Swallow Me Whole
Written and Drawn by Nate Powell
Top Shelf Productions, 216 pages, hardcover, $19.95 US
The opening pages immediately set the tone: on a black background, a liquid is being poured into a jar with a large frog floating inside; on another black page, a tiny gnome sits atop a boy’s pencil as he draws. We get lots of deep blacks, open spaces and unconventional storytelling devices. Panels are broken up or omitted as needed. Drawings often bleed off the page. Lettering takes on its own expressive life. We are able to read only up to what we would naturally hear in a conversation.
The art is as beautiful and lyrical as the writing. Powell’s love and skill with drawing takes him to high places, allowing him to shift and play with style, from cartoony to more realistic. In his writing, there’s something similar going on, dialogue is enmeshed in deeply poetic observations.
The cover to Swallow Me Whole is at once inviting and provocative: a young woman free falling or floating, above a suburban landscape with bugs surrounding her. This is Ruth. She is bright and pretty and full of promise. But she hears and sees things that are not there, although they could be, at least in some sense. Her stepbrother, Perry, struggles with this too. So does Ruth’s grandmother, or Memaw, who is mostly bed-ridden and lives with the family. They each are tuned into these other-worldly visions, visions that could, given a chance, swallow them whole.
In Nate Powell’s world, being swallowed whole can mean many things. It could even be comforting. The profound is sought out and too often found by Ruth and Perry, who are just getting their bearings in a landscape made up of little wizards, frogs and insects, making spectacular demands. Could you blame them if they succumbed and allowed themselves to be swallowed up whole by these mysterious forces?
Here Ruth tries to take it all in: “That thread of our lives is such cheap narrative. Human forms lowly vibrate. Unfixed points do Heisenberg proud.”
Pitch perfect teenage angst. That Powell manages to keep the rhythm going and balance the everyday with supernatural mystery, is quite impressive.
This is a book that rewards you on a high artistic and literary level. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, then definitely seek it out. For some insights on Nate Powell’s work, please read on to my interview.