Dash Shaw on Form

Dash Shaw

Shaw Fig 2

My stories dictate how I draw each comic.

Not all cartoonists are like this. Many start doodling and a narrative emerges from their drawings. I tend to have an idea that exists outside of my drawing and then I have to develop a slightly different way to draw to suit each book. This doesn’t mean I’m a virtuoso at drawing in different styles. Frankly, I’m not. An artist can’t change their drawings very much, but sometimes making simple, formal changes (like using a pencil instead of a brush, or drawing 8.5 X 11″ instead of 11 X 17″) can make their graphics look completely different.

In comic pages, form decisions are content decisions. If you choose to draw a character’s head in a large, first panel, obviously that means something to the story. A sensitive, thoughtful rendering of a character’s face counts as good character development. Every inch of a comic page alters the narrative. It’s all valuable real estate. So every decision is charged with meaning. The juxtapositions between the panels suggest unseen relationships. It’s like a collage that you can read.

A cartoonist many cartoonists admire is Roy Crane, who did a strip called Buz Sawyer (1943-1989). I think cartoonists revere him because he has a very literary drawing style. He draws like someone telling a story. He also has a perfect combination of realism (specific) and cartooning (general). It has a matter-of-fact display of a world while also being filtered through his subjective point-of-view, displaying something similar to a free, indirect style. He could tell any kind of story he wanted, either a gritty drama or a light-hearted comedy, with his flexible drawing style.

Shaw Fig 1

I did a comic called Doctors, about doctors who enter deceased patients’ afterlives to bring them back from the dead. That story idea suggested a kind of cold, generic, almost clip-art looking drawing style, and a solid, flat color. It also suggested repurposing, or resurrecting, comics I’d abandoned or pieces of cultural detritus like advertisements and commercial melodrama comics. I wanted to be able to build scenes out of dead trash and collage them to create my larger, alive story. Each page is a different scene, and I designated each scene with a different color, so when you flip through the book you get the feeling that each page is a contrasting scene or idea. The whole book is a collage or a series of diptychs between these distinct pieces, which were each built out of other pieces. So the formal elements of the story came out of the way I approached making it, which also had something to do with an aesthetic that the content of the story suggested. This is typical for my comics; the form and content intertwine, until, I hope, they are indistinguishable from each other.


Dash Shaw is a cartoonist and animator whose graphic novel New School was named one of the best books of the year by NPR.  His other recent books include Doctors, BodyWorld and Bottomless Belly Button.  His animated works include Wheel of Fortune, Blind Date 4, the Sigur Ros video and Sundace selection Seraph, and the IFC series The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century AD. dashshaw.tumblr.com