Experimenting and Challenging the Form: “3 New Stories” by Dash Shaw

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There’s always something alluring and overwhelming when you look at the consignment comics section at your local comic book shop. There’s always so much to pick from. There’s a horror comic in one section and a comic about a local coffee shop in another. There’s a plethora of comics about various incidents, supernatural or natural, that we may encounter in life. And, to make my decision more complicated, there are often books with covers and artwork that are almost too interesting to pass up.

The last time I was at my local comic book shop (Hub Comics in Somerville), there was plenty to pick from. After opening and browsing through many of the shelves, I stumbled upon 3 New Stories, a small book with a stunning cover and early pages that motivated me to pick it up.

Back and Front Cover of 3 New Stories

3 New Stories, as the casual title suggests, contains a collection of three stories in three separate realities. All of the stories take place in a surrealistic, absurd America oddly reminiscent of the Springfield of The Simpsons in the 90s and frighteningly not too far away from our current reality. The first story, Object Lesson, introduces us to an anachronistic private investigator who loses his job and finds himself back in high school to finish his diploma, which he possibly did not complete due to a technicality. The second story, Acting is Reacting, briefly introduces us to the depressing, decaying world of Girls Gone Wild. Lastly, the final story, Bronx Children’s Prison, follows the life and the attempted escape of the prisoners in the Bronx Children’s Prison.

3 New Stories is really quite difficult to review. From a text based narrative perspective, Object Lesson is by far the most successful. It’s clever, funny, and surprisingly absurd. It also makes an interesting statement about how American businesses and con men prey on people through nostalgia when they get older. It also makes an implicit statement about how the American economy is very coldly and inhumanely throwing out its older workforce. Most impressively, both of these large statements are made in a matter of a few pages. In contrast to the strong text narrative of the opening story, the next two were a little disappointing and lackluster by comparison. Acting is Reacting from a pure narrative perspective falls pretty flat, and Bronx Children’s Prison is a pretty basic prison story, despite the young age of the prisoners and an element of fantasy.

However, there is a separate layer to address with 3 New Stories: its artwork as its major storyteller.

3 New Stories has some of the most daring and innovative artwork to appear in the comic book/graphic novel arena. It pays homage to the traditional flat black and white style of most comics while adding layers of exceptional texture from watercolor and paint. And from the interesting art techniques, 3 New Stories emerges as almost, dare I say it, an experimental comic book.

Given the strength of solely the text narrative of Object Lesson, the artwork is used to enrich the tone of the narrative. There are streaks of sickly olive green and rust in the backgrounds, enhancing the misery and the direness of the older students in the high school and conveying the sinister nature of the people who are running the high school. There are disjointed panels and floating images that emphasize the disorienting world the private investigator is experiencing. Here, the combination of non-traditional artwork and basic text narrative construction is at its best, demonstrating the epitome of what the medium of graphic novels and comic books can be as a storytelling form.

For Acting is Reacting, which probably is the most bizarre of the bunch, the artwork takes the stage in front of the story. While the panels of the narrative show how a Finnish girl ends up in a Girls Gone Wild video, the background artwork of maps of parts of Texas seems to be suggesting the endless roads traveled by the Girls crew to film their clips. The endlessly branching roads and the numerous letters of towns give us a sense of the monotony of the whole Girls enterprise. The Finnish girl on the panels is no more than one girl one town on a map of thousands of cities, towns, and roads. In this second narrative, the background artwork far overpowers the narrative in the panels in its ability to add layers to the storytelling, but the two nevertheless interact and project onto each other in order to form a richer and certainly more interesting story with very few words and interpretive liberty for the reader/watcher.

As for Bronx Children’s Prison, the artwork overpowers the narrative given by the text in a way that almost feels like a successful experimental film montage. In a story about children taking over and escaping a prison, there are elements of clear fantasy, and these moments are separated visually with overwhelming dots of color, evoking the feelings of a dream or hallucination. However, in the story there are moments of realistic consequences, and here, the dots are absent, leaving the reader with only sparse black and white forms. While this last story is probably my least favorite of the collection, the use of the oversaturated, overwhelming images to demarcate states of fantasy versus reality adds a layer of complexity to the narrative that had me motivated to finish the story.

3 New Stories, though flawed, is an excellent representation of how the comic book and graphic novel world can expand and challenge its boundaries. As a passionate fan of both literature and visual art, I have always felt that graphic novels have the advantage of an enormous range of visual, non-verbal techniques to tell a story. Consequently, graphic novels and comic books have more opportunities to create richer settings, to convey complexities in mood and tone, and most of all, to communicate nuances in a character, all of which Dash Shaw attempts to do in 3 New Stories.

Of everything I have written about, please do check out 3 New Stories. While it may not be the epitome of the full fruition and realization of the comic book and graphic novel media form, it is much closer than many (if not most) of its peers. And even though I admit that the text based narrative composition is lacking, I must commend its willingness to experiment with the combination of verbal and non-verbal storytelling. As much as I love more traditional forms of comics and graphic novels, I was excited and thrilled to see and read something that is trying to reach far beyond its own expectations as a storytelling form.

3 New Stories was created by Dash Shaw and is available via Fantagraphics Books

 

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