CINEMATIC IS OFTEN A FRAUGHT TERM when used to describe comics. On the one hand, it can aptly express a story’s visual syntax (close-ups, jump cuts, dissolves); applied a different way, however, it derogatorily suggests that a series of panels are ready-made storyboards. But for a cartoonist like Dash Shaw, who revels in drawing’s fluidity and expressive imperfections, the transition between comics and animation is a natural one. His splendid four-part animated web series for IFC.com, The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D., underscores what’s best about all of his work—its eclecticism and intimate drama.
The quartet of short films (hand-drawn by Shaw and Jane Samborski, with a score by James Lucido) concerns Rebel X-6, member of an antidroid organization that opposes the prevalence of droids in all areas of society. He is sent on assignment, at the request of an artist’s guild, to pose as a nude-model droid for a life-drawing class, where students aren’t allowed to sketch live people. Shaw emphasizes the body—using its inescapable physicality to examine our perception of what is “natural”—and the complex sense of self that he so delicately explored in his 2008 graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button (in particular with the character Peter, whose feelings of outsiderness are represented by his frog head). These explicitly human characteristics threaten to undo Rebel X-6’s mission: Droids don’t sweat, cry, or develop erections, and when he undresses, he finds himself laid bare.
With a few exceptions, language is largely expressed through thought bubbles and intertitles. In the film’s wonderful abstract sequences, Shaw lets loose from the mapping and diagramming that characterizes Bottomless Belly Button. The movement of color and form recalls early-twentieth-century abstract film: Walter Ruttmann, Oskar Fischinger, Viking Eggeling. There are also evocations of Jeremy Blake’s color gradations from Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and frames that resemble animated Rothkos. It’s refreshing to watch a film that so embraces animation’s foundation in drawing and painting. As a lesson, in both form and content, about the natural over the artificial, Shaw’s first animated series offers much about film’s potential for spontaneity—or life as we live it.