Swallow Me Whole won an Eisner Award and Ignatz Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize when it was published in 2008. It was an impressive debut, and its creator Nate Powell has gone on to great a good number of excellent graphic novels since, including The Silence of Our Friends, Any Empire, and the forthcoming collaboration with congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis March. He has had a variety of experiences, working for a decade with developmentally disabled adults, managing a punk rock record label for 16 years, and also playing in some bands. Powell speaks extensively about his work on Swallow Me Whole in this 4-part interview with the Daily Cross-Hatch.
The book tackles some complicated subject matter, focusing on a duo of adopted siblings dealing with their own mental issues in poignant and human manner. The book is also disturbing, murky, and baffling, an attempt to portray what is going on in their minds via the art and story. Perry has delusions about a wizard who compels him to draw. He tries to drown the voice out of his head or ignore it completely, but these both prove difficult.
Ruth is compulsive and collects cicadas and other insects in formaldehyde jars. They swarm, buzz, and also communicate with her. She also has dissociative episodes where she loses blocks of time while focused on some task or idea.
Additionally, their grandmother "Meemaw" is also at home, dealing with her own dissociative situations and needing looking after. Of some comfort is that Perry and Ruth have each other to lean on and confide in. They are very troubled but loving of each other, and their family does its best to cope with the various situations, even if the tasks are wearying and frustrating. Also, there is a parade of well meaning but sometimes limited figures who deal with the various episodes, doctors, police officers, teachers, counselors, and school administrators. Some are more successful or well-meaning than others. The complexity of dealing with mental health issues is shown in realistic, difficult, and heartbreaking accuracy.
In terms of art Powell does an excellent job performing a balancing act between realism and imagination. He depicts the family as individuals with unique features and personalities in realistic fashion:
But he also shows bends in reality where the reader can glimpse into what is going on in some of the characters' heads, which leads to some strange, unsettling, and insightful effects:
The interplay between reality and madness is what makes this book work so well for me. It makes for compelling and revelatory reading, leading to a devastating and dreamlike conclusion that begs rereading. I won't call the book enjoyable but it is powerful and wonderfully composed.
Reviews of the book point to its craft and complexity and praise Swallow Me Whole as an excellent debut. Seth T. Hahne commented that "the climax is amazing and, whether taken literally or figuratively, demonstrates well Powell’s grasp of the material. Great stuff!" Andrew Wheeler wrote that "Powell’s art has immense immediacy and energy" and that this book is "clearly a major work by an impressive young cartoonist." Brigid Alverson concluded, "This is not an easy book to read. It is a very good book, and worthwhile reading, but it is not a pleasant book."
Swallow Me Whole is published by the fine folks at Top Shelf. They provide reviews, excerpts, and all kinds of other resources here.