Seven years ago, comic book artist Nate Powell had a dream that rocked him out of sleep. He woke up at 4:30 a.m., got a red pen, and jotted down everything he could remember: a house in some Southern small town; a wizard; a frog-human hybrid that actually was a teenage girl. He spent the next year trying to make sense of it. "I stopped drawing comics for about a year and read about a novel a week," the author said in a recent phone interview. "I worked really hard on constructing a well-written story." The resulting graphic novel, Swallow Me Whole, is a stab at something near-impossible, or at least very hard to achieve: a story line that's entirely inside the main character's head, with no explanation of what she is thinking. The story revolves around Ruth, a girl who collects bugs in jars, hits a teacher with a book for making racist remarks, and has strange hallucinations that justify a diagnosis of rare childhood schizophrenia. To Powell, she's the perfect hero.
Powell, 30, has long used mental illness as an artistic muse. He has worked with developmentally disabled adults for the past nine years, has an older brother with autism, and pleasure-reads books on neurology. He's fascinated by the human mind — the aberrant mind in particular — and he positions Ruth as both a social pariah and political agitator within her constrictive environment. In the book's opening, she collects cicada in jars and spends a lot of time organizing and reordering them on her shelf, a process that provides Ruth with solace and security, and shows the reader that she suffers from some form of obsessive compulsive disorder. She's later diagnosed with a dissociative schizophrenic condition that may or may not exist, and prescribed medication that offers dubious benefits. (Her stepbrother Perry, who thinks a wizard is following him around and telling him to draw, is written off as being creative and gifted.) Once she is stigmatized with mental illness, Ruth spends the rest of the book sparring with people who think she's crazy.
Powell blurs the lines between tangible and subconscious events throughout the book, and he provides little narrative between panels. So it is really up to the reader to follow the action and the dialogue bubbles. It's an interesting attempt at making the book's form mirror its content that would be hard for any writer to execute, even in an illustrated medium. Powell did it this way on purpose. He said he wanted to make the story a little opaque, so that readers could decide how they feel about Ruth and how to interpret what's happening to her. "I'm such a word bastard," he explained in a recent interview. "All the other comics I've done end up being these forced voice-over narrators that wind up paralleling the action but don't really do anything. This time I just want to write the damn story."
Thus, Ruth becomes a cipher for what's happening around her, and a symbol through which Powell voices his opinions about social conservatism and conformity. The author grew up a punk in Little Rock, Arkansas and started drawing comics at church camp when he was ten years old. At age fourteen he began publishing his own 'zines, stealing paper and scanning on the church copier, and figuring out schemes to run a small enterprise on his $5 a week allowance. A couple years later he expanded the publishing company to form a punk label, Food Chain Records (later rechristened Harlan Records), to release work by his band Soophie Nun Squad and other garage outfits in the Little Rock scene. He was, in other words, a resolute counter-cultural who chafed against doctrinal Christianity and small-town mores, and didn't always get to challenge it the way he would have liked. In some ways, Ruth represents a kind of wish fulfillment.
You see that most in the book-throwing incident, which Powell swiped from his own life. One of Ruth's teachers shows her class a Baby Ruth candy bar with a tiny necktie wrapped around it, and asks everyone to guess who it resembles. A kid named Darren guesses — correctly — that it's supposed to be Nolan Richardson, the former African-American coach of the Arkansas Razorback basketball team. "That candy bar incident actually happened, the difference being that I didn't stand up for anything at the time," Powell said. "I was in eighth grade; my drama teacher was subbing for my art class." In real life, the kid who guessed right got to keep the already-opened candy bar with the necktie ("that's the real getter," Powell said) but in the book Ruth calls the teacher out for being racist, throws a book, and gets a ten-day suspension. Such erratic behavior is further proof to all the other characters of Ruth's mental instability, although it allows Powell to present her as the underdog we should root for. "When Ruth throws the book, she's making sense in her argument," he said. "She's trying to vie for the soundness of her actions based on reasons." The problem, he added, is that after she was diagnosed with a mental disorder, everything else in her life got contextualized within that frame.
In many ways Swallow Me Whole is a defense of madness, or at least a validation of Ruth's sideways way of looking at the world. "Ruth has religious visions of animal order, but largely she's working with OCD," Powell said. "But because there's also a creative constructive order to what she's doing as far as her shrines, her collections, and her ordering, I think that raises a couple hairs on this town's neck." The book's structure, a kind of surrealist blurring of dreamscape and reality with almost no exposition, is of a piece with the author's argument. He initially penciled Swallow Me Whole with little boxes of expository narrative which he later erased. It's a risky approach. Since Ruth rarely reports back to the reader, you can't always tell if Powell's images depict what's actually happening or what she thinks is happening. Still, the story is seductive and deeply hypnotic, particularly toward the end as Ruth and Perry give in to their madness. Strange animals appear, panel frames dissolve, reality gets swallowed up. It's the kind of stuff that only happens in dreams.
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