Dash Shaw has a talent for storytelling that is perhaps unique in the field of comics. Bottomless Bellybutton is an extraordinary piece of work – a three-act play that turns a family break to the beach into a heart-wrenching epic, encapsulating the lives of three generations with extraordinary pathos and maturity.
The Loonys are visiting their beach house for the last time. Little do their grown-up children know, but their seventy-something empty-nester parents have decided to divorce, breaking up a marriage that’s been seemingly steady for forty years.
Their three children react to the news in different ways. Dennis is teetering on the edge of his own mid-life crisis and, still coming to terms with his own recent fatherhood, takes the news the worst. Claire has been through a divorce of her own, and is now playing the part of a lonely single parent, struggling to maintain a connection with her daughter Jill. Peter is the youngest, a 26-year-old who has yet to forge his own path in life. As the story progresses, however, he meets a girl on the beach and ends up spending most of his time with her, finally stepping out from the shadow of his family as it slowly disintegrates behind him.
The characters feel so solid and real they could be your next door neighbours. While the book starts innocently enough, with short scene-setting pieces to introduce key moments from the family’s past, it soon settles into a slower pace, following each character through their time together, as they all try to come to terms with the finality of this slow-motion, controlled melt-down.
At 720 pages it might seem like a daunting read but don’t let its bulk put you off. Shaw’s deft pacing and unfussy art style will have you turning pages at a blistering rate, while the varied and moving family dramas that unfold draw the attention like a car crash.
There are many stand-out moments in the book, from uplifting to scary, humorous to intensely sad. I could talk about my favourite bits here but I’d rather you went off and found your own – I don’t particularly want to take any of the unfolding experience I had in discovering the content of this beautiful work away from you or anyone else. It’s a pleasure that deserves to be shared and savoured.
The art is secondary to the storytelling but serves its purpose well, the simplicity of the style helping with both pacing and understanding. The artistry comes from the movement, expression, atmosphere and mood Shaw is able to inject into his illustrations.
This is a literary piece but one that’s extraordinarily accessible, despite its size. I simply can’t recommend it enough. If you like literary graphic novels, particularly those centred around the family like Asterios Polyp and Jimmy Corrigan, this is a worthy but very unique successor.