Thursday, December 15, 2011



ISBN: 978-1-60309-033-9; hardcover
216pp, B&W, $19.95 U.S.

Rating: Mature readers (16+)

Swallow Me Whole is a 2008 graphic novel from cartoonist Nate Powell. Previous work by the musician and graphic novelist include Please Release (Top Shelf Productions, 2007) and Sounds of Your Name (Microcosm Publishing, 2006). Swallow Me Whole is the story of step-siblings and their struggles with mental illness. The book received the 2009 Eisner Award in the category of “Best Original Graphic Novel.”

I received a black and white, photocopied galley of Swallow Me Whole from Top Shelf. I struggled to finish the book. My struggles had nothing to do with Swallow Me Whole being a bore. Powell offers dense visual narratives that can be not only complex, but also difficult to decipher.

Along with a handful of young and gradually rising cartoonists like Jordan Crane and Carla Speed-McNeil (who has actually toiled in near obscurity for years), Nate Powell takes an approach to the graphic novel that recalls Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez, Chester Brown, and Daniel Clowes, in which the reader must not only read the text in the word balloons, but must also absorb and interpret the actual comic book art. The art isn’t just drawings; it’s both a narrative and a carrier of ideas, philosophies, commentaries, etc. Through the art the reader is also expected to feel what the characters are feeling, which can be troubling when one is trying to feel a troubled characters.

Powell’s work reminds me of Charles Burns (Black Hole) comix in that everything drawn onto the page, including the lettering, is part of this communication of story and ideas. Because of this, I would say that Swallow Me Whole reminds me of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, in which everything placed on the pages (and covers): drawings, colors, and lettering transmitted stories, ideas, and messages, as well as it evoked sensations and feelings in the reader. Watchmen was meant to fire up the old noodle and get the reader thinking and engaged.

Swallow Me Whole is a sensory reading experience, although I wouldn’t necessarily call it the Watchmen of alternative comics, but could it be… Swallow Me Whole focuses on step-siblings Ruth and Perry – primarily Ruth. They are children of a blended family living in Wormwood, Arkansas, and their high school years are a journey into the dark corners of adolescence. Powell, however, isn’t dealing with such formulaic teenage melodrama as rebellion, sexual awakening, conformity, gangs, or the prom.

Swallow Me Whole is less about the external matters of being an adolescent and more about the madness of boredom and the discombobulating of the interior life. Ruth suffers from apophenia, a mental condition in which she sees patterns and connections in random, meaningless, and unrelated data, data which, to her, obviously doesn’t seem unconnected. Perry also hallucinates, seeing and hearing a small wizard connected to his drawing pencil, a wizard that demands Perry prepare for an important quest. While Perry struggles to extricate himself from the wizard, Ruth isn’t so sure that she should medicate her condition just to fit in with everyone.

Powell composes his art with a quirky line (that recalls Bill Loeb in Journey) and inks in fluid, smooth brushstrokes that seem to pour like batter from a large clay jar. Beyond surface appearances, Powell saturates the art in blacks and shadows that trickle, flow, drench, flood, and finally submerge the drawings. He dots the art with a steady spell of word balloons that combines to tell this story. As I said before, everything on the pages communicates.

There is a two-page sequence featuring Ruth sitting in the passenger seat of a car in which Powell alters the way he composes and inks this page and the manner in which he creates a varying degree of difficulty in reading the word balloons. Powell arranges this sequence in such a way to characterize and shape Ruth for the reader – to suggest her shifting mental state within the space of this one sequence. Powell not only wants the reader to know that Ruth and Perry have mental issues; he’s also determined to take the reader share them. He wants us to feel like them, to think like them, and ultimately to experience a sense of Ruth’s unraveling and Perry’s struggles.

Swallow Me Whole is not escapism because Powell is offering more than a story. He wants the reader to live through Ruth and Perry, and though Swallow Me Whole may come across as too complex and the story so elusive, he is not content with merely acting for you. Swallow Me Whole is about feeling the textures and sensations of the mental struggle. It’s amazing that someone can do this with drawings on a page.

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