Review: ‘Swallow Me Whole” by Nate Powell
Swallow Me Whole
By Nate Powell
Top Shelf, September 2008, $19.95
Ruth and Perry are stepsiblings, somewhere in the South – people say “shoore” for “sure,” biology teachers can’t even say the word “evolution,” and the kids’ slowly-dying, live-in grandmother is called “Memaw.” It also seems to be sometime in the late ‘80s, from the clothes and the music and the hair.
And they’re both – how should I put this? Oh, let’s use the jargon – both are very far from neurotypical. Perry hallucinates a tiny wizard who makes him draw incessantly for “missions.” And Ruth may even be schizophrenic: she hears voices and feels patterns in everything around her, particularly with insect swarms. She has a huge collection of insects in jars in her room; she’s stolen at least some of them from school, but it’s not clear where they all came from. When she finally has a break at school and is taken to the nurse’s office, the school cop immediately assumes she’s high and starts loudly questioning her about drugs – she doesn’t get diagnosed has obsessive-compulsive for several days.
[[[Swallow Me Whole]]] is a slow, swirling, uneasy book, centered mostly on Ruth and her efforts to live in the world – talking to her Memaw, getting a work-study job at the museum, trying not to be swallowed up by the massive swarms of insects that comfort her and that may, or may not, be real. (Don’t decide either way until you get to the end.) It begins with a few short scenes set about five years earlier, when Ruth and Perry are both pre-teens and Memaw’s hospitalization ends with her moving in with them and their parents. From there, it’s hard to say how much time Swallow Me Whole covers, since there are no external markers. They go to school but we don’t see school begin or end for the summer. We don’t see the seasons change. Scenes could be separated by a day or three months. It’s all now; it’s all happening, like life, one thing after another after another.
Powell channels the immediacy and tension of a true hallucination in this book – things happen, and they may be “real” or not, but that doesn’t actually matter to Ruth (or to Perry). They have to live their lives this way; this is what it’s like to be in their heads. They support each other as best they can – there’s a marvelous scene where they’re both hanging upside down in a playground at night, talking about the wizard’s demands and how Ruth hears all of the creatures that she has samples of. Ruth and Perry are also real teenagers, sullen one moment and full of energy the next.
All the while, Memaw is lying on the couch, sometimes coherent and sometime not. She has her own secrets and history, as she tells Ruth – and a spark, or creature, of her own to pass on before she dies.
Swallow Me Whole continues like that: circling, twisting, as Ruth’s perception of the world continues to tighten around her – despite the medication, despite a new boyfriend, despite anything. And, in the end, she has only one option.
Powell’s art has immense immediacy and energy, with tight but unfussy parallel lines diving into murky blacks on every page and a cast of characters with very different faces and bodies. (Early on, he has a telling two-page transition from when Memaw moves in to five years later – every character is clearly the same person, but the way they look at and connect with each other is now different.) I won’t be sure what I finally think about Swallow Me Whole until I get some distance from it and can read it again all the way through – but it’s clearly a major work by an impressive young cartoonist.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.