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January 26, 2011

Discussing BODYWORLD by Dash Shaw

Posted by Dana

In today's guest post, Bonnie Brzozowski, Reference Librarian at the Austin Public Library and our resident graphic novel expert shares her book clubs' experience this month!

51ucBhSjJqL._SL500_AA300_.jpgAustin Public Library’s Graphic Novels Book Club tackled BodyWorld by Dash Shaw – a phenomenal story about a bizarre drug, an even more bizarre botanist, and a pretty typical small town set smack in the middle of a science fiction world. The book itself is unlike any I’ve ever seen from its binding at the top of the cover to illustrated maps of the town, Boney Borough, that actually fold out and can remain out as you’re reading. Shaw is most famous for his work Bottomless Belly Button, which regularly shows up on lists of the top graphic novels of all time. The present work has already received much acclaim as well and I discovered it and suggested it to the group after finding it on close to every 2009 (it originally appeared as a webcomic) or 2010 (when it was bound and published) best graphic novels of the year lists.
The basic plot of the story involves a botanist/professor/Timothy Leary-type named Paulie Panther who is sent out to Boney Borough, a town insulated from the concrete abyss that is the rest of the world, to study an unusual plant. After smoking the plant in the right context Paulie finds that it has a strange effect in which you experience the emotions and thoughts of the people around you. In other words, people using the drug become of one “bodymind.” Paulie meets a number of Boney Borough’s residents along the way and the stereotypical, small town high school kids we are first introduced to begin to have much more depth.
Most of the group couldn’t stop talking about the art. As you might guess considering the plot, the artwork in this book is mind-blowing. Shaw portrays the effects the drug has on people with complex, multi-colored panels where words and images are laid over one another. He seemed to be trying to communicate sensory experiences through his panels and we discussed how the experience of sharing a mind with someone would involve memories that don’t exist in words, but only in the senses. While we could compare aspects of Shaw’s style to comics such as Archie, we unanimously agreed that we’d never seen anything quite like it.
We also discussed the Boney Borough residents, the future world Shaw describes and illustrates, and attitudes toward individualism. The two central high school characters slowly became these more intense, emotional versions of themselves as the story progressed and we were interested in that development. The future that Shaw alludes to was a source of fascination and, like so many other science fiction books, it seemed a direct commentary on today’s world. Finally, we speculated on Shaw’s own attitudes toward individualism and what would happen to a world in which a drug like this existed.
I’ve been trying not to reveal too much, so I feel I cannot do proper justice to how absolutely amazing this book is! As an avid reader of graphic novels, this easily made it to my all-time top 10 list. If any of these themes or plot lines sound like they would appeal to your book club, don’t let this title pass you by! 
Here are some discussion questions to get your discussion started:
How does Paulie Panther fit in with the people of Boney Borough? What do his interactions with the people, such as Jem, Pearl, and Billy, reveal about him? How do you think Panther perceives himself compared to what others might think of him? What is your personal opinion of him?
What might we infer about Shaw’s attitude toward individualism? What would you say the state of individualism is in today’s world? How might you imagine individualism would change in a future world similar to the one Shaw describes?

 -- Bonnie Brzozowski, Regular Contributor and Reference Librarian - Austin Public Library