There was a time when buying little indie comics pamphlets was a big part--maybe the biggest part--of my aesthetic life. It was the late '90s, and I lived in walking distance of the late, great Fallout Records, and new issues, once in a great while, were coming out of Charles Burns's Black Hole, Chris Ware's ACME Novelty Library, and, my god, even Dan Clowes's Eightball. And when there wasn't a new issue from one of the greats, which was most of the time, there were plenty of other items to take a flyer on for $3.99 apiece, which was how I got to know and like, say, Julie Doucet, Debbie Dreschler, and Adrian Tomine. It seemed like a golden age, although maybe it was just a golden age to me. Or maybe any time three brilliant artists (and others) are hitting the top of their game is golden, and it may not have had anything to do with the cheap but beautiful format of those pamphlets. Clowes wasn't too nostalgic for those days when I got to interview him much later (the economics, for one thing, were lousy)--he was quite happy to have moved on to books (and movies). On the other hand, Ware's most recent "book," his box of comics--many of them pamphlet-sized--called Building Stories, seems in part a gesture back to those days.
I miss the pamphlets (and I miss the days when there was a Fallout nearby to walk to). A few new ones still appear, but they seem like self-conscious throwbacks, not the water everyone swims in anymore. (I'm not sure I know where that water is now. Probably in Sammy Harkham's backyard pool.) But the other day I made it down to the Fantagraphics store (much farther away than Fallout used to be), and picked up (along with the eye-popping Listen, Whitey!, about which I may have something to say later) a little pamphlet by Dash Shaw called "3 New Stories," and it did the old trick.
I feel like I had been doing Dash Shaw wrong. For some reason, when his breakthrough book, Bottomless Belly Button, came out in 2008, I missed it, even though it was sort of my job at the time not to. I did read his next one, BodyWorld--at least I think I did (when I page through it now my only memory is of a vague, and vaguely pleasant, bewilderment). But he still stood out there in the near distance as someone whose work I wanted to find my way into, and "3 New Stories" turned out to be the ticket.
I'm not sure how to explain why I liked it. The stories are political fables, of a sort. The second, "'Acting Is Reacting,'" is, apparently, a transcription of an actual Girls Gone Wild vignette, and the third, "Bronx Children's Prison," puts the swarming, goofy energy of Henry Darger's child armies into a grimly determined jailbreak tale. The first story, "Object Lesson," is the most substantial. It's the story of Sherlock Holmes, or someone dressed like him, being laid off and going back to high school to replace a diploma that has been declared obsolete as part of a vast scam that most of its victims seem to complacently enjoy--the school has such lovely gardens and fancy locker rooms!--and in which Holmes himself, by the end, takes his place with open eyes. The satire on one hand is bluntly declarative--"When scams fail, the economy suffers," the story begins. "The world doesn't need another criminal investigator right now."--but on the other is slippery and unsettling, in a way whose closest comparison I can think of is the Nathanael West of A Cool Million: you are put in a world (or reminded that you already live in one) whose cruelties are clumsy and obvious but also inescapable. And Shaw's style, with its thick-lined drawings laid over often incomprehensible and incongruous backgrounds, matches that combination of the obvious and the uncanny.
Somehow, having found this bit of Dash Shaw that speaks to me makes me think I'll have a stronger foothold when I step into his longer and more cryptic books. (I might have had an even stronger one if I had been able to catch his recent appearance at the Fantagraphics store...) His upcoming one, New School, looks plenty bewildering too, but thanks to "3 New Stories" I'm starting to feel like I can understand a few of the phrases in his strange language: