by Carol Swain
(Fantagraphics, 2004)

Every creative work has a target audience. I'm afraid that, in being read by me, Carol Swain's Foodboy is off that target by about an ocean's width.

The most immediate plot of Foodboy takes several pages to materialize -- forever, in a graphic novel -- but is simple enough to come through in Swain's broken, picture-driven prose. Gareth, a hotel worker, is smuggling out food for his friend Ross, who for some reason chooses to live like an animal around the edges of their village in Wales.

Why exactly Ross and his pack of similarly wild friends have chosen to move to edges of human society is never quite clear. The story is told through Gareth, and he's never quite sure. Through his memories we see that Ross and his friends once had something of a community, almost a commune, already living closely to the woods around the village. How Ross's group survived then is never shown, only their party like gatherings. Talking around a pictorial shrine of their own making, or talking on a dam featured in one of the photographs, the group is clearly bound by Ross's odd magnetism. Ross himself seems more taken with his changing surroundings, especially a once large lake now shrinking for no obvious reason.

Foodboy makes good use of the narrative ambiguity allowed by comics. Often relying on pages of voiceless imagery, the emotional resonance would never work as pure text. The art, largely confined in a reliable grid pattern, is remarkable in its simplicity. The very divided pages are heavy on conversation scenes, with occasional long glances at an increasingly alien landscape. A heavy emphasis on static scenes is enlivened by Swain's energetic line work, softened by the painterly shades of black and white. Without ever resorting to special effects or cartoonish iconography, Swain moves easily from the current take into the many flashbacks, and brings emotions to sharp focus without the need of heavy narrative.

Still I can't help feeling I'm missing something from the story. Ross's decision to drop out, the lack of curiosity shown by other town residents or even Ross's own mother, Gareth's peculiarly independent and ghostlike status in the town where he still lives, feel alien and incompletely justified. Foodboy is so appealing that it's easy to believe the gaps are in my own understanding, rather than Swain's portrayal. I can almost hear the whooshing of cultural references as they zoom past my head.

But whatever bits of information may have fallen through the culture gap aren't enough to keep Foodboy from being an affecting, worthwhile read. Gareth's loyalty, Ross's seeming insanity and the lurking mystery of the lifestyle of the wild people, all combine under a strangely timeless landscape to create a story both surreal and strangely familiar, told with blurred detail of memory.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 17 July 2004

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