Dash Shaw’s been looking like a promising young graphic novelist for a few years now, with a stunning set of short stories in The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D. and the superb low-key epic Bottomless Belly Button under his belt. So I was surprised to feel disappointed by New School.
The book is about Danny, a slightly peculiar boy, his normalness hampered by odd parents. His family speaks in literary sentences, a mixture of upper-class breeding and intellectual showmanship. He adores and emulates his older brother, Luke, who can do everything slightly better than Danny can. However, when his parents send Luke on a trip to a foreign land, teaching English to a strange set of islanders about to open an unusual theme park, Luke sheds his ties to his odd family and turns native.
After a couple of years, Danny is dispatched to find his brother and bring him home, but when he gets to he island, he finds the older boy changed.
The rest of the book is a multi-faceted coming-of-age story. Does Danny also abandon his roots and follow his brother into a more normal life, albeit in a strange place; or can he pull Luke back from his new life and return him to his family?
The book works on a variety of levels but is open enough to let you read what you want into it. I found it to be an elongated metaphor for growing up and leaving home, and the realisations and decisions that accompany the process.
Shaw’s artwork can be almost incidental to his stories, helping them along but not stealing any of the limelight. I have to admit to not enjoying the art in New School, though, because the simplistic, heavy-handed illustration detracts from the sophistication of the narrative. His characters are simplistic and, while there’s interesting use of colour in certain parts, it doesn’t lift the overall style.
I was expecting great things from the next Dash Shaw but I don’t think we’ve seen the full depth of his genius in this book.