Reading Dash Shaw’s latest book Doctors (Fantagraphics) is like stepping into a claustrophobic rainbow-hued episode of The Twilight Zone. This may sound uncomfortable to the prospective reader and that’s because it is. Doctors is not an easy book to read. It’s challenging, not necessarily because of its plot, but because of the relationship between the storyline and art. Shaw’s choices seem calculated, almost painstakingly so, but they are ultimately successful, as they create an enduring uneasy mood which leaves the reader with lingering moral questions.
The story begins when an older woman named Miss Bell falls into a romance with a younger man who she meets at the public pool. This is her first romance after the death of her husband and she appears to revel in her second chance at love until her daughter Laura shows up. Laura is not quite herself, eventually revealing to Miss Bell that she is not actually her daughter but a projection of her memory. Miss Bell has actually died and this is her afterlife. Miss Bell remains resistant to the idea that this life is not real, but eventually begins to question it, only to “wake up” after being revived by the Doctors.
The Doctors, spearheaded by Doctor Cho, use a Charon, his one of a kind medical device, to catapult rich people with unsettled financial situations into “afterlives” which then allows them to be revived long enough to tie up loose ends before dying again. And the track record proves that these patients tend to die very shortly after being brought back to life.
The story follows Miss Bell’s second shot at life and her rapid mental deterioration as she looks for her young lover in vain. Tammy Cho, Doctor Cho’s daughter, who runs this secret operation with him and their assistant William, is the only one who questions the ethics of such an operation. The real Laura (the projection in Miss Bell’s afterlife was manipulated by Tammy) may have wanted to revive her mother to settle her estate, but now she and Tammy shoulder the burden of what to do with a living dead person bereft of meaning and connection in a world she should no longer belong to.
Doctor Cho feels no responsibility to his patients. In fact, he’s almost inhuman himself. The effect of his callousness and narcissism on Tammy runs throughout the book, helping to explain a woman who is essentially an extension of her father. Interestingly, Doctor Cho’s only sense of obligation and loyalty is to his old friend Clark Gomez, a self-made wealthy man, who reveals to Dr. Cho that he is dying and would like to use his services to buy more time. Despite Tammy’s resistance to this idea, Dr. Cho proceeds, even deciding to participate in Gomez’s afterlife to disastrous effects.
Shaw’s storytelling is impeccable. The specifics of the story are peculiar and complex, yet conventional enough not to alienate the reader. What gives the piece a push into something completely unique is Shaw’s visuals. His panels, largely comprised of medium and close up shots, create cramped, dense spreads that do not let the reader follow the story with distance. You are in it whether you like it or not. His line is functional, meaning that the drawings relay what is intended without any frills. His facial expressions and body movements are somewhat flat. But his compositions are deliberate and smart. His use of color is also crucial to the mood of the story. Pages range from deep purple to jarring yellow. Certain panels or images differ from the rest of the page. This color instability contributes to the uneasiness and unpredictability of the piece and is crucial in setting this story apart from others like it.
I greatly appreciate Shaw’s continued ability to craft a story with a high level of conscientiousness while not over-working it. It’s a hard balance to achieve, but as Doctors illustrates, it’s a joy to experience when well executed.