Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Swallow Me Whole, written & drawn by Nate Powell and published by Top Shelf Comics, is a heart-rending, engaging, affecting work, fully deserving of the accolades it has received. Powell’s storytelling is quiet and serene, lulling the audience into a strange sense of comfort while subtly drawing one deeper into the narrative until becoming fully absorbed by this world between the covers.

Swallow Me Whole
is the story of Ruth and Perry, step-siblings each dealing with mental illness (schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder) in their own way, while also leaning on each other for comfort and understanding. Ruth is obsessed with insects – they talk to her – and she collects specimens from her school (taking them home without permission), organizing them on her shelf in an attempt to gain some control over her life. Her perspective on the world is unique. Speaking to these insects, Ruth has a greater appreciation for their presence within the world and, when the insects’ voices become louder (often during times of personal stress), Ruth works to navigate through the world in a more cautious fashion, trying not to step on any of the myriad insects that fall across her path in the course of a day. It is overwhelming for her.

Perry, on the other hand, sees a wizard on the end of his pencil. This wizard speaks to Perry – giving him regular missions to carry out – and the only way for him to make the wizard go away is to draw for it. Perry fills sketchbooks with his art – a creativity born of his illness and a metaphor for artistic creation, as well as a literal commentary on many famous artists in human history (Van Gogh obviously comes to mind).

The children’s situation is compounded by the stress of caring for their Memaw – their grandmother whose discharge from the hospital opens the book. She lives on their couch, sleeping and taking her meals there, and the children are responsible for being with her after school while they await the arrival of their parents. Through this interaction, we learn that the feelings that Perry and Ruth are experiencing can be traced directly back to Memaw. She confides in Ruth that she too once heard the voices, but assures her granddaughter things will get better. And we discover that, to cope, Memaw “painted like a woman possessed.”

In the course of the story, we watch Ruth and Perry grow up, as they make their way through high school. Each sees a doctor about their problems – manifesting as behavioral issues in the eyes of their parents and teachers – but only Ruth is properly diagnosed, while Perry is told he is suffering from stress and that things will work out. It is ironic and painful to watch after traveling with these two through much of their adolescence. They have suffered enough, through travails familiar to anyone reading this book, and it is unfair for those common stresses to be compounded by the quiet struggle they both contend with.

Ruth and Perry persevere, but as they grow older they start to drift apart – each finding solace in their respective sweethearts. For most of their young lives each provided support to the other, offering a distinct understanding into the problems they face. As they move apart, readers witness how one is able to silence, for a time, those voices, while the other step-sibling discovers that leaving the voices behind is not what they desire. And, in the end, the choices made by Ruth and Perry – if they can truly be called choices – propel these two toward the climax of the book.

Powell is an incredibly talented storyteller. He deftly weaves this tale through a number of years, subtly moving from one period to the next without disrupting the narrative flow of the book. The pacing is wonderful, moving along naturally as it enfolds the audience within its narrative, welcoming readers into this world he has created – a world just outside one’s door. And Powell is not afraid to allow the imagery to push the story along, offering a number of silent scenes that are made more effective by the lack of dialogue.

Speaking of Powell’s artwork – it is beautiful to look at, and it meshes perfectly with the story. His brushwork evokes just the right emotion through its composition and draftsmanship, and like the comic work of Scott Morse (though in a completely different manner), Powell’s art affords readers a certain level of comfort that draws them into the narrative. And, once invested in the characters, readers are unable to turn away, even when things become disquieting. And this – a feat that is terribly difficult to achieve – is what elevates Swallow Me Whole beyond most of what can be found on the shelves.

Swallow Me Whole
is one of those books you will not put down once you start reading – I know I didn’t want to stop, even though I had to work the morning I started it. Powell injects very real emotion, very honest emotion, into Swallow Me Whole in lieu of the bombast and hyperbole found in far too much fiction – comic or otherwise. And when I reached the end of the story, I could feel the heartache welling up inside me for Ruth and Perry. This book truly moved me, and that is something I cannot say about most books I read.


No comments: