Indy comic artist Powell, an Eisner-nominee, works full-time with adults with developmental disabilities, which may have been an inspiration for Swallow Me Whole, a stand-alone graphic novel about two teenage step-siblings with psychological problems. Ruth suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and thinks she can hear insects speak, making it difficult for her to walk across grassy lawns but landing her a sweet internship in the natural history museum. Perry sometimes sees a tiny wizard who speaks to him about his destiny, which would be cute if this were a fantasy comic; instead, it’s sadly tragic since Perry recognizes the wizard as nothing more than a troublesome hallucination. It should be obvious from the start that things will not end well. Dark inks and elongated whispering word balloons carry us into Ruth’s world of voices and missing time, while experimental paneling masterfully conveys the characters’ inner worlds and altered states. Powell’s ultimate message remains unclear: Is this a cautionary tale reminding ill teens to take their medication(s)? Or should we take a hopeful message away from Ruth’s tragic story, knowing that one need not give in completely to one’s delusions?
I place this here because I believe this is an excellent summary of a novel that in many ways defies summarizing. Even this tidy little blurb misses so much. Powell delivers a haunting and complicated attempt at viewing the world through the inescapable maze of mental illness. Ruth in particular was poignant in her alienation, tragic in her magnificence. He uses the visual aid of his chosen medium to leave us just as confused, just as lost, just as frustrated and bewildered as Ruth and Perry. His artistry, at times bleak, primitive, decorates the landscapes of Ruth’s and Perry’s world in deep shadows, ghostly gray mists, and sharp lines of light. At times, he erases all boundaries, leaving a page emblazoned with a single image, the surrounding blackness threatening to completely devour it. Sometimes, the nothingness wins…entire pages devoured, formless, empty.
Worth second mention is Powell’s ingenious use of word balloons. Conversations snake through the air in contorted streams, shrink in size and trail away…made pointless by some mental disturbance that steals meaning from spoken words and focuses our attention on the slow disentanglement of our protagonists from reality.
Even though the plots are quite different, Powell’s novel reminded me in many ways of David Beauchard’s graphic novel Epileptic. Both deliver stories involving extremely difficult mental/medical conditions as experienced through younger perspectives. Again, I believe this dismisses the author from having to provide a convoluted (and possibly overwhelming) level of medical explanation, instead allowing us to experience the transpiring events on the same level as the main characters.
Final Verdict: While I don’t know if I would like to add this book to my own library, I’d be interested to see if Powell is able to provide the same level of power and control. Perhaps reading some of his other works would inspire me to want to bring several of his works into my graphic novel collection.