Swallow Me Whole (Top Shelf)

swallow_me_whole-header.jpgNate "Please Release"Powell’s latest is the tale of two young people on the twisted road through blossoming schizophrenia—or is it?



216 pgs. B&W; $20.95 Hardcover

(W / A: Nate Powell)


It’s hard to know what to make of the story in Swallow Me Whole. As in his previous works, earnest indie comix creator Nate Powell asks us to see the world through the eyes of a confused young person negotiating a rocky path. Here, it’s two people, Ruth and her stepbrother Perry, and their twisted road is through blossoming schizophrenia—or is it?

Perry has heated conversations with a decorative wizard affixed to the top of his pencil; it forces him to take the pencil and draw various things that originate from another realm, not unlike the "automatic writing" supposedly directed by spirits. Ruth talks to the menagerie of dead animals she keeps in jars in her bedroom—and they talk back.

It’s a stretch to imagine two teenagers in the same family entering the land of schizoid insanity at the same time, so maybe this is all magic realism? An extended metaphor for coping with the banality of coming adulthood? As in the film Donnie Darko, the audience wonders if we’re supposed to let the impossible become real, or if we’ve taken a detour through an unbalanced mind.

The cover to Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell. Click for a larger image.Perry deals with bullies, a first girlfriend, a changing roster of high-school friends, marijuana, overbearing parents, the escalating demands of that animate pencil-topper, and his sister, who may be even nuttier than he is. Ruth has to deal with a first boyfriend, those overbearing parents, and fugue states that take her far from reality. She imagines swarms of flies buzzing around her, and at one point steals a stuffed, dead frog from the natural history museum where she interns—because it asked to be freed. Later, she loses her cool and throws a textbook at one of her teachers. The teens’ descent into madness is a compelling journey, albeit a pretty grim and humorless one.

Powell draws with the complete assurance of a gifted artist. His skills with light and shadow—a couple kissing in a dark car, a parking lot of cars and long shadows, and so on—can make you linger over a panel. He has the knack for facial expressions that separates the pretenders from the real deal. In truth, he’s an artist’s artist. Fellow comics creators will marvel at his decisions to do a page with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 panels, and always in new arrangements. He makes it look natural, but it ain’t random—his panels can float in darkness, trail off the page, or grow or shrink according to the dictates of the mood he’s establishing. It’s a triumph of clever planning, and emotional storytelling.

At 216 pages, this hardback could be used to brain a burglar. It’s quite an opus, a serious, literary chunk of work that must have taken forever to disgorge. It’s loaded with the sort of idiosyncratic touches that advise a second reading to fully understand. In particular, the ending is lyrical and strange and forces you to reconsider the entire experience of the book.

In the author’s notes, Powell mentions that he’s a vegetarian. It made me wonder if there was a covert pro-animal agenda here, with talking dead frogs asking to be heard, and Ruth trying to avoid stepping on bugs in the woods, and so on. Then, too, Powell works with the developmentally disabled, and he’s addressed issues pertaining to mental illness in earlier works, too. Maybe Ruth and Perry are sick like Powell’s charges are sick, and ultimately, like society is a sick place. In the end, many questions of meaning are left open-ended, like a comic book transformed into an ambiguous, powerful poem. | Byron Kerman

Learn more at www.topshelfcomix.com.

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