The premise for Doctors would have formed the basis for an expensive, effects-laden Hollywood techno-thriller where the cast engages in spectacular battles for the fate of the world within elaborately-constructed virtual settings. There’s some interplay between the real and the illusory in these kinds of blockbusters. But for the most part, the difference between the two realms remains clear. But for an artist like Dash Shaw, such epistemological plot devices are employed to chip-away at the borders separating the land of the living and of the dead. This serves to illuminate his characters’ own pathetic experiences, desires, ambitions and fears. And this complicates the choices they make when confronted with their own mortality.
Ever the restless experimenter, Shaw’s artistic choices are designed to enhance the reader’s disorientation. Doctors is a terse graphic novel, barely under a hundred pages. Virtually every page is a vignette, which keeps the dialogue short and to the point. And each is dominated by a minimalist color overlay. On one hand this emphasizes the graphic quality of Shaw’s unadorned black and white drawings. But his selection of muted tones can often obscure its finer details. And the choice to give each page a different color overlay forces the reader to recognize the abstract nature of art and the illusory nature of the comics medium.
Towards the end, certain background details and oft-repeated patterns suddenly come to the foreground in rapid succession. There’s no clear symbolism to these objects, just a random assortment which seem to only have personal significance to the characters. It’s fragmentary, subjective, and an appropriately confounding way to end the story.
The book’s titular characters are a Doctor Cho, his daughter Tammy, and medical assistant Will. They run a clandestine business that revives the recently dead. Cho has invented a device he ironically dubs “Charon”, which allows the user to enter into the mind of the deceased (apparently confirming the mind-body dichotomy). When people die, their minds enter a kind of afterlife molded from that individual’s memories, hopes, and desires. This condition is only temporary and the mind itself will eventually “fade to black.” The trick to reviving the deceased is to convince them that the afterlife they’re experiencing isn’t real.
The story begins deceptively enough with the introduction of a wealthy widower referred to as Miss Bell. One day, she meets a young man named Mark and after a brief courtship, begins a May-December romance with him. For Bell, it sounds too good to be true. But their idyllic relationship is eventually disturbed by the presence of Bell’s daughter Laura, who begins to utter several cryptic remarks. Bell initially believes that Laura has joined some kind of religious cult. After awhile, she realizes that Laura is actually an avatar being used by the doctors to establish contact with her in the afterlife. This revelation causes her to return to consciousness. Shaw’s portrayal of her resurrection is particularly unnerving, a horrific process signalled by the zap of a defibrillator. She wakes up in a makeshift operating theater surrounding by medical equipment connected to her by various tubes and wires. The doctors inform her that it was the real Laura who had arranged for her to be brought back to life after she suffered a fatal accident.
Turns out though that resurrecting people has tragic consequences because everyone who was ever revived was just too traumatized from being torn from their afterlife to successfully return to their old self. After witnessing the toll it takes on Bell, Tammy begins to openly express her simmering doubts about the usefulness of Charon. But she’s unable to stand up to her more callous and overbearing father (whom she nicknames “Dr. No” for his ability to reject all of her requests and suggestions). Cho could care less what happens to his patients afterwards as long as new clients are lining-up to pay for his services. But has Cho bitten off more than he can chew when he agrees to help his friend Clark Gomez, a self-centered, hedonistic man who refuses to succumb to a terminal condition?
Ferrying people between life and death causes the doctors to suffer in their own way. Cho has lost all empathy and has become obsessed with controlling every aspect of his life. Tammy continually questions whether she’s even truly alive, and can only cultivate a meaningful relationship within the confines “The Sims” video game. Both have lost the ability to connect with each other and with the outside world. How can anyone remain convinced that what they experience is real when they spend so much time inside their own heads while invading the minds of others? Shaw does allow them a reconciliation of sorts. Even there, the reader is left adrift with an epilogue in which life and death cascade into one other like a recursive dream.