Seth T.'s Reviews > Swallow Me Whole

Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell
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Jun 18, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: comics
Read in June, 2009

It's almost cliche at this point to praise Nate Powell's Swallow Me Whole, but it's not like there's any honest alternative. The book is just too good for anything else. Talented illustrator? Check. Talented storyteller? Check. Imaginative? Funny? Insightful? Worthwhile? All systems are go. Powell's art reminds me of some delicate hybrid between Craig Thompson and David Lapham—and amusingly, Swallow Me Whole is like some strange cross-pollination between Blankets and Silverfish.

Okay, well not really. But kinda.

By the evidence of prior works (Epileptic and It's a Bird come to mind), the comics medium seems uniquely suitable to the exploration of mental deviation-slash-illness. Swallow Me Whole, far from dispelling this sense of things, works to cement the place of comics as a vessel through which the well might come to better understand the unwell. My experience with those suffering under the fist of schizophrenia is limited to a relative I'll never know, so I can't speak very well to the accuracies of Powell's depiction but to say that it isn't so far from the stories I've been told by my relatives who survived the terror and oppression this one errant family member brought into the family by her delusions.

Often these illnesses are portrayed from the outside, from the viewpoint of a quote-unquote neutral observer. Powell gets to the heart of things by giving us two protagonists, Ruth and Perry (one medicated and one not), who labour under the grip of delusions they recognize to be delusions but have no recourse but to answer to their illusions. What's better is that we are allowed to experience their hallucinations somewhat as they experience them. Ruth's delusions are more intrusive and she embraces them with less hesitation, but Perry's can be no less intrusive and no less compulsive.

Where Swallow Me Whole's real strength lies is in the fact that Ruth and Perry talk openly between themselves about the trials of their own branded delusions. Powell goes to pains to give breadth of soul to other family members despite offering them strictly limited screentime but the real focus is Ruth and Perry. Even though neither has any more experience of each other's hallucinations (Ruth's feature ambassador's from the insect kingdom and require a shrine of physical corpses while Perry's involve a diminutive wizard who resides primarily on the end of his pencil and forces him on drawing missions), they speak to each other with love and understanding. Even as the difficulties of their lives threaten to destroy them and their family, the have each other to hold onto and it seems only by their bond that they've survived as long as they have. These are two deeply involving and sympathetic characters who carry the book on the shoulders of their interactions with each other.

The book's conclusion is going to be the sticking point for most readers, either confusing them into distrusting the book or elevating it to a work of grand accomplishment. I fall into the latter of the two artificially-constructed catchall bins. There are, I think two valid interpretations for the finale—both of which are powerful and amazing. I'm not sure which reading I prefer—each has its merits—but in the final analysis, each shows the horrible power of this kind of disease and how acts of coping on one's part can destroy the lives of others. The climax is amazing and, whether taken literally or figuratively, demonstrates well Powell's grasp of the material. Great stuff!
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