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Swallow Me Whole is a very effective and engaging piece of work written and drawn by Nate Powell and published at the end of 2008 by Top Shelf Productions. It’s one of the best graphic novels that I’ve read in a long time and I’m glad that I picked it up on a whim from my library.  I’ll be purchasing the book later in hopes of analyzing the symbolic imagery after some study, and to monetarily support Nate Powell, a content creator I feel 100% comfortable with propping up.  Here’s the review.

Plot Summary:

Ruth and Perry are step siblings who both experience hallucinogenic mental disorders.  Ruth’s gets more focus, she’s obsessive compulsive and schizophrenic and Perry is schizophrenic and hears compelling voices, which manifest as a wizard on the end of his pencil.  They live with their respective parents and Ruth’s grandmother, who also appears to have had visions in the past and these are starting to continue. The bulk of the story deals with Ruth and Perry’s adolescence, and the separate moments where they are taken to a doctor to get a diagnosis about their condition.  Ruth is correctly diagnosed, but Perry ‘s condition is overlooked as normal.  Life continues for them, until Ruth’s condition begins to cause more problems in her daily life.

Visuals:

There are multiple literal and metaphorical symbols for mental disorders, as well as mental health.  The book utilizes its large page size to its full advantage, and Powell tries out a number of visual quirks to communicate different concepts.  Much like Unlikely, the text is handwritten, but the neatness of the text and its size depends on how loud, clear or relevant the actual dialogue is.  He also abandons the use of panels at times, sometimes to depict scenes that take place in the past, for establishing shots, and for the book’s numerous full page spreads, filled with horrifying negative space.

Size and detail is also an important part of the illustration composition.  There are several moments where a small, dwindling, but very important detail is the subject of a frame, and you have to look carefully to find it.  The book incorporates several moment to moment frame transitions that become subject to subject upon examination and a second read.  The character designs aren’t extraordinary in and of themselves, but given how well the characters are fleshed out in a relatively short time, they’ll stick with me. I will likely be doing an essay on the visual symbolism in this book, so there’s a lot more to chew on should you decide to check it out.

Themes:

Many of the thematic elements are expressed visually, and the final theme that book rests on is sobering and horrifying in both its implications and execution.  It can however, serve as a point of empathy for those with mental illness and helps to lighten the stigma surrounding neurological conditions. Familial elements are also handled in a far more realistic and less conventional manner than they normally are.  I was unsettled but ultimately very satisfied with how committed the author is to depicting the problems his characters go through.

Overall:

I was extremely engaged while reading this book and I could tell it was going to be a winner after the introductory section.  Nate Powell appears to be the type who tackles very deep and disturbing subjects against a back drop of a rural to suburban setting in the deep south, based on his other book, Any Empire.  I have read a number of southern authors who have a similar method and setting, what with being a deep southerner who had a number of English major friends and read a number of his English professors’ works, so Powell’s tone and setting are very familiar to me.  His willingness to give voice to people who are classically misunderstood also gives him a number of points from me. Swallow Me Whole On Amazon:

Swallow Me Whole

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