This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole is a tremendously affecting coming-of-age story, but it is not a hopeful one. Most work in this vein fits a particular pattern. It begins with the protagonist as a child or adolescent, and follows him or her through various travails and conflicts. The character comes out the other end as a capable, functioning adult. But Powell’s two protagonists, the stepsiblings Ruth and Perry, have a more difficult road than most. Both suffer from schizophrenia, and while they navigate their way through the usual stages of growing up--first love, the initial steps down the road to a career--they also have to live with the prospect of their condition taking over and destroying what they have. Worse, there is the prospect of going willingly down a self-destructive path if or when the time comes. And there is always the danger of being misdiagnosed, improperly treated, or an emotionally upsetting experience undoing everything medical treatment had largely set right.
The book begins with the two, both of middle-school age, taken by their parent and stepparent (her mother and his father) to see Ruth’s grandmother in the hospital. The old woman is suffering from dementia, but her delusional ramblings strike a chord with Ruth. When the family goes home for dinner that evening, we see why. The dissociative episode she has at the dinner table is only the start. Later, when she has gone to her room for the night, she compulsively reorganizes the jars of insect specimens she collects as a hobby. The specimens talk to her. At one point Ruth muses, “This has been happening all my life. It’s the only way I know our world. Makes sense to me.” The words hang over everything that happens, and they feel achingly true.
Perry has similar problems: a wizard figurine he keeps on the end of his pencil talks to him, and orders him to draw things. He occasionally feels the need to talk back to it, but, in general, his condition is nowhere as extreme as his stepsister’s. However, by the time the two are in high school, her dissociative spells are combining with depression, and her compulsive behaviors border on the debilitating. Following a terrifying hallucination in which she is overwhelmed by flies, her condition is diagnosed and she is prescribed medication to control it.
Ruth, though, is more fortunate than Perry. A doctor he sees around the same time attributes his hallucinations to stress. It’s a painful irony. Perry can function far better without medication than Ruth, but she is the one who receives it, along with the hope of a life unhindered by their condition. And in the months that follow, we see how that plays out. Perry is fairly aimless, while Ruth begins acting on her ambitions and laying the groundwork for a fulfilling life in college and beyond. But Powell's view of Ruth and Perry’s condition to sophisticated to leave things there. The illness can be controlled, but it cannot be cured. The possibility of the disease recurring or worsening sets the stage for a series of reversals that ends in tragedy. One of the stepsiblings ends up “swallowed whole” by madness, while the other will forever live in fear of the same fate.
The story is sensitively realized, and at times Powell’s handling of it seems almost miraculous. He doesn’t play things safe with a detached perspective or polite, understated visuals. He embraces an expressionistic approach that takes one right inside the protagonists’ diseased perceptions. It’s a method that is always at risk of lapsing into sensationalism, but he never falters. The hallucinations and delusions are frequently nightmarish, but they feel as organic a part of the characters’ lives as the more down-to-earth joys and disappointments. The handling of the book’s climactic sections is especially impressive. The descent into madness is given the pacing of a thriller, and the nightmarish climax manages to be both over-the-top and exactly right.
The secret to how it all works may be that Powell’s cartooning style tends to avoid emphasizing a dramatic point. Usually, a cartoonist’s approach to designing panels and pages is to convey exactly what one is to be paying attention to and how one should react. Powell doesn’t do that; his pages and panels are constructed around the principle of indirection. With many of his images, one’s eye has to wander around the composition a bit before one can determine what element one is supposed to be looking at. And if it is immediately clear what information is supposed to be taken in, the overall page design works against the presentation from seeming too pushy. Large areas of black, hatching, or white distract one from giving a particular panel one’s full attention.
Powell has shown no interest in large character ensembles or genre deconstruction, but in many ways his style is similar to filmmaker Robert Altman’s. Both favor unfocused compositions and staging, and Altman’s use of lavish visuals and sound recording to decenter narrative is remarkably similar to Powell’s design strategies. The audience is deliberately given more information than they can immediately process. And Altman and Powell get the same overall effect; their work has a lifelike texture and rhythm that surpasses anything one sees from their peers.
The foundation this style gives Powell allows him to handle just about anything successfully. He can make the quiet and everyday vividly true-to-life, but he can also introduce fantastic and melodramatic elements without making them feel discordant or overwrought. This capacity extends to the inclusion of abstract and hallucinatory imagery. Both are featured in Swallow Me Whole, and both feel organic to Powell's presentation. The ability to slow down the audience and make them work also gives him a remarkable control over pacing; when he shifts from the more meditative moments toward making the narrative hurtle forward, the contrast makes the latter all the more effective. The technique on display is brilliant, and Powell makes it serve his material all the way through. Swallow Me Whole is much more than an affecting look at growing up, or a powerful treatment of the tragedy of mental illness. It is the work of a blossoming comics master.