Huge paintings, five foot square, line her studio, unfinished. Working in oils on canvas, spending weeks on one single image, allowed no outlet for Carol’s other interests: in reading fiction - Kerouac, Carver - and writing her own; in movies, by Scorsese, Malick, Wenders, so many others; in music, nearly all of it American; and in comics, the so-called ‘new’ comics, more personal and expressive.
Back then, in the summer of 1987, London’s Institute of Contemporary Art was showing Comic Iconoclasm, a skewed survey of ‘high’ art inspired by ‘lowly’ comics. On September 12th, Carol joined a workshop there organised by Escape, the magazine I co-edited. Rather than presuming to teach anyone, the object was to get everybody to create a page for a comic to be produced in two hours on the ICA’s photocopier. Carol came up with six silent panels in which a young man finds blissful oblivion in his can of beer, echoed as the city around him distorts and wobbles in sympathy. Whether this, perhaps her first strip, convinced her to persevere with them, she soon found that comics were her ideal medium. She began composing each panel both as a painting and a movie shot. She switched to stark, textural charcoal, in a style that French BD critics have termed ‘ligne grasse’, literally the ‘dirty’ or ‘rough’ line, polar opposite of the overused Tintin-esque ‘ligne clair’ or ‘clear line’ and so much more sensitive and human.
She also found her voice, keeping her words to the minimum, using terse dialogue and silences, constantly shifting ‘camera’ angles and fierce, warped perspectives, to add to the feeling of disorientation. Atmospheric, oblique, darkly humorous, her strips are like glimpses that hint of bigger stories, about the bands and the buskers, the skinheads and squats, the London where she lives, and the teen rebels, displaced, disaffected, outsiders, on the road, on the run, in the mythic America we all know from film, novels, paintings and songs. Take the ‘Way Out’, the exit, that Carol’s strips offer and step into the ‘way out’, (sur)real world that is right there on your doorstep.
In this graphic novel by Carol Swain, a bird watcher investigates the disappearance of a rare bird, aided by talking dogs. Helen is an amateur bird watcher and naturalist who lives in a rural community in Wales. When a local farmer Bill tells Helen that a “rare bird” named Emrys killed himself at Cuddig farm, she decides to investigate. One of the dogs at the farm tells her, by way of explanation, that Emrys “had no feathers and couldn’t fly.” She plucks an old cosmetic kit from a dumpster and discovers it belonged to Emrys. Inventorying the kit’s contents, she finds a spent .12 gauge shotgun shell. Her attempt to learn more about Emrys turns into a journey of self-discovery and ultimately a hard-fought reconciliation with the world — as it is. Carol Swain’s Gast is the rare kind of contemporary graphic novel critics are conjuring when they exult over the promise of the art form— a philosophically mature vision, uniquely executed by an artist wholly in control of her craft. In Gast, Helen’s inner life is slowly revealed through a mixture of naturalistic detail and phantasmagoric occurrences.
Giraffes In My Hair
with Bruce Paley
Paul Gravett says:
A different retro take on the far out is provided by Bruce Paley, whose recollections of rock, sex and drugs are visualised by his British partner Carol Swain in Giraffes In My Hair. In this Hogarthian “Progress”, made up of short episodes covering more than ten years, Paley is our first-person, past-tense guide through a “Summer Odyssey”, crossing America in the Sixties as a wide-eyed, Kerouac-loving hippy. He ends as a punk in the Seventies, shooting cocaine and for his 30th birthday, single and jobless, treating himself to a five-dollar hooker. Infused with the atmosphere of Edward Hopper’s paintings and American urban and landscape photography, Swain’s charcoal drawings contrast nuanced textures and shadows, especially in nature and skies, with harder black outlines for figures and the man-made world. Her characters’ facial expressions are muted, understated, emotions largely internalised, mouths rarely smiling, or even open. Her viewpoint is almost always shifting, perhaps one moment sweeping up into the air, the next plunging to earth, this circling and hovering around the protagonists suggesting the restlessness of the characters’ thoughts, as well as the reader’s remote, voyeuristic curiosity. They say that if you can remember the Sixties, you probably weren’t there. Unlike Johnny Thunders, whom Paley meets, on the way down and then in a dream after his death, we know that Paley has somehow survived to record this frank, unsweetened memoir of his walks on the wild side.
Crossing The Empty Quarter & Other Stories
Dark Horse, 2009
Collecting over thirty short stories, Crossing the Empty Quarter is Carol Swain’s first career-spanning retrospective. The ‘graphic lit’ love children of Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Raymond Carver, Swain’s comics first appeared in the late 1980s, and she has since contributed to over twenty anthologies across the globe. Her introspective, boldly executed, and visually unique works are peppered with magical realism, autobiography, and tenacious punk attitudes. While Swain’s tales cover a wide range of emotions, politics, and societal ills, they are all tied together with an art style that is universally appealing and undeniably unique. Two brand-new color stories, created for this volume are featured in a special color section.
Matt Madden says:
Along with Chester Brown, Carol Swain is one of the artists I discovered early in my explorations of comics and whose work I was instantly drawn to. I love her drawing both for its simplicity and starkness, its line quality, and its always surprising framing. Swain is a master of oblique low-key non-stories that are full of dry dialogue and occasionally ruptured by impulsive behavior. It’s been a while since I went back and re-read this stuff, but I used to pull it out regularly and re-read favorite stories, such as the one I wrote about a few years ago in The Comics Journal where a father and son come across an abandoned racetrack, a relic a former civilization as mysterious as an Aztec city.
Foodboy is about loss and hope, friendship, faith, and bonds that are tested when the paths of two boyhood friends diverge. Gareth and Ross live in a small Welsh village; when Ross ends up alienated from society and living in a near-feral state after an encounter with a visiting troupe of Evangelists, it falls to Gareth to try to help him.
Paul Gravett says:
Carol Swain’s charcoal textures and ever changing view points, circling around her characters, add to the atmosphere. Keeping Ross unheard and mostly unseen intensifies his presence.
Alan Moore says:
Against the starkly realised backdrop of an overcast mid-Wales with its rock-ruptured slopes, its immense Victorian dams and drowned villages, Carol Swain tells the story of Gary, the Foodboy, and his painful friendship with the heroic, tragic Ross, a feral outsider living by choice or necessity upon his world’s most frayed, precarious margins. This is a fierce and touching human story, and for all its finely-observed contemporary backdrop of a post-Thatcher Wales where fragile, vestigial communities cling doggedly to life around the closed pits in the heartbroken valleys, the emotions and loyalties here could be Palaeolithic, as old as the weather-chewed landscape itself. Dark and full of life, like soil, Foodboy is a little masterpiece, a perfect example of what modern comics are capable of if only they try.
Invasion Of The Mind Sappers
A disquieting meditation on teenage fantasies in the tradition of Heavenly Creatures and The Miracle, Swain’s first full-length graphic novel tells the story of Dai, Helen, and Ivan, three friends who believe that the earthquake that rocked their hometown was caused by a crashlanding UFO, survived only by their temporary headmaster. Are they right, or is the truth even stranger? Swain’s brutally honest depiction of small-town life and her powerfully forthright graphic style create a bruising, harrowing masterwork.
Giraffes In My Hair (2009) with Bruce Paley
Crossing The Empty Quarter & Other Stories (2009)
Invasion Of The Mind Sappers (1996)
Way Out Strips #1-4 (self-published, 1988-1991)
Way Out Strips #1-3 (Tragedy Strikes Press, 1992)
Way Out Strips #1-4 (Fantagraphics, 1994)