Review: Doctors by Dash Shaw

One of the key tenets of bioethics is the maxim “Primum non nocere” or “First, do no harm.” The guiding principle of nonmaleficence reminds doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers that any intervention they pursue may cause more harm than good. This principle seems to have been completely abandoned by the main characters in Dash Shaw’s latest book from Fantagraphics, Doctors, an oversaturated proverb disguised as a melodramatic sci-fi comic.

In Doctors a small team of physicians has created a machine called the Charon that will allow them to bring the recently deceased back to life. The team does so for a rich elderly woman, Miss Bell, at the request of her daughter Laura (it appears mostly to settle accounts and get her final papers in order for when she passes away a second time). But bringing a patient back from their self-created afterlife has its problems, and as Miss Bell slowly unravels, things turn for the physician team that brought her back to life.

Easy to spot Greek mythology references notwithstanding, there are some really interesting things going on in Doctors. Shaw seems as much a tinkerer as a cartoonist, experimenting with color and presentation. His art neatly references romance comics like Mary Worth by Karen Moy and Joe Giella while at the same time abandoning normal coloring conventions for blocks of deep purple and umber. There’s a stiffness to Shaw’s art, which is strange given the story’s melodramatic leanings. The flat affect of his characters contrasts sharply against the soap opera that unfolds in the story. Colors change from page to page, but Shaw repeats color in small places or changes color to show the reader that those specific panels are in another space, or are in the mental world compared to the physical. These panels and color choices pop due to generally dark background colors and bright insert colors.

The idea of a personal afterlife seems very appealing in a less religious, more spiritual world. To continue the theme of Greek mythology, the idea that the person’s first afterlife is more like Elysium and returning is more like Tartarus feels like a cautionary statement: don’t meddle in things outside your control.

I’m not sure if this is intentional, given the stiffness of the art, but I found Doctors to be a bit stiff in terms of storytelling as well. The story may not be the point here – Shaw seems more intent on seeing if the formal structures of his comic work. Communicating with color might be more important to Shaw than the plot. Regardless of intent, Doctors is an interesting experiment. This is a book that is worth your attention.

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Dash Shaw (tumblr: dashshaw) is an acclaimed cartoonist and animator. His comic BodyWorld is currently being serialized on his website and at Study Group Comics (tumblr: study-group).

Doctors is published by Fantagraphics Books (tumblr: fantagraphics).

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