I saw Dash Shaw’s animated feature film My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea at last year’s Portland International Film Festival, where I was pleased to see the personable humor and torsion of reality that I always expect from his work. Shaw is a well-respected indie comics artist whose graphic novels, like Bottomless Belly Button and Cosplayers, mix entertaining, well-written stories with cool ideas that threaten to conceptually blow the doors off the whole biz. My Entire High School—which features voice work from the likes of Reggie Watts, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon, and Maya Rudolph—finds teenagers facing a couple of different disasters.
As I was thinking about My Entire High School at PIFF, a lady next to me in the bathroom line blurted out, “I could see a Q-tip at my house!” She was referencing a part of the film that discusses the illicit thrill of using Q-tips—even though doctors repeatedly tell us we shouldn’t. So of course when I got on the phone with Shaw, that was the first thing I told him.
MERCURY: I don’t know if she was talking to a friend in the stalls. There didn’t seem to be anyone.
DASH SHAW: What? That’s amazing! What a strange thing to say.
Yeah just, “I could see a Q-tip at my house!” Maybe she was angry because people get angry when they’re afraid. After spending an hour getting entrenched in your movie’s 2-D world, I will admit that suddenly seeing a huge, real Q-tip on the screen was terrifying.
I thought the Q-tip would do a few things. One, what you said—be shocking and disruptive. Two, I knew the Q-tip would look really good on a long horizontal screen. When you scan a Q-tip, it’s just a shape, so I hoped for a second it might not even look like an actual object. It might just look like a shape. It’s part of the sensibility of the movie where I’m trying to make small, abstract things very exciting.
I love how the lunch lady character has these gradually ramping up super powers. At first she’s in the background. Then you find out she’s been putting stuff in the cafeteria food to make the kids really strong. Then by the end she can fly.
I took that from my younger self. I looked back at the comics I made in high school and, for whatever reason, there were a lot of lunch ladies in there.
“There’s an assumption with movies that the main character is the perspective of the audience but, in my mind, all movies are obviously the director’s fantasy.”
And there’s a high school Dash in this movie. He’s kind of a dick.
Well, he’s trying to warn everybody.
There were probably people in the audience that didn’t know this movie was directed by a person named Dash.
Well, it says my name at the beginning, but it’s true, most people wouldn’t notice or care. I went to see the new Tim Burton movie [Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children], and the main character in that movie is a total Tim Burton stand in—a tall goth kid with a mop of hair that’s lonely and wandering around. When I was leaving the theater, I was thinking, “What if that person was named Tim Burton?”
There’s an assumption with movies that the main character is the perspective of the audience but, in my mind, all movies are obviously the director’s fantasy. We know that George Lucas created Indiana Jones and George Lucas loved archeology, but if he named that character George Lucas, he’d have crossed a line.
In a comic, it doesn’t seem strange to have a character that has the author’s name. The joke of an autobio comic is that the person is obviously altering reality to favor them. It’s like the long exhale of Justin Green or Julie Doucet. When I read autobio comics they always seem like they’re more about the cartoonist’s perspective than anything real.