Monday, September 14, 2009

Impress Me Much

“Swallow Me Whole”
By Nate Powell
ISBN No. 978-1-60309-033-9

Pity the comic book industry. Their most obvious fanbase is fanboys, those dwellers of parents’ basement suites who spend all of their time gaming, role-playing and indexing the latest bit of Trek trivia into their cramped minds. They’re not interested in great literature; they’re interested in being wowed and awed. That’s why comic books and graphic novels favour stunt publishing (Funky Winkerbean confronting his alcoholism) over the politely trailblazing (the living-with-HIV graphic novel, “Blue Pills”). What’s the point in toiling over the Great Graphic Novel – I mean the Great Serious Graphic Novel - when its core audience will probably miss it?
But with even mainstream movies more awful than ever and novels with pedigrees in a collective humdrum slump is it possible that serious, ambitious graphic novels might finally establish themselves as the missing link between film and word? Is “Swallow Me Whole” the best chance yet of a Graphic Novel filling a void created by our drive-by culture?
Aimed at mature readers 16 years and older, “Swallow Me Whole” is about teen siblings pathfinding their way through a minefield of eldercare, peer pressure, OCD and mental illness. This is one heavy novel – graphic or otherwise - and Powell is up to the task of telling its story in ways that are both provocative and thoughtful. Nothing about the book feels contrived.
What sets SMW apart from other graphic novels, however, is that not since Robert Altman’s “Images” has a medium so perfectly conveyed the experience of schizophrenia (Altman fans take note, Powell’s panels even come with the kind of overlapping dialogue favoured by the film director). The visions in SMW fit with their setting and their characters and feel totally organic to the storytelling. The austere dark and whites of the drawings give the effect that this drama about the pressures of growing up is a nightmare in sunlight of sorts. Even better, Powell announces a sense of dread (of the daily grind, the impending hallucinatory episode) with a surprisingly effective cloud of black tentacles rolling in from one side of the panel. There’s just something so…so…right about so many choices in this book that you’re almost afraid to talk about how good it is for fear of breeding pessimism among those who haven’t read it yet.
After a book is published it takes a long time for the dice to stop rolling. Sales have to be calculated, reviews have to be quantified. But for “Swallow Me Whole” the verdict is already in. It’s the best graphic novel since Craig Thompson’s “Blankets.”