Carol Swain's best comics pick at the thin scab of civilization that separates everyday life from the wound of nothingness from which we carve out space and assign meaning. Set in Wales, a tried and true setting for literary metaphors concerning Outpost Man, FOODBOY dissects a friendship between two young men who live in increasingly different worlds. Swain eases into her story by showing the almost clichéd interplay between the pair as they hang out with hippies, trade small talk and legend-build, like remembering a time one of them cleverly mocked a preacher during a fire and brimstone speech. When that character, Ross, begins to exhibit odd, feral behavior, FOODBOY quickly lets go of its early traces of picaresque storytelling for a sideways plunge into loss of humanity-style horror.
Swain smartly keeps us focused on the particulars of the "Foodboy" Gary's attempts to stay in contact with his friend by giving him supplies. Becoming engaged with things like how Gary interprets certain clues left for him, how far away he has to sit from his gifts for Ross to accept them lets the peculiarity of what divides the pair sink in largely unexamined. When in the last few panels it is finally revealed just how far Ross has fallen, how he recognizes few taboos and perhaps even loses the ability to tell time, the reader is set scrambling to puzzle through what happened. Because Ross has been transformed into a figure of impenetrable mystery, Gary stands revealed as the story's focus rather than simply its gateway character. After a period of slight adjustment, this begins to feel right. The structure of the narrative reflects Gary's developing attitudes about Ross' transformation rather than the change itself. The big question becomes not what happened to Ross but why Gary tries so hard to hold onto him, what value he finds in being as close as possible to someone who literally keeps his distance. At least one potential answer, "he may soon join him," lingers long after the book is put down.
This is Swain's strongest work in an admirable, offbeat career. By relinquishing all but a sprinkling of present-day flourishes, Swain avoids the pressing problem in past work of keeping the reader focused despite startling contrasts between the modern world and her rough-hewn approach to art. Because of the relatively simple narrative, the decorative qualities of each page and Swain's idiosyncratic sense of pacing can be felt nearer the story's surface. This compels the reader to confront FOODBOY's silences and empty spaces, cold-water truths about mortality and ego that might have been much more difficult to parse if the story were fussy and cluttered. In a blurb quoted on the back cover, Alan Moore uses the word "Paleolithic" to describe what's going on here, and that sounds just about right. Reading FOODBOY feels like discovering left-behind folk art that somehow communicates the artist's eventual absence, a cautionary tale about the vanity of self-possession.
Tom Spurgeon is a writer living in Silver City, New Mexico. He can be found online at The Comics Reporter.