Dash Shaw Tells Surreal Theme Park Story In Color-Drunk “New School” Graphic Novel

The graphic novelist talks about color as a story driver and the power of ink on paper.


Dash Shaw is no Luddite. The Brooklyn-based graphic novelist serialized his 2010 BodyWorld on the web and regularly posts tidbits on Tumblr, but for his upcoming amusement park-from-hell saga, New School (Fantagraphics Books; street date July 3), Shaw designed a color-blasted narrative that jumps off the thick white paper of a 340-page hard-bound tome.


Sometimes, Dash says, nothing beats a book.

“You can read a copy of New School, lend it to someone, get it back, put it on your bookshelf and flip through it again,” Shaw told Co.Create. “I want to deliver 100% on each of those different experiences.”

To maximize the ink on paper appeal, Dash took a painterly approach to New School’s artwork. “I think a good comic book has to work in a lot of different ways at once. You can read through the whole story and it should give you a ride and also, while you’re eating cereal, you can open up a single page and it should be awesome.”

Color as movie score

New School follows the journey of melodramatic 16-year-old Danny, who searches for his missing brother at the history-themed Clockworld amusement park being built on a remote desert island. Danny’s quest, complicated by bitter Clockworld mastermind Otis Sharpe and enticing slacker Esther, gains much of its impact from Shaw’s sensational deployment of color.

Trained at New York’s School of Visual Arts to emulate Chris Ware’s naturalistic palette, Shaw ditches realism in New School and instead juxtaposes abstract bursts of color against black-and-white line drawings.


Shaw explains, “I started thinking about color as a really dramatic film score where it’s smashing into the content of the scene, like Bernard Hermann did in Psycho. It’s loud and noticeable and artificial.” For New School, he notes, “The story becomes this collision between the line art smashing into these colors.”

A personal take on teendom

Working with gouache, acrylic, airbrush paint, and photographs, Shaw created smears, rectangles, polka dots, and checkerboard squares that jostle against character contours. “I see it as a dramatic color style that reinforces this 16-year-old boy’s high emotional state. Everything’s larger than life.”

Shaw, who grew up in Virginia, drew on his own past as inspiration for New School’s sense of dislocation. “When I was 16,” he recalls, “I taught English to kids in the middle of nowhere in Japan. I had a lot of strange experiences there and wanted to do a book about how that felt; I wanted to travel back to my fucked-up 16-year-old mind.”

From mainstream to Manga

By fusing supercharged graphics with deliberately overwrought rhetoric, New School visualizes the imagination of unhinged youth with hyperbolic verve. Shaw explains that his maverick sensibility draws on a number of styles: “I grew up reading mainstream comics and Japanese adventure comics, Japanese cooking comics, and my dad had hippie comics lying around, so very early on I saw there were millions of different kinds of comics.”

During his student days at SVA, Shaw absorbed additional lessons in graphic storytelling from artists like pop surrealist Gary Panter and Spider-Man illustrator Steve Ditko. Pulling from disparate sources, New School sets forth a rambunctious aesthetic well matched to the temperament of the story’s equally rambunctious protagonist. Shaw says, “I wanted to reinforce this boy’s perspective with this dynamic, almost Manga-like reality where each page is kind of exploding from the center. That’s how Danny would see things.”

About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.