Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review: Swallow Me Whole

Nate Powell sure can draw. At the risk of diminishing the writing portion of his new graphic novel Swallow Me Whole (Top Shelf), or the storytelling skill involved in placing the images on the page and gently drawing the reader's eye across them, it's Powell's ability to draw that really sticks out in my mind after having read his book.

He has a definite style, the sort you'd probably be able to pick out of a line-up with a bunch of other artists art (Craig Thompson's about the only artist whose style I might mix up with Powell's in such a theoretical line-up), and yet his style is very much in service of the story, so that you're not thinking about the way Powell draws teeth or eyes as much as you're thinking about the character and what they're up to.

The settings, the backgrounds, the furniture, the vehicles,the clothing...all seem right or true, if not exactly always representational. That is, the high school looks like a high school, the hospital room looks like a hospital room, the tennis shoes look like tennis shoes, but they don't look like labored-over life drawings (if that makes sense).

So as a work of pure craft, Swallow Me Whole is a great book. Powell's style is fairly distinct and has personality, but it's not flashy or overpowering. The drawings are great, and, individually, are worth a look, just to see how he moves his pen around the page and builds the settings and characters of his story, line by line.

I suppose this sounds like I'm winding up for a "but" here, but I'm really not—in addition to drawing really well, Powell also makes pretty damn good comics.

The story opens in a hospital room in a small town setting that could be pretty much anywhere, I suppose (it looked like the Ohio I grew up in; Powell was born in Arkansas and makes his home in Indiana). Two children are brought to visit their grandmother, or "Memaw," who seems to be on her deathbed. Flash-forward to a few years, and the two children—Perry and Ruth—are adolescents, each struggling with mental illnesses.

Perry imagines a little wizard pencil topper talking to him and assigning him "missions" of things to draw, which he is compelled to obey, no matter where he is or what he's doing. She worries about stepping on insects to the point that walking outside can be difficult, has some OCD tendencies, and has visual and audio hallucinations involving insects.

Memaw, who hasn't actually died yet, now lives with them, sleeping on their couch. She too has mental issues—not simply related to her age, but she's always had them.

The story follows the kids, particularly Ruth, as they face standard coming-of-age issues, severely complicated by their mental problems, and their inability to truly understand them, or to be understood because of them.

Mental illness is a pretty difficult subject to tackle in any fictional medium, as there's an incredible danger of romanticizing it, or exploitatively milking it for the drama that seems inherent in it. It's a danger that creators succumb to far too often, which may be a symptom of too many writers, artists, directors and actors learning finding being more influenced by other writers, artists, directors and actors then by reality (and that could very well be a symptom of the stigma mental illness has had for so long; its realities have been kept in the shadows to such a degree that the current generation is the first to really grow up in a world where mental illness is something openly discussed everywhere).

Powell's treatment of the subject rings true, particularly the confusion. The kids and their parents are know things are wrong, but not always what is wrong or why, or how to deal with it. He conveys that confusion to the reader, allowing us to share in it. There are relatively few signals of what is meant to be real and what isn't meant to be real; what is Powell chronicling an event as it appears to a character, and what is an artist-ly trick.

For example, at one point, Memaw discusses her life as a young woman, and we see a young version of her in a sort of halo, where she was just sitting, her extremities still those of an old lady, but her face and torso that of a young woman. Is this simply the way Powell decided to draw this scene? Or is this the way Ruth sees her grandmother at that moment? Is it Ruth's imagination or is that the information as her brain in processing it? Or did her grandmother just literally transfigure?

I'm not sure resolving such questions are all that important, as the ambiguity seems part and parcel to the story and its subject matter (not to mention its haunted, elegiac tone), although readers could certainly have those sorts of Donnie Darko-esque "Is it all in the character's head?" sort of discussions, if so inclined. This ambiguity ramps up throughout the book until the climax and denouement, where Ruth's hallucinations seem to have become literally real, but given her earlier discussions of giving into rather than fighting them, Powell doesn't really make a stand on what's real and what isn't, what's symbolism and what's

The result is a pretty challenging story that is as effective as it is affecting. Not to mention really well drawn.

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