Page by Page

The Mother’s Mouth

A $12.95, 128-page graphic novel from writer/artist Dash Shaw, published by Alternative Comics. It’s been out in Direct Market stores for a few weeks now, and you can find it online too.

In terms of pure page-by-page construction, this is quite an intriguing, adventurous book; Shaw is obviously fascinated by the construction of comics stories and the putting together of books of comics, and accordingly this is one of those books were every part of the package somehow serves the overall story experience. From the gorgeously odd horror-type cover (which can be glimpsed on Shaw’s homepage - the blue band in the lower right corner breathlessly notes that the story “Begins on Page 2”) to the obligatory page of praise-filled pull quotes (which, a third of the way through, segue into quotes from characters in the book about each other and items from their past), every last thing in this package leads into something else on a quest for a rigorous page-by-page experience. Formalism isn’t the only level The Mother’s Mouth operates on, but it’s the one it best works on.

Hence, merely summarizing the plot does the book a disservice since Shaw’s primary concern is on the way his story is told. There’s four primary characters: (1) Virginia, an awkward, depressive woman who quits her job as a children’s librarian to tend to (2) Mary, her mother, who is dying in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, and ultimately meets (3) Dick, a local musician who’s haunted by the specter of failure (at one point memorably depicted as tiny upside-down ghost horses whispering “you suck”) and reminds Virginia of (4) Richard, an ill-fated childhood friend. All four are neatly introduced near the beginning of the book through a series of full-page drawings accompanied by artist’s comments - there’s even spoiler warnings given for which characters live and die. Near the end of the book, Shaw reprises this sequence with a quartet of drawings by a 5 year-old, accompanied by a psychoanalytical commentary; but is Shaw talking about himself, or something else? Is the artist ever not present in his work anyway, regardless of whether he’s operating in the guise of an alter ego?

These are some of the questions raised by The Mother’s Mouth, which flips and tumbles across its page count through a multitude of styles and approaches: full-page drawings with short captions, traditional sequential cartooning, photography, factoids on pre-Christian dress accompanying ‘silent’ panels of characters preparing for a date, diagrams, dance steps, prose news reports, blank pages with single words scribbled upon them, repeated images for pages and pages - nothing is out-of-bounds. Often these styles are set up against one another for maximum friction, and the effect is sometimes marvelous. An image of Mary, her aged form drawn in a queasily detailed style unlike that of any other character in the book, being set down into bed faces a full-page photo of a man tending to a human-like bundle smothered in a blanket on his parlor rug. A sex sequence explodes into a symbolist devolutionary spread of nature regressing into sand.

All throughout, there are the echoes of a mother’s influence, a certain smothering effect eventually made all too literal, though that brand of analysis seems a bit pat to me; really, the book is about the past constantly haunting the present, and the myriad ways in which it can manifest; fitting then that the book adamantly refuses to stick with any straightforward style. I can’t imagine half of these sequences coming off any better if not glimpsed through Shaw’s determined cockeye, like an eight-page sequence of exactly the same panel of aged Mary fast asleep drifting across the bottom of each sheet, the tops at first filled with photographs of the past, a broken narration drifting around, XXXXX marks clogging up some of the images to mark the gaps in a decaying memory. And then, the photos vanish, replaced with images of the moon and a clock, more certain things, you see.

Some sequences, admittedly, don’t come off all that well in any manner. Some of Shaw’s more straightforward bits -- sequences of characters talking, for example -- drift away into over-the-top awkwardness, such as a bit with Virginia trying to quit her job and breaking down into tears. It seems merely forced and heavy-handed, as do sequences in a club where Virginia overhears characters talking about Dick’s performance, occasionally dumping out forced character revelations through their dialogue. It’s good on the level that Shaw effectively conveys the experience of sitting down and covertly listening to people talk about a loved one in the way that people only do when they assume nobody with an emotional interest is present, but the actual dialogue seems stiff and uncertain. Arguably, this problem extends to the book as a total unit, since at its heart it really is only telling the story of yet another batch of awkward people dealing with their problems and possibly finding succor through togetherness and choosing to live or whatnot, and I wonder if some readers might feel the whole affair is much elaborate ado about nothing that hasn’t been said in a variety of vastly simpler manners before.

Yet, I think that line of thinking unnecessarily downplays the unique pleasures of this book. The Mother’s Mouth is about the moment-by-moment, not the big picture. It’s about the way pages relate to one another, and how scraps of recollection stick with people and pop back out at certain times of their day. It’s about the accumulation of memories and visual approaches, though not necessarily set toward a grand, overarching goal. The story concludes with a type of breakthrough, though it more ‘stops’ than ‘ends.’ You get the feeling that it’ll continue on later, despite anything like the end of a book. For what satisfaction it sacrifices, it gains resonance in going back and sampling, like pouring over someone's else's scrapbook, one that's curiously affecting to the outside viewer.

A substantial preview of the book can be downloaded from this page. See how you feel.