Thursday, July 1, 2010

Comics: Swallow Me Whole ***/****

Title: Swallow Me Whole
Author: Nate Powell

Winner of the 2009 Eisner for Best New Graphic Novel, Swallow Me Whole has been marketed as Young Adult, and I'm exceedingly grateful for that. It might seem like an obvious choice given the ages of its teenaged protagonists, step-siblings Ruth and Perry, but the novel deals pretty heavily with serious mental illness. Speaking as someone who's been close to these issues in the past, I wish that I had had a book like this as a teenager, and that there were more of its kind.

Ruth and Perry dwell in an importantly-ordinary, Christian-leaning community, and have an importantly-ordinary family. Their interior lives are far from ordinary, however: serious-minded Ruth is obsessed with insects and hallucinates talking swarms of cicadas; awkward Perry sees a wizard balanced on the end of his eraser who urges him to draw. The delusions seem to run in the family, as their dying grandmother reveals to Ruth that she's had visions, too, that led to a lifetime of painting strange, ghostlike flying blobs with gaping mouths.

Memaw's deterioration hangs over the story even as Ruth and Perry grow up before our eyes and stretch their arms toward adulthood. Aside from each other, they don't get much help with their visions and visitors. Ruth does wind up on medication after going into a fugue state at school that's at first is mistaken for drug use, but when Perry nervously reveals the source of his wizard drawings to a family doctor, though, his concerns are brushed aside as "stress." It becomes an increasingly difficult struggle for these two to just get through the day, and for one of them that struggle careens downhill.

Powell carefully allows us to see Ruth and Perry's hallucinations, but to experience them as well. His use of unconventional and sometimes confusing panel sizes and placement detaches us, finger by gripping finger, from reality and makes it painfully clear how difficult it can be to live with mental illness. It seems easy to say that a tiny talking wizard is absurd and fantastical; but as the teens' problems are misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and even encouraged by their delusional grandmother, one can see the solid ground of their lives falling out from underneath Ruth and Perry, until they float through the dark swirl of Powell's artwork.

The ending, which I shan't spoil here, drives this point home. Something happens that makes us question whether Ruth's delusions were real after all. It throws the reader into a level of ambiguity and uncertainty that mimics, but likely cannot even come close to, the experience of living with an altered mind.

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