Dash Shaw‘s latest graphic novel follows a fanatical cosplayer (Annie) and her aspiring photographer friend (Verti) as they embark on a year of doing what they love to do most of all: dressing up and making videos of themselves to post on YouTube.
Their early attempts are short films in which Annie interacts with unwitting members of the public, while Verdi films her from a distance. It’s not long, however, before the camera is being set up in advance and the two girls are dressing up and performing together.
Originally published as a series of individual comics, there’s a surprisingly coherent arc flowing through this collected edition. The first act sees the two girls’ initial collaborations, as they experiment with YouTube and move on from their early improvisations to actually scripting and acting out their stories. The second sees them attending a manga and animé convention, and gathering enough momentum on YouTube to court the interest of a mysterious agent. The finalé wraps the whole thing up in a perfect storm of bitter-sweet pathos.
Veterans of Dash Shaw’s other books (of which Bottomless Belly Button comes particularly highly recommended) won’t be surprised to learn that much of the brilliance of this book comes from Shaw’s wonderfully fleshed-out characters. The two cosplayers are deeply reminiscent of the lead protagonists in Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World; quietly intense and seriously driven in their hobby. Other characters drift in, including a spectacularly tragicomic scholar of Osamu Tezuka, who has let comics take over his life to the extent that he has nothing else. Then there’s the male fan of the girls’ work, delighted to meet his YouTube idols, but struggling to keep his hormones from spoiling everything.
Shaw doesn’t have the most sophisticated drawing style but it barely matters here. It might not spark the interest of those looking for great illustrated artistry but it’s good enough where it counts, and despite having a relatively simple look to them, the characters have a deep emotional range. You might not notice it when flicking through the book but the characters spring to life when you start to fully absorb the story.
The book is scattered with bonus portraits of cosplayers, which are beautiful things in their own right, sitting on mixed-media collages that enhance and envelope the illustrations, lifting them from the page.
Despite being sympathetically non-judgemental about Annie and Verti and their love of dressing up, it feels a bit like there’s still something of a parable in this story, particularly around the other characters. It might only be that you should go out there and enjoy the things you love to do, no matter what, and don’t let other people spoil it for you. But there’s also something in there about taking yourself too seriously, and what might happen if you devote your life to something without leaving room to nurture the relationships you need around you. Whatever you take from it, it’s an entertaining read that’s perfect for cosplayers, their fans and anyone else interested in this fascinating cultural phenomena.