Due from JRP/Ringier at the end of October, My Mirage collects in book form all but a score of the 170 works—in drawing, silkscreen, photography, painting, sculpture and film, dating from 1986 to 1991—by which artist Jim Shaw has illuminated the gradual transformation of a fictional middle-American kid named Billy from anxiety-ridden schoolboy to steely-eyed televangelist. Set in the 1960s and '70s, the project is both a painful coming-of-age story and an astounding catalogue of literary and artistic genres high and low.
It is also, loosely speaking, a graphic novel. Billy's tale is gradually divulged in five chapters detailing his juvenile years, sexual awakening, drug-addled teens, fascination with religious cults and sudden emergence as a born-again Christian. This narrative armature provides the pretext for Shaw's exercises in vernacular style: part homage, part send-up, they illustrate Billy's journey elliptically, in a range of idioms that reflect his changing tastes and those of his period in pop-cultural history.
Early in the book, the young man-blond, blue-eyed and appearing slightly demonic-leers from the cover of a movie-monster magazine in Billy's Self-Portrait I (1987). One hundred eighty-one pages later is Billy's Self-Portrait V (1989). Rendered in Shaw's deliberately hackneyed thrift-store manner, our protagonist gazes heavenward—older, harder and, as evidenced by a gently insistent aura, profoundly "experienced."
In the intervening pages, Shaw careens among the styles of such great illustrators as Charley Harper, Basil Wolverton, Frank Frazetta, and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth to others far more recondite to the anonymous: designers of board games (Snakes and Ladders, 1990), novelties (Bubble Gum Cards, 1991) and spiritual kitsch (Billy's Shelf of Religious Statues, 1990).
There are high-art references, too. The work of William Blake, M.C. Escher, and Max Ernst—artists much in vogue during the psychedelic era—insinuate themselves into Billy's visual imagination. I Dreamed I Slept With the Devil (1988) is a hilarious faux-Rauschenberg in which a Visible Man model shares a paint-slathered double bed with a stuffed goat. The book's most text-heavy panel, The Soft Margarine (1989) spoofs William Burroughs's cut-and-paste technique, scrambling fleeting images of homosexual acts, Saturday morning cartoons, acid rock musicians and dozens of other motifs the reader encounters elsewhere.
My Mirage is absorbing not only because of its breadth of references (Richard Nixon, Charles Manson, James Bond, Silly Putty, Iron Butterfly, Rob and Laura Petrie, Archie and Veronica...) but also its relentless self-referentiality. The yearbook headshots in The Girls in Billy's Class I (1986), finely rendered in pencil, are captioned not by their subject's names but by their religions. The trope is repeated in each chapter; the erstwhile classmates return in The Girls in Billy's Class V (1987), now labeled "lost" or "saved."
The works' mediums are nowhere identified, and the omission at times stokes their humor. The last image in the sequence, Oreo Spiral (1988), appears to be a photograph of a relief sculpture in the form of an elaborate sandwich cookie. Black and white stripes bend inward on themselves toward the panel's center, referring in equal measure to Frank Stella's 1960s "Black Paintings," after-school snacks, mazes and the involute structure of My Mirage itself.