This is the beginning of a new weekly feature where I ask comic creators that I like a lot to recommend a great comic that they’d like to see spotlighted. They pick the comic and then I write a review of the comic (of course, this runs the risk of them picking a comic that I don’t like, but there’s so many great comics out there to pick from that I find it hard to believe that that will ever actually happen).
We begin with Jeff Lemire, the star writer of Justice League United, Futures End, Teen Titans Earth One, The Valiant and the upcoming Hawkeye relaunch at Marvel (not to mention all of his past great works, like Essex County, The Underwater Welder, Sweet Tooth, The Nobody, Animal Man, Trillium, Green Arrow, Frankenstein, Justice League Dark and Superboy in Adventure Comics). Jeff recommends Nate Powell’s 2008 graphic novel, Swallow Me Whole.
Swallow Me Whole tells the story of two step-siblings, Ruth and Perry, who are each dealing with mental issues (both have some form or schizophrenia and Ruth also deals with obsessive compulsive disorder). We follow them over a number of years. The book opens with their sick grandmother moving into their home to live on the couch in the family’s living room. What is expected to only be a short stay (due to how sick she is) turns out into years.
Early on, we see that Ruth hallucinates bugs that speak to her…
Comics have always had a marvelous way with depicting mental illness. Powell really captures just how terrifying these visions are to Ruth, while also nailing how her situation affects those around her.
Perry hallucinates that a wizard on a pencil is talking to him, making him do “drawing missions.” The relationship between Ruth and Perry is fascinating, as their shared connection via their respective illnesses allows for Powell to get in some cogent statements about the frustrations they’re going through. Check out Perry’s comments here…
Eventually, there is a demarcation point where Ruth is accurately diagnosed and is therefore able to become medicated while Perry has his issues sort of shooed away (partly this is because Perry’s issues involve him drawing a lot while Ruth’s involve collecting jars and jars of dead bugs). It is particularly rough to see the limitations of medicine, though, when it comes to Ruth’s issues. Her schizophrenia is really not her biggest problem – it is her OCD that tells her that all of this must be happening for a reason. She must be able to control the universe through these messages. It is a belief that will only bring her ruin.
As I mentioned earlier, the comic is not just about Ruth and Perry, but about their family, as well, and the exasperation that they have in dealing with their kids, Ruth in particular. Plus, of course, there is the issue of their grandmother slowly dying in the family living room. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with Sally Field’s arc on ER back in the day, but one thing that I thought that the show handled well was when her son began to display the same mental problems his mother had and Maura Tierney’s character had to now deal with both her mother AND her brother, plus, of course, wonder if she was bound to head down the same path. That familial connection is present with Ruth’s grandmother, who had her own voices in her life. She dealt with them through her faith in God and through her painting. Check out this strong sequence where she discussed her issues with Ruth, as Powell uses the comic book medium to pull off a sequence that I believe would look odd in a movie…
Nate Powell has always done an amazing job with his use of negative space in his works. However, more so than just his use of negative space as a whole, he really uses BLACK well. Lots of black and white artists understand the power of black, but few use it as well as Powell. There is a crackling energy in his blacks. Check out this page…
There is a lot of that throughout the book.
One thing that I liked that I know has gotten some criticism is the lettering. I liked how Powell makes it difficult to read some people’s word balloons, as that is clearly an intentional effect to show detachment, the same way a TV show or a movie might mute out the sounds around someone…
Swallow Me Whole is ultimately a tragedy, so I certainly can understand why it might be a bit too much for some readers, but if you want a brilliant demonstration of the power of sequential art, then it is well worth reading (it also won the Eisner Award for Best Original Graphic Novel, for whatever that’s worth to you).
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