DASH SHAW is kind of a weirdo genius. And while I don't know that he does tons of hallucinogens, it would certainly explain a few things. Shaw is preoccupied with perception and its limits: Take, for example, 2010's batshit crazy Body World, a jittery graphic novel about a drug that gives its users telepathy-esque powers to experience other peoples' feelings.
Similar territory is mined in Shaw's new graphic novel New School, just published by Fantagraphics Books. The plot hinges on the construction of an Epcot-like amusement park, where each section of park is dedicated to a different period of time or significant historical event. Every stoner who ever hazily concluded that time ain't nothing but a construct: This one's for you.
There's a lot going on in New School, but at its simplest, it's a story about a boy's love for his older brother. Young Danny looks up to his brother Luke, admires everything he does in that dumb, slightly masochistic way that young kids love their older siblings. So when Luke is sent off to a mysterious country (known as "X") to help train new employees at the time-amusement park, Danny eventually follows. Stranded in a strange land where they don't speak the language, Danny and Luke are perfect teenaged misfits, and they duly rebel against a weird society they don't understand. (A scene where Danny starts insulting strangers because he realizes no one speaks English is laugh-out-loud funny.)
Due to some printing delays in receiving hard copies of the book, I had to read New School very quickly in order to meet my deadline for this article. It was easy enough to do: The oversized volume features plenty of big panels and wordless spreads. But reading New School too quickly is a mistake—this is a complex book, both visually and conceptually. As Danny grows from boy into man, Shaw layers colors and patterns over what began as a simple, black and white story. The experience of reading New School is like temporarily inhabiting the body and brain of an artist: This is what growing up might feel like for someone who lives and breathes colors and shapes.
Back in 2008, Shaw published Bottomless Belly Button, a great, relatively not-weird brick of a graphic novel about adult siblings whose parents announce they're getting a divorce. His follow up, Body World was funny and strange and brilliant, but it didn't quite have Belly Button's heart. New School is located somewhere in between: It's heady, hallucinatory, and bizarre, but it's grounded in the simple experience of growing up in the shadow of a beloved older sibling.