Mad Composition : Nate Powell – “Swallow Me Whole”

ABOVE: Flight of the bumblebees

Although increased awareness has certainly led to increased sensitivity, as it will do, schizophrenia in pop-culture is still too often a chance for actors to “go Method” and bug their eyes out while audio engineers up the hiss on their “Demon Noises” mix. Nate Powell’s “Swallow Me Whole” ( a 2009 Eisner winner for Best Original Graphic Novel ) is far more subtle and poetic in its depiction of mental disease, and the little ways in which it can distort family life. Teenage Ruth’s incipient schizophrenia makes her tip-toe across the yard out of fear that she might kill the insects that constantly converse around her; her step-brother Perry receives orders to draw from a tiny wizard who pops up at the end of his pencil. Perry knows the wizard isn’t real, which makes his need to obey all the more terrifying to him. Ruth, on the other hand, abandons herself to escalating fugues and delusions, convinced she’s keyed on to a universal pattern.

“Swallow Me Whole” is somewhat reminiscent of Craig Thompson’s “Blankets” in style and tone. Clever paneling choices take us into Ruth’s altered head. Hard-to-read word balloons depicting half-heard conversations do a great job of sketching the little Southern town of Wormwood through which she moves. It’s important to note that there’s more to this coming-of-age story than some medical abstract: family dynamics, teen angst, sibling love, the neglect of the elderly, an oppressive climate in which “some things aren’t talked about”- there’s a wealth of themes. Ruth is not some vague candidate for the asylum; we come to know and love her for her sensitivity and principles (for instance, she’s the only student in her classroom willing to call out a teacher who claims, in a moment of ridiculous racist pareidolia, that a chocolate candy bar looks just like a famous African-American commentator.) “Swallow Me Whole” has an unsatisfying open end, (imaginary bees swarm around Ruth in lieu of a resolution) but even that might be fitting: mental conditions are seldom about endings, happy or otherwise. They’re daily struggles that go on beyond the last panel of a comic book.

ABOVE: Or is that flight of the cicadas?



One thought on “Mad Composition : Nate Powell – “Swallow Me Whole”

  1. Pingback: Striking Back : Nate Powell – “Any Empire” | THE PAGEAHOLIC

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