"I was frightened. Every time, even when it freed me."

Swallow Me Whole

This is from Top Shelf, a 216-page b&w hardcover priced at $19.95; it's set to debut at SPX next weekend, and should be available in stores soon after.

I haven't read many comics by Nate Powell, a Meathaus and Paper Rodeo contributor who's been active in self-publishing since 1992; actually, the first work I'd seen of his was his prior Top Shelf release, the 2006 pamphlet Please Release, a collection of thematically linked autobiographical shorts.

Those were exhausting little works, no longer than 12 pages but so stuffed with concurrent and crisscrossing narrative effects that they lingered like digressive anecdotes. They didn't have the texture of anecdotes, though, but essays of self-reflection, heavy with soaking inquisition as to the artist's living choices. One particular piece saw Powell detail his work with developmentally disabled adults, in caption, through chilly spurts of description ("My relationship to power dynamics as advocate and radical is a compatible polarity -- carefully constructing values of self, of property and privacy, maintaining many social barriers, and simultaneously defining clearly my position as worker, exercising mindful jurisdiction over my control and influence in another's life"), while rendering his movement and surroundings in growing and shrinking panels, breathing, contorting time and matching low-detail character expression with heavy-lined environments. His writing is not always so dense, but his visuals are consistently active.

In particular, Powell is a gifted letterer, adept at swapping out 'fonts' and twisting balloons for intuitive consequence; his background noise is second-to-none, and he's even prone to devising simple solutions to nagging elemental problems. I've often been wary of including song lyrics on the page; maybe I'm broken, but I always try to read in some tune, which inevitably freezes my eyes as I struggle without guidance to divine sound from those clumps of words (and they are often clumps), laying tunelessly on the page.

Powell actually overcomes this: his lyrics literally flow out of some source and spiral around the page, surrounding objects and expanding in space, thus acting as a visual element accommodating of the 'tune' of reading a comic. It's so damned simple -- and, stripped of context, obviously not a formal innovation or anything -- but it demands a pliability of form that many comics lack.

(from Please Release)

Still, I wasn't very taken with the book. Powell's presentation had a way of becoming cacophonous (if not melodramatic), its studied narration and coughed-out dialogue and light-to-heavy drawing and swirling effects overwhelming its delicate story fragments; much was thoughtful, but little seemed complimentary. My impression was of some booming talent successfully drowning out whatever experience Powell was attempting to mix; not the worst impact in the world, but it didn't much help the comic.

Swallow Me Whole is a different thing: a single story, far longer and altogether better. Notably, Powell places a great emphasis on his visual craft, allowing his plot to amble along a broad, loosely defined range of time, passage drifting into passage, accumulating a vocabulary of symbols and character traits that demand some attention of the reader in order for the work's power to manifest. There's some good, sturdy storytelling sequences in here, but this is a book of evocation, trusting that its fragments will prompt a growing recognition and discomfort.

As you can see above, the phrase "swallow me whole" also appeared in Powell's prior comic, as an especially angsty declaration of being absorbed by doubt. Here it's far more dire a sentiment (and understandably overarching, being the title and all). Step-siblings Ruth and Perry are very close, both in the sense that they care for each other dearly, and that they share certain problems. Perry sometimes sees and hears a little wizard that urges him to embark on "missions," mostly resulting in detailed, compulsive drawings.

Meanwhile, Ruth can easily burn away some time arranging and rearranging and sorting and composing and lining up and arranging and rearranging her beloved insect collection, when she's not fretting over stepping on living things while walking around, or envisioning cicadas chasing and surrounding her. She sees her bugs as diplomats, calling from their jars to their families; she has the impression that she can open a gate to a new world by lining up the perfect congress, although she concedes inside that her control over the bugs affords her such control over an aspect of life that she can dissolve into it, reaching a terrifying peace. Her characteristics aren't original - her frail, terminally ill grandma also wasn't quite well, but she channeled her troubles into art, as Perry does, despite any apparent genetic precedent for his condition.

All of these people are just that; we glimpse Ruth and Perry as young kids, then follow them around in high school as they get part-time jobs, pick up boyfriends and girlfriends, forge identities, fool around and all that. But Perry seems to grow away from his condition, while Ruth does not.

There's a lot going on in this book, much of it conveyed through Powell's visuals. He's great with little details, from a tiny pain star floating up from an angry mom pulling her kid's arm to a teenager wearing the same shirt to bed she wore around in public as a younger girl. His grasp of adolescent boredom/confusion is impressive, with odd fights cropping up and worst enemies transitioning to good friends.

He's also excellent at whipping up sheer discomfort, much of it coming from that slow teenage realization that adult authority figures can be frail and erroneous people, prone to saying stupid and wrong things - this culminates in a nervous classroom confrontation, during which you will feel the sinking sensation that crops up when someone important-to-the-room says or does something obviously awful, followed by the horror of someone else standing up and reacting in a manner that can only hurt them for their good intentions. And Powell makes sure to muster the feeling toward the end of a broader stretch of emotion, that of tight siblings naturally drifting apart as they grow up, values changing; there's even the hint of one afflicted party maybe wondering why the other can't just pack the voices and art supplies up and pull herself together.

It's moving, because Powell is good with moments, and he builds a warm, familial affection among his lead characters. Yet this doesn't aim to be a purely 'realistic' comic; Powell's stretching pages -- oscillating between splashes and dense panel arrangements so as to make his canvas seem especially big -- accommodate all sorts of visions and techniques, from those curling lyrics and enveloping background conversations, to canny flourishes like a man's arm obscuring a word balloon as he slams it on a desk, to menacing/revealing flights of fancy, sometimes teetering on the obvious. I could have done without grandma literally becoming young as she speaks of her past, or young Ruth's speech on the dissolving power of rearranging things actually dissolving her into abstract swirls.

Moreover, as attractive as Powell's visions can be, they can prove distractingly obtuse for a book that leans so heavily on accumulation for its power. Cicadas are a potent traditional symbol of nonchalance, which Powell deftly uses as an accompaniment for youthful drifting, even as he plays up the plague-like, swarming aspect of the creatures as a broader potential for illness. A bullfrog is later introduced for additional conflict, a beastie primed perfectly for swallowing: problems, reality, etc. But Powell can't quite restrain himself, throwing in a little monster that apparently serves as the drifting conscious, or possibly the very force of lucidity, incarnated as a cartoon ghost; it eventually disappears from the story, as ghosts tend to do.

Another odd sight, but it seems collateral, threatening to overstuff the work, much as stacked visual elements made Please Release to clatter 'till distraction.

But Swallow Me Whole undoubtedly has the swarm force of its moments behind it, and Powell's able uses of formal elements. And his last 40 pages, a rightly bravura display of pounding cartoon force in which most prior symbols smash against another in a Big Crunch of consummation and consumption, as the work runs screaming into sheer metaphor, a true askew plane like some had been reaching for. It's logical, but visceral, filled with potent horror imagery "all falling into a clean, final order," in grandma's words.

It's surely the best thing in this book, ably building from what's gone before; there's sadness, resignation and purpose. Devotion. I'd even call it beautiful, in that Powell doesn't lose his grip on bond between siblings, biological and otherwise; the book calls itself 'a love story,' but it's rare to see non-romantic love given the prime real estate, and valuable to witness it evoked with enough might that it makes so many insects and creatures slightly radiant. If Powell's prior work stated a desire to swallow him in himself, this one aims to gulp down the whole world. It does much better, but maybe that's a function of arranging the plate in that crucial, magic order.