Crossing the Empty Quarter

Posted by on December 8th, 2009 at 2:00 PM

Crossing the Empty Quarter; Carol Swain; Dark Horse Books; 200 pp., $24.95, Color, Hardcover; ISBN: 978-159582388

In Carol Swain’s short stories, things are never what they seem to be.  That’s not to say that she belabors a tired thread of appearance versus reality, but rather that she embraces a kind of magical realism even more surreal and poetic than found in Beto’s Heartbreak Soup stories.  Hernandez is clearly descended from the Latin-American tradition of literature and, while the imagist influence of these writers is markedly present in Swain’s work, she tempers transcendent wonder with the sardonic whimsy of her British contemporaries: Martin Amis, Will Self, Alasdair Gray, et al.  Crossing the Empty Quarter offers a long-overdue retrospective of these short comics, showing the cartoonist’s talents in their most distilled form.

It’s impossible not to reference prose literature when talking about Swain, since she wears her influences on her sleeve – particularly in the left-field detective tale, “Come Down Town” which is littered with name-drops and allusions to modern fiction.  Even her layouts owe something to the literary.  While the nine-panel grid is often the cartoonist’s crutch, here, in more capable hands, it becomes a structure to be exploited with its innate rhythms, timing and movement becoming like a form of poetry.   She often chooses to end on panoramic panels, like rhyming couplets, adding a contemplative coda to the pieces and driving home the emotional punch.


Swain may be a Londoner (by way of the Welsh valleys), but her voice and concerns are global.  The tales in Crossing… often relocate us to exotic climes or the limnal no-towns of flyover USA where the uncanny feeling of being trapped in vast empty spaces consumes her characters.  The helplessness that pervades these lives only makes the intrusion of the fantastic more jarring or ironic.

Still, it’s when she turns to London that her storytelling is most powerful.  Dealing with a real-life locale allows her to riff on the representation of familiar subjects.  The almost abstract way that she renders buildings and landmarks perfectly captures the sublime nature of the city in much the same style that Oli East would later exploit in his Trains Are…Mint series.  History and significance resonate through the imprecise lines, and the characters — whether wide-eyed immigrants or restless young punks — seem to feel the dissonance between that heritage and the insignificance of their own lives.

The slick reproduction in the collection complements this innate humanity.  The monochrome stories are never fully black and white, but blended with a subtle hint of sepia that gives the art added warmth, delivering an appropriately timeless feel.  Indeed, it’s often difficult to place these stories in any particular period.  In many tales, modernity often seems derelict and yet the characters are never given any trappings of futurism to suggest progress beyond our current state of affairs.  Even the wickedly funny tale of a future rest home for porno actors shows them put out to pasture like cattle, leaving a mournful feeling about modern attitudes to sex.  Entropy is shown in full effect; the decay underscored by a recurring motif of engulfing blackness — whether the smoke of a forest fire or the shadows of unconsciousness — an unsettling image that invites us to share in the existential torment.  Overarching themes and motifs like this become all the more clear when presented this kind of compilation, as does the gathering power of Swain’s work.

Seeing her art develop over the course of the book is really quite dramatic.  While Swain’s writing has always had a maturity and intelligence, her illustration began with very roughly-hewn charcoal lines and literally stenciled lettering which had a naïve charm, but became more striking and evocative as she refined her talent over the years.  When her work finally blossoms into color in the final third of the book, it does so slowly and subtly — the scenes are tinted with Lakeland pencils in what often seems like a tribute to Raymond Briggs — sometimes leaving contemplative white space to retain the bleak sadness of even her earliest work.


With Fantagraphics’ recent release of Giraffes in my Hair and now this elegant hardback, Carol Swain seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance that she so rightly deserves.  She is one of Britain’s most unique voices and, even after 20 years — as the blank canvas in this book’s final panel seems to hint — she’s only getting started.

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