“I feel like the nerdiest thing in the world is to be a jock right now.” This comment on the mainstreaming of fandom is almost a throwaway line from Verti, the wryly funny character who appears in cartoonist and animator Dash Shaw’s two latest projects – on the page and on the big screen.
“The 1990s’ prevailing attitude was that pop culture sucks and you make your own,” Shaw says. “And I feel like the prevailing attitude now is that pop culture is awesome and we’re in a fan mode. That even independent filmmakers seem to be aspiring to make superhero movies.”
Shaw, by contrast, has not forgotten the nineties. The ethos of the era informs his latest work, a new book, Cosplayers, and a new movie, My Entire High School Is Sinking Into the Sea, which will have its world premiere in TIFF’s Vanguard program. Although Shaw has directed his own work before (The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century, a series of animated shorts that ran on IFC and the short dramatic film Seraph), High School is his first feature.
The film follows a sophomore version of Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzmann) and best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts), and is rooted in real experiences – “but warped and thrown into an adventure setting.” Susan Sarandon and Lena Dunham round out the voice cast in a story that’s based on another of Shaw’s short comics from 2009. “It was essentially a parody of Titanic,” he says. It’s a disaster movie, not just figuratively in the way high school can be said to be a disaster, but an actual, urgent, beat-the-clock live-or-die nailbiter.
“The two kind of opposing schools [in the nineties] were alternative comics that were autobio, and boys’ adventure comics, superhero comics,” Shaw says. “So the idea was to combine them.” Like the artist’s acclaimed graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button, My Entire High School is Sinking Into the Sea has diagrammatic drawings, and is as much about the characters moving through the architecture and space of a physical building as it is about climbing high school’s social hierarchy. “It gives it a video game kind of structure,” Shaw adds. “But it’s also trying to say something about high school and growing up.”
Cosplayers (Fantagraphics), is rooted in the same experience. It’s a new collection of Shaw’s serialized comics about Verti and Annie, friends who make YouTube videos and attend arcane conventions. In the story Escape from Nostalgia World, for example, the pair visit a comic-book store and the owner plies them with Jack Kirby’s 2001. They proceed to – gasp! – cut it up to make into something else. “They’re not destroying it – they’re reconfiguring it, using it for their own art – cosplay, or their own purposes,” Shaw says. “Which I think is what Kirby would want, more than it to be stored under glass. That he would want it to be of use to people.”
Verti and Annie’s DIY mash-up culture is of a piece with Shaw’s animation, with techniques that are vivid and varied – stroboscopic animation on a bricolage of airbrush colour gradations, watercolour flashbacks, painted celluloid, even torn construction-paper confetti and sequins.
His stories are based on his own experience in the 1990s, before nerd culture became mainstream, attending “these very small, remote anime conventions at sparsely attended hotels in the middle of nowhere,” he recalls.
One story is set at the fictional Tezukon, where a scholar lectures to a virtually empty hall. Shaw’s been in the audience as well as the podium in those situations. “But there’s something glorious about it,” he laughs. “At a certain point you’ve just realized you’re going to be doing this whether anyone’s tuned in or not.”
My Entire High School is Sinking Into the Sea plays TIFF Sept. 13, 4 p.m., Hot Docs Theatre; and Sept. 16, 8:15 p.m, Scotiabank.Report Typo/Error