Is That All There Is?

The title’s the joke: yes, folks, this rather slim, elegantly designed hardcover contains (nearly) every published comic by Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte. The book feels both in and slightly out of sync with this particular moment in comics reprint culture, in which translations of European master cartoonists are increasingly replacing newspaper strip resurrections as the big news. Europe’s comics feel like a bottomless well at the moment, with every new or reintroduced name bearing whole libraries of untranslated genius still to be gotten around to (see Jacques Tardi and Milo Manara). But then there is Swarte, whose entire career in the art form weighs a few ounces and can be carried easily in one hand, yet whose impact on comics is clearly visible across the map.

Swarte’s aesthetic abides not only in work by the many notable European cartoonists who took up his stylistic gestures (Yves Chaland) and sense of high absurdism (Winshluss), but also in the artists who caught whiffs of his drawing’s cultured goofiness and painstaking construction, Chris Ware, Frank Quitely, and Richard McGuire chief among them. The English-speaking American audience -- even those of us who’ve done the digging and have the Heavy Metal back issues! -- has seen more of the generational roll-out of Swarte’s influence than his actual work, and in some ways that’s created the ideal reader for such a seemingly lightweight volume of complete works. No matter the reader’s feelings toward them, each of these pages has long since proved out as important work. We’ve seen the way Swarte changed the landscape, and even if we haven’t noticed his imprimatur, no less a voice than Ware himself is there in the introduction to point it out to us, and also mention Joost’s pleasant nature and public-spiritedness in the bargain.

The comics themselves don’t go down easy, but such is their nature. Though Swarte’s crisply blocked grids of squeaky clean cartoons are about as eminently readable as comics get this side of Nancy, the multi-layered shaggy dog plots are something else entirely. Is That All There Is? manages to encompass no less than fifty-three different stories, none longer than sixteen pages and frequently as short as a single page or less. The low page count hardly indicates a lack of ideas; rather, Swarte’s writing is committed to accomplishing the same end as cartooned drawing does, squeezing as much complex information as possible into a few small, simplified spaces. Just about every panel Swarte draws both carries on the narrative previously established while also introducing some new plot thread or visual wrinkle of its own, to be drawn out further in the next. It’s dizzying material, comics that demand time and space to unfurl themselves in the reader’s head after they conclude -- woe betide the harried reader (or time-pressed reviewer…) who rushes through this book in a few sittings. As already mentioned, there are fifty-three different comics in here, and they really require fifty-three different readings to yield up all their riches.

The beginnings of Swarte’s longer stories are almost always impossible to recall by the end, and it’s only on a second or third read-through that the subtle patterns and repeating motifs planted in the panels begin to reveal themselves. The best of the longer pieces approach epic status in a few pages: “Enslaved By The Needle” sketches out a queasy, breakneck story of social malaise and transatlantic drug conspiracies, “One Chance In One Hundred Thousand” crams a Hitchcock film’s worth of twists and reversals into that reliable comic-book warhorse, the eight-page crime story, and “Imago Moderna” gives a hilariously grotesque portrait of what life would be like for an average citizen of the disrepaired metropolises looming in the backgrounds of R. Crumb and Chester Gould drawings. The short pieces isolate single facets of the type featured in the longer ones -- jokes or visual gags, an irritating happenstance or a bizarre turn of events -- and play them out into towering constructions, much the same way the best pop songs amplify a single phrase or snatch of melody into something grand beyond its surface.

Though they may also achieve the status of art, these are pop comics first and foremost, as deserving of that adjective as anything featuring superheroes. None of Swarte’s stories, the long or the short, attempt the highbrow drag of the American “graphic novels” that have followed in their wake; they are far too aware of themselves as comics for that, and even when taking on potentially weighty topics they stick to the form’s wheelhouse of raunchy humor, blood and guts, and the aggravations of lower-middle class life. The prevalent attitude seems to be that bestowing the ability to confront life’s darkest possibilities is the true purpose of comedy -- an incredibly refreshing attitude given that most other comics this proficient carry a relentless sense of doom and gloom about them. The frequently terrifying details of urban decay and the disturbing nonsensical aspects of Swarte’s comics are played strictly for laughs, and even in the unsettling moments before the punchlines hit, the bouncy exaggeration of every drawing shines stubbornly on the lighter side of whatever terror it depicts.

Those drawings will almost certainly continue on as the main aspect of Swarte’s legacy, and deservedly so. Despite the addictively peculiar lilt of the stories, Swarte’s epic hijacking of Hergé’s style, perhaps the most recognizable and popular in the whole world, is in many ways the real meat of his contribution to sequential art. It’s the perfect match for his particular brand of storytelling, and even without reading the words or following the bobs and weaves of the plot specifics, there’s plenty to be gotten out of seeing Swarte’s note-perfect Tintin rip turned to making pictures of zombified dope fiends stabbing their pusher for the next fix, or a child’s broganed foot delivering a sharp kick to a pantsless man’s exposed anus as stars of pain pop from the point of impact, or a three-testicled racial caricature thrusting into the archetypal “sexy French chorus girl.” The illicit thrill of seeing such a familiar, telegraphing style expanded into the realms of the lurid and the bizarre is enough to knock a reader flat at first sight, and probably fourth and fifth for that matter.

But after a while one begins to notice how effortlessly Swarte filigrees Hergé’s mannerisms with his own. Deco flourishes brighten up the city-scapes, plenty of Dutch de stijl dots the interior shots, and Swarte’s instinct for complexity comes through in his design sense at least as much as it does in his storytelling. No simple four-legged side table will suffice if a multi-tiered mini-skyscraper can take its place, no simple clock radio where a deluxe, bas-reliefed jukebox can be drawn. In returning to Swarte’s stories for greater comprehension, readers will inevitably find themselves drawn into the absolute wealth of truly innovative detail that every panel is lush with.

If the appropriation of Hergé was a shot heard ‘round the world -- and it was, eventually (and indirectly) providing even such modern cartoonists as Benjamin Marra, Ryan Cecil Smith, and Tom Scioli with a model for their own appropriations of their favorite cartoonists’ styles -- Swarte’s ability to expand his work beyond imitation and into innovation, uncovering undiscovered potentials for the Hergé aesthetic as he went, is that shot’s echo, the way for us to be sure of who fired it. The later work collected here, in which the drawing is stripped down to something resembling the minimalism of Otto Soglow as much as it does Hergé, confirms Swarte as a stylistic master in his own right, his evocation of another cartoonist a mere stepping stone to the creation of a wholly unique mode of expression.

Perhaps confusion is the probable reaction upon finding the complete works of a great cartoonist taking up such a small package, but the likely thought after finishing Is That All There Is? is absentmindedly wondering why there haven’t been more like Swarte, cartoonists who said their bit in no more than a few pages at a time. And of course, there have been. But none of them have yet been remembered well enough or considered important enough to merit this kind of lavish archival treatment, and that’s because the ones who drop out after a few pages usually just haven’t said very much, or uncovered much worth seeing. The ones who do those things need thousands of pages, years or decades of concerted effort, before they hit on their genius. Swarte stands alone as the one who pulled off an entire fantastic career in something the length of a film screenplay or a longer novella. This book is a document of a true original’s contribution to comics, one that well outweighs its fifteen ounces and outstrips its 144 pages. Yes, that’s all there is, and it’s all you could possibly need.

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///NOTE///  Because of the outcry raised against the small page size: Swarte's advice—that because the book is printed 15% smaller than in some of the contents’ original presentation, readers should hold it 15% closer to their faces—proves highly effective. If you’re looking for The Comics Journal’s recommendation for how to easily overcome what some have termed a dire problem with the book, well, there it is!


19 Responses to Is That All There Is?

  1. Interesting point made at the end of the review: when thinking about other “cartoonists who said their bit in no more than a few pages at a time”, the first name that comes to mind is Richard McGuire, who despite being highly influential could have his comics work collected in a 32-page pamphlet (with room to spare).

    Not sure if I agree that Swarte’s appropiation of Herge’s style provided (even indirectly) a model for Marra, Smith, and Scioli. Swarte’s work is outstanding, but that kind of appropiation and reinterpretation has always existed in comics: think of the people who followed Caniff, such as Frank Robbins, Hugo Pratt, and Alberto Breccia; or of Robert Crumb synthesizing the style of DeBeck and other big-foot cartoonists in order to come up with something new.

  2. Kim Thompson says:

    Yes, yes indeed. Hergé himself is to a large degree a synthesis of Alain St. Ogan and George McManus, for that matter. Cartoonists like (longtime Hergé assistant) Bob De Moor were already doing faux Hergé for years before Swarte (and Ted Benoit), albeit not for the same ironic purposes. During the 1970s period of ferment that gave us Swarte, we also had the Air Pirates’ willful pastiches of specific classic strip cartoonists. Martí/Gould must be mentioned! Of course a lot of ghosts, assistants, and “legacy” strip artists did similar impressions, then sometimes interiorized them to the point where they used them for their own independent, non-legacy-or-assistant work: cf. Freddy Milton, who carried his Barks style from actual Barks-derived comics to his own work…

  3. I found that reading this book in bright sunlight really brought the details to life..what a joy!

  4. DerikB says:

    “cartoonists who said their bit in no more than a few pages at a time”

    There really hasn’t been much of a place in the industry for such a thing. Historically, comics are about length, either through time (strips, books, manga) or volume (graphic novels, bd albums). Artists who consistently make short stories that aren’t part of a series don’t have much of a place to go.

    Though I would add Tsuge as an author whose output is limited (and usually short) and hugely influential (moreso than Swarte, I think), and he basically became unwilling/unable to deal with the industry to keep up his work. And in the US, John Porcellino, who made his own industrial support through minicomics, one of the few who stuck with it long enough to be able to reach influence/importance/audience with shorter work.

    Though if you’re talking short work, there’s always John Porcellino. But

  5. Kim Thompson says:

    EC Comics and underground comics were havens for cartoonists working in the non-series short form. Crumb in particular is a short-form non-series guy for the most part (frustratingly to those of us who’ve dreamed of a long-form Crumb original story for decades).

    A small correction to the excellent review: This not nearly all of Swarte’s published comics. It excludes the KATOEN + PINBAL kids’ material, of which there is actually considerably more, on a page by page basis, than of the adult stuff collected here (a couple hundred pages at least — Joost himself is vague on how much there actually is). It excludes a bunch of pages of pre-Hergé-pastiche juvenilia, of which a selection is printed in the FBI-MINI free comic available only through Fantagraphics mail-order (plug, plug). The extensive NIET ZO… MAAR ZO set of diptychs, which are arguably comics just as much as, say, DENNIS THE MENACE is (although does that make “Goofus and Gallant” comics too?), isn’t included either.

    I’m sure this isn’t the last Swarte book we’ll publish.

  6. patrick ford says:

    Gary Groth made an excellent point about the narrative density of Crumb’s work in the ’80s and later. There isn’t a lot of “dead air” in a Crumb story.
    Genesis is that way, even with it’s length, the book has two or three pages worth of visual information packed into every page. Crumb is an incredibly generous artist.

  7. sebso says:

    Actually, three volumes of “Coton et Piston” (KATOEN + PINBAL) were published in France in the 80s, and reprinted in the 90s. That’s kid stuff, for sure, but very enjoyable one.
    Swarte’s drawings are as beautiful as ever and the plots are rather original, full of nonsense humor. They’re clearly worth being reprinting…

  8. Doug Skinner says:

    Actually, Kim mentioned this in another comments section; there’s also a large body of KATOEN + PINBAL that was published in a Dutch kids’ zine (“Vrij Nederland”?), and never collected into albums. There are some richly illustrated kids’ books too, like “Le Tour du Monde de Ric et Claire” that he did with Willem. Maybe that counts as comics, too. I guess you’d have trouble publishing it as a kids’ book in the US, given the nudity, racial caricatures, and other parental button-pushers. But there’s more Swarte to enjoy!

    Willem, by the way, is one of my favorite cartoonists, and oddly underappreciated in the US; I’m not sure how Americans would respond to a reprint, though…

  9. Dan Steffan says:

    Although Kim mentions him as one of Herge’s influences, I think George McManus had to have been just as big an influence on Swarte himself. In my opinion, his clear-line drawing style shows a lot more of Jiggs than Tintin — particularly the earlier strips. Regardless of the book’s size, I’m happy to finally have these strips all in one place.

  10. patrick ford says:

    Jean Giraud (April, 2011): “I have no explanation but I am interested in being alive. No, seriously, staying alive for an artist means to always be in an unknown part of himself. To be out of himself. Art is the big door but real life is a lot of small doors that you must pass through to create something new.”

  11. Jeet Heer says:

    Herge was definitely looking at Gluyas Williams in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Huib Van Opstal talks about this (and other influences on Herge) in his monograph on the cartoonist — which is unfortunately only available in Dutch and (if I remember correctly) French. This is a book that needs to be made available in English. I talk a bit about the Herge/Williams connection in an upcoming essay.

    Swarte did the covers for a Dutch magazine that reprinted Bringing Up Father, which is a direct connection to McManus.

  12. Carlos Claro says:

    One name that comes to mind, when we talk about quality over quantity, is that Swarte “half-brother” by the name of Ever Meulen. More an illustrator than a comics creator but certainly on the same cannon. Swarte is also more an illustrator than comics artist, btw.

  13. Carlos Claro says:

    After pondering a bit, some other influential/important comics creators with a small output came to mind: Martí, Lionel Feininger, Al Columbia, Stefano Ricci… (Martí and Ricci are still producing, though… but the same can still happen with Swarte, I think…).
    There are also some other artists whose body of work is not related with comics but that at some point produced comics (f. ex: Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali).

  14. Carlos Claro says:

    And William Burroughs…

  15. J. Compere says:

    Thank you for this review – and I’ve ordered the Swarte book – thank you also to Patrick Ford for making the connection to Gluyas Williams, whom I’ve loved and collected in, for example, Robert Benchley books, the use of pen and ink and design is forever an inspiration

  16. Briany Najar says:

    Are you talking about Ah, Pook is Here (art by Malcolm McNeill) or is there something else? Anything complete that Burroughs drew (or rendered by some other means)?

  17. Doug Skinner says:

    And Fellini, who started his career as a gag cartoonist, and closed it with a collaboration with Manara…

  18. Carlos Claro says:

    I was talking about Ah, Pook is Here (art by Malcolm McNeill).

    P.S.: Other great cartoonist that produced a small body of work is the deeply missed French creator Aristophane. Despite having published only 2 or 3 books he was already regarded as a major talent at the time of his death with only 27 years old. His The Zabime Sisters is available in English by First Second ( Complementing short stories for that book are available on his French publisher website (in French):

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