Swallow Me Whole
By Nate Powell
Mental illness is a difficult subject to cover, in any medium. For example, in film, obsessive compulsive disorder can come off as eccentricity (As Good As It Gets), and schizophrenia can be pat and simplistic (A Beautiful Mind). Prose probably works a bit better, with a good writer able to place the reader inside the head of somebody suffering from a disease like Tourette's Syndrome (Motherless Brooklyn). But what about comics? Well, as is often said, comics can do anything, so in the hands of the right creator, all it takes is a willingness to approach the subject seriously, treating the mentally ill as real people and chronicling their struggles (and some artistic chops certainly help). Luckily, Nate Powell fits that description to a T, and this graphic novel functions as a harrowing look into the lives of those dealing with the toll that diseases like schizophrenia take on a person, especially during the adolescent period where nothing seems certain or concrete at the best of times.
Powell is definitely willing to approach the subject with clear eyes, neither romancing the concept or making the characters into raving lunatics. Rather, he presents his cast as a dysfunctional family, except rather than existing in their interpersonal relationships, the dysfunction is internal, messing up their perception of reality. The main focus of the book is on teenage brother and sister Ruth and Perry, who both deal with their own issues. Perry has been battling the perception that a miniature pencil-topper wizard is talking to him, giving him instructions about some nebulous "mission". Luckily, he's able to channel this into drawing, an acknowledgment that artists often follow a different path than the rest of us, to say the least. Ruth, on the other hand, has a harder time of things; she has an obsession with insects and small creatures like frogs and lizards, believing that they are communicating with her and amassing an extensive collection of them in jars that she keeps lined on the shelves in her bedroom. The perceptions seem to come and go, sometimes seeming as though they are all around her, even to a debilitating extent that leaves her rooted in place, afraid that she will inadvertently destroy some of them through movement.
The siblings' family and school life doesn't seem to help too much with their problems; at home, their ailing grandmother ("Memaw") takes up most of the family's attention, and the teachers at school are eager to hammer down any nail that sticks up. They do have each other, and Powell ably shows their relationship, in which they care about each other and try to offer encouragement and understanding as they deal with issues that they don't even understand. But that's not enough, and it can be difficult to watch as Powell puts them through their paces, especially since he does such a good job developing them into likeable, realistic people that we want to be happy.
But when it comes to the effects of the disease, he doesn't pull any punches, really selling the horror of not being able to trust your own senses. When Ruth feels that she can see and hear a mass of buzzing insects closing in around her, it's presented as an overwhelming oppression of sight and sound:
And the way she describes it is compellingly alluring, saying of her collection, "Sometimes I feel like I can open some magical gateway, if I discover the precise order for my shelf." These obsessive tendencies seem awful, but they're calming and reassuring for her. Likewise, she loves the beauty of these creatures, rather than being hounded and oppressed by them. But it's obviously not healthy, and even though she does get some medical attention and ends up on medication, the problems never go away.
In fact, the ending that Powell reaches is almost unrelentingly bleak, at least in my interpretation [SPOILERS ahead]. As Ruth's condition worsens, it eventually brings her whole life crashing down around her, causing her to be kicked out of school and lose the museum job she loves. Her parents, not knowing what else to do, decide to remove what they see as the source of her problems, and go about packing up her bug collection. When she discovers this, she totally breaks down, and the rest of the book plays out in a near-wordless series of scenes that see her float out of the house and allow herself to be consumed by insects. It's hard to see it as anything other than suicidal hallucinations, including imaginings of how others (especially Perry) will react [end spoilers]. It's horribly depressing, even in its beauty. Is it a call to action by Powell, wanting people to educate themselves on the subject of mental illness and ensure that this won't happen to people in real life? Perhaps, but whatever the case, it's powerful stuff.
The interesting thing is, a lot of the imagery is left open to interpretation, especially in the way the illness affects people. One repeated image is that of a sort of anthropomorphic representation of a pill, which we first see escaping from Memaw's sleeping lips. This could show that, since Memaw is shown to have her own problems with perception and reality, the illness is being passed down from generation to generation, although it's never clear who is seeing it this way. We also see the "pill" growing huge and devouring swarms of bugs, a possible depiction of how the medication is helping with Ruth's hallucinations, but in doing so, is taking away something she cares about.
It's all a lot to think about, and the gorgeous art gives plenty to marvel over as well, with pages full of wonderfully expressive characters and beautifully realized settings. Powell really captures the rhythms of teenage life, including excellent depictions of music:
And the interactions between characters seem so real, whether in simple conversations or ones that use somewhat fantastical techniques, such as this heartbreaking conversation between Ruth and Memaw that sees the latter transform into a younger version of herself:
The storytelling is also impeccable, with actions and scenes never confusing, but clearly delivering all the necessary information. And some scenes are lent a page-turning intensity that comes from what we know of the characters' emotional states, like this page from a scene near the end of the book:
It's masterful work throughout, giving readers plenty to mull over through the course of the story and beyond. Powell knows and cares about his subject, as he reveals in this interview, and it shows. He's an astonishing talent, and one can only imagine the greatness that lays in store.
By the way, the book has been nominated for three Eisner Awards (Best Graphic Album-New, Best Writer/Artist, and Best Lettering) and is a strong contender to win any or all of them. I didn't read it before I completed my Best of 2008 list, but at the moment, I would probably rank it in the top five; it's that good.