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Graphic novels, all grown up

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Dash Shaw – 'Bottomless Belly Button'

Writing a book can be a lonely affair. One man, one idea, and days upon days penned up in a home office, hacking over words and phrases. For the graphic novelist, things are more complex still: the book must simultaneously come alive in two dimensions. The art has to breathe, and so does the dialogue, and then the two have to complement each other, each panel building off the last.

Such was the task of 20-something artist Dash Shaw, who began penning "Bottomless Belly Button" a few years ago in Virginia, where he was attending the School of Visual Arts. He finished some 700 pages later, the proud author of a kaleidoscopic chronicle of the Loony family, population five. Most of the writing he did in his room, behind closed doors, letting his imagination spill messily onto the page.

"I wanted to do a story that was about characters," Mr. Shaw says, over lunch in New York, where he now lives. "With family stories, you don't have a lot to establish, in terms of background. These are people forced into a situation – forced into one space."

At the heart of "Bottomless Belly Button" is an internecine war among the Loonys – between the parents, who are divorcing after years of marriage; between the children; and between the family and the changing world outside.

But Shaw has a deft touch, and the stories in the book move faster than the bulk of the book suggests: Panels are sparely drawn, often with little movement from one to the next.

"The story itself is small," Shaw says. "I've done short stories where a lot more happens than it does here. It's about sequence."

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