Dash Shaw‘s work keeps moving the ball forward regarding comics as an art form. With his new graphic novel, “Cosplayers,” Shaw provides us with a delightful look at the clash between the real and the unreal. The book promises to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the world of cosplay. Ostensibly, this is a collection of stories that add up to a tableaux of geek life. All that can be taken with a grain of salt. A hallmark of Shaw’s work is that he keeps you on your toes wondering about everything: the characters, the plot, the theme, the comics medium.
Meet Verti and Annie. They are taking a year off between graduating high school and going off to college. During that year, they just want to do what they want to do which involves cosplay and making videos. Annie is white. Verti is black. Both girls see themselves as unconventional in every way: looks, goals, and attitude. Shaw wants you to know that these two are a couple of misfits. But you are not supposed to know too much about Annie and Verti beyond the basic fact that they’re callow and bratty. Shaw’s aim is to provide you with two main characters that are disconnected from everything, including the reader.
Shaw is one of our more intellectual cartoonists, always looking for a tripwire to the narrative flow. So, don’t expect him to provide a straightforward guide to the world of fandom and cosplay. He is mostly interested in playing with characters from one scene to the next and more evoking a way of life than following a story’s arc or presenting specific information. When he does focus on a character’s feelings it can fall a little flat, as when Verti is remorseful for the way she and Annie have been pranking people. That said, for the sake of balance, that is a pivotal moment since Annie has a high tolerance for being hateful.
But you’re not supposed to get too close to Annie or Verti–or any of these characters, right? Just when you think you might have found a sympathetic character who you can trust, Shaw will yank you awake. You’re getting soft on Baxter, the expert on Osamu Tezuka? Well, think again, he’s a fool! Now, hold on, you think the kind and gentle comic book store owner is someone to put on a pedestal? Nope, you can knock that pedestal to the ground. After this comic book nerd gives Annie some of his most prized comics, she goes home and cuts them up to shreds. Ouch, how’s that for a wake-up call?
In the spirit of French new wave cinema, led by the work of Jean-Luc Godard, you can see this comic as a ship of fools out to sea. Each character has their own agenda, their own axe to grind, but no one really seems to know what they’re doing. With these lost souls engaging in the make-believe world of cosplay, Shaw has set up a perfect vehicle to explore issues of identity and self-empowerment. By initially coming across as presenting a random set of acts (Annie and Verti engaged in endless video pranks) Shaw lures us into a deeper exploration. It all adds up to something quite fascinating, with a French vibe.