Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I have seen the future of comics, and its name is Dash Shaw"
- David Mazzucchelli (ASTERIOS POLYP, CITY OF GLASS)
Every time I catch sight of the cover to this book with its iridescent copper sheen, a smile bursts across my face and, down at the base of my neck, I glow.
Dash Shaw has done it again. As ever with the restless innovator, he simply cannot stay still and I laughed out loud when I realised this was a graphic novel bound at the top of the page rather than the left-hand side. There's also a card map you can fold out sideways, making it permanently accessible as you read your way through so that you can follow the protagonists as they cross its grid references.
The experimental forest town of Boney Borough was created in 2015 after the Second American Civil War. It has some 'unusual' aspects, including a High School contact sport called Dieball whose paraphernalia, Diegunk, is both toxic to the brain and addictive to boot, leaving its muscular jocks prone to gambling and drugs. Billy-Bob Borg is one such blonde in love with another, Pearl Peach. Their relationship is relatively innocent, although Lucy Lucido with her active libido is doing her best to get in there too as plain, shit-stirring Sara is quick to point out. Other than that it's relatively peaceful, leaving young science teacher Jem Jewel free to pursue her interest in superorganisms - hive-minds, like ants whose individuality is sacrificed for the hill as a whole.
But now botanist Professor Paulie Panther has arrived to evaluate an intriguing new species of plant discovered on the grounds of the High School. Its twin black blades are threaded with multiple midribs and thin white veins, with sky-blue kidney shapes close to the stems. His interest is quite specific:
"I'm writing an encyclopaedia on the hallucinogenic effects of North America plant life. Well, the third edition. I don't mean to brag. I just update the previous edition whenever new plants are found. The author of the first edition passed away. Drug problems."
Occupational hazard, it seems, for it becomes swiftly clear that Professor Paulie Panther has long been a junkie and his scientific methods are... unorthodox. Back in his wreck of a hotel room (he soon sets fire to the bed!) he runs a bath of cold water and boiling coffee, pops some pills and lies there soaking and staring at psychedelia as he smokes the new 'erb. If that wasn't worrying enough then the prologue and the flashbacks of Paulie's self-destructive behaviour over the last six years do not bode well for the borough, especially when it comes to relationships. He's already attracted the attention of sensual Miss Jewel, their first meeting charged with physical contact as she brushes her hand over a local tree's weeping secretions before ingesting them from her finger tips, tests her bare feet on the ground where the new plant appears to be creating an air current, then finally touches him through a hole in his shirt. He's sweating, and self-control was never his strong point.
What transpires over the course of this substantial assault on everyone's senses is nothing short of an inflammatory disaster, a corrupting conflagration of lust, intoxication and then sensory overload as the unique properties of the plant slowly become clear: it imparts strange telepathic powers whereby thoughts and feelings can be exchanged between two or more individuals, breaking down the barriers down and revealing secrets, then perhaps something more...
Colours. Right from the start it is obvious that colours play a profound part in the storytelling here, but Dash Shaw will go on to blow readers' minds as much as his protagonists, using colour and images superimposed on each other as the real crazy shit goes down. It's a transporting experience and although I don't think it's a warning about the risks of cannabis psychosis, it may serve that purpose regardless. Or maybe it will encourage a more heroic undertaking to truly take it on:
"These drugs just don't "do" themselves, you know?"