diagrammed dance steps, newspaper articles, found objects. There are moments when it feels less like a story than a bundle of mementos and documents, wrapped in wax paper and bound up with string. Sometimes you read this book — other times you pluck your way through it, puzzling, turning it over in your hands, feeling for its gnomic meaning in the dark.
There’s a tangle of sex, grief and memory at the center of THE MOTHER’S MOUTH that you can never quite unravel — at least, I couldn’t. Virginia, wracked with sorrow over her mother’s illness and utterly vulnerable , alone in the world, falls in with the daydreamy, Michael Jackson-obsessed Dick and we see their weird, halting, awkward courtship (“Oh my god, I’m sorry did my breath smell?” “Oh, I don’t know, did my breath smell?”). But then there are lengthy detours into Virginia’s first (probably only) love affair, a preadolescent fling with a boy named Richard, who died when he was swallowed up into the depths of a sandbox. Near the end of the book, there’s a news article about a Louisiana therapist who accidentally kills a child named Richard, suffocating him during a controversial therapeutic technique in which patients re-experience their own births. What actually happened to Richard? What is his relation to the similarly-named Dick? What does this assemblage of stuff, connected with the thinnest strands of desire, nostalgia and fantasy, mean?
Your guess is as good as mine. But answering those questions is not the purpose of this story. It’s the mystery, the haunting feeling of the accumulation of all these bits and pieces, the way they mirror one another, operating according to aesthetic as much as narrative logic. Shaw’s world here is a darkly funny fractal, and his vision zooms in on the tiniest memory, a crumpled snapshot, a child’s drawing, then out to the geologic scale of time. We watch Pangaea break apart then come back together again, see the moon swallowed in darkness, then shimmer through as a crescent now reversed, observe a mythical creature decompose into fossils in a series of cross-sections of sedimentary rock. His versatile, telescopic camera always discovers the same thing: that time marches on, that loss is inevitable, that life is fragile and beautiful.
In one bravura four-page sequence, a sex scene between Dick and Virginia branches into the roots of a tree, the trunk of which flows into a river, which transforms into a topographical map, which, panning back, is revealed to be the sandbox in which Richard died. Everything is everything else — look at the sweep of history or a microbial organism and discover your own anxieties, grievances and hopes. The same messages are encoded into every sequence. When Virginia’s mother dies, her spirit just puffs our of a her chest as a little Pacman ghost, then floats off as a white silhouette against an empty black spread. Figuration, symbolism and narrative are jostling for page space, pulling against each other, as disjointed as they are unified.
Like in the work of Chris Ware, the towering ambition of the formal approach plays brilliantly off the smallness and mundanity of the story. Virginia and Dick are stuck in prisons of their own device while the vast universe, impossibly beautiful and frightening, spins around them. THE MOTHER’S MOUTH explores huge and hopeful ideas about Dharmic interconnectedness, universal mirroring and infinite regression in a tale of badly damaged people, lost souls shrouded in scar tissue.
It ends with tentative hope, pillow talk, and Dick’s plans for a haircut. In THE MOTHER’S MOUTH, Dash Shaw summons an entire universe just to make two people feel a little less alone.
- Josh O’Neill