Bottomless Belly Button

Many a young cartoonist in recent years has gotten bogged down by minutiae: depicting in excruciating detail the back-and-forth of a breakup or the mechanics of nose picking. In its early pages, with pie charts of family relationships and a taxonomy of different varieties of sand, the 720-page graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button threatens to fall into that trap and entirely vanish into creator Dash Shaw's navel. Remarkably, the 25-year-old Shaw instead builds a complicated multigenerational drama and makes a name for himself as a major new cartoonist. The story centers on the Loony family: after four decades of marriage, the parents have decided to get divorced. Their three adult children visit them in an unnamed beach town and cope with the disintegrating family in various ways: by angrily searching for the underlying cause of the divorce, by getting drunk, by flirting with a cute camp counselor on the beach. Shaw's sketchy art can be as awkward as the members of the Looney family, but that only makes it more moving when there's a moment of fleeting grace: a beach chair floating away, for example, lofted by too many helium balloons. And his narrative is filled with small moments that linger with you, as when one character teaches a young child how to make a wish before blowing out birthday candles: "You can't make anyone die or force someone to fall in love with you," he says. "Those are the rules."

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