Swallow Me Whole
by Nate Powell
2009 Eisner Winner for Best New Graphic Album
I can't tell you how long it took for me to finish Swallow Me Whole. For months I poked at it occasionally reading a few pages before setting it down again. I finally just dived in and went through it from beginning to end and once finished I could tell exactly why I had so much trouble getting past those first few pages. Swallow Me Whole is not about the narrative. A plot does emerge from time to time but this is more like comic book poetry. It's about building a setting on mood and tone. On those terms it's very successful at what it does but at the same time it is not very compelling reading.
There are a pair of siblings with psychological problems. The both have hallucinations and compulsions toward certain actions. The sister is focused on insects, hears them talk to her, and steals preserved specimens from her biology class. Her room is dominated by shelves that hold dozens of these bugs in formaldehyde which she rearranges constantly. Her brother sees a wizard who stands on top of his pencil and demand that he draw certain things. The wizard tells him that he has a special task to do and must obey.
There's a tendency to romanticize these kinds of mental problems in fiction. Swallow Me Whole avoids that completely. These characters aren't brilliant but disturbed; they're just disturbed. They don't have some special insight into the world; they're withdrawing from it for their own hallucinations. These teens are in serious trouble and Powell paints a bleak outlook for their lives. That makes them very difficult to relate to as characters. I wound up feeling bad for them but not really interested in if they'd find help or what problems they'd run into.
The reason for that is the almost complete lack of anything resembling a plot. One quietly slips in fairly late in the book but it is so low key that it doesn't matter. There's very little change in the characters and even with the big event that concludes the book I have a difficult time thinking that anything is really going to be different.
What Powell does do with Swallow Me Whole is build his story around illustrating schizophrenia. Scenes are fragmented and jump around often without resolution. Dialog is squiggled and can be hard to read like whispers at the edge of hearing. The artwork flows around that leading you into topsy-turvey visions. I was bewildered and lost half the time in the same way that the characters were.
It makes the Swallow Me Whole a chaotic jumble and I think that's the effect that Powell was going for so he definitely succeeded on that front. It also helped prevent me from caring about his characters beyond the superficial sympathy for people who were out of control in a way that they could not recover from on their own. Creating a book with the tone of hallucinations is quite an accomplishment but it never worked for me beyond that level.