Shaw’s futuristic graphic novel, BodyWorld, is masterfully drawn, reminiscent of a trippy ’60s Hanna-Barbera cartoon. This extends to the four main characters’ names: hot teacher Jem Jewel, ingenue Pearl Peach, earnest jock Billy-Bob Borg and chain-smoking druggie Paulie Panther.
That last persona, a burnout botany professor, chases reports of an exotic new plant species to a suburban community known as Boney Borough, hoping to find his next high. Once he collects a flora sample, he promptly retires to his room to smoke it. Eventually, he learns that the plant lets people stream their experience to others who are nearby. When local teenagers get their hands on it, the community goes into a telepathy-induced free fall. In Shaw’s consciousness-altered future, chemical binges harbour deep emotional impacts; as people project themselves onto one another, they unharness their most embarrassing secrets.
Shaw’s book is weird enough when its four main players swirl around in a hallucinatory ménage à quatre, and it gets downright surreal when a forest fire sets all of the crazy chronic ablaze, sending the whole town into uncomfortable out-of-body experiences. Aliens show up, hoping to turn Boney Borough into an easily exploitable hive-mind, but they aren’t the town’s biggest problem by a long shot. For all his imaginative showmanship, Shaw also has a broader point about the death of individualism, suggesting that we’re all growing into entities that intoxicate each other.
BodyWorld is a mix of darkly funny, kaleidoscopically challenging and eerily discomfiting interactions. Shaw’s raw drawing style – filled out by a simmering fixation on drugs, sex and physical boundaries – communicates an awkward fascination with the incubation of the self. Reading the book will take you on a long, strange trip where the final destination will make you value the fact that you own your thoughts, no matter how twisted they are.