True Swamp

[This post originally appeared on Hazel & Wren, and it might still be viewable there with the accompanying images.]

True Swamp by Jon Lewis (Uncivilized Books, 2012)

Maybe I’ve just been trained to think allegorically. When an author takes a bunch of symbolic pieces and clicks them together like a grand puzzle, I get a dose of catharsis that surpasses what I get when a story that is “only” well plotted.

There’s a good chance that this feeling is just a matter of pride in my ability to recognize what’s going on. If that’s true, I’d consider it an illness, and Jon Lewis’s True Swamp makes an excellent cure. It’s an obstinate, messy savior for those of us who have spent too long in the land of graphable rising action and perfectly timed plot twists.

Lewis’s protagonist is a frog named Lenny, but his being what he is shouldn’t affect anyone’s enjoyment of the book. I’ve seen some reviews lauding Lewis for keeping a healthy amount of animalistic characteristics attached to the various characters of the swamp. Sure, they eat live bugs, and they have a relationship with certain biological truths that’s a bit more intimate than might be the case for the average reader, but the animals of the swamp are more realistically human than most fictional characters. They lose themselves in thought, get depressed, make resolutions, and pursue hobbies; they act selfishly when everyone’s watching, and they achieve surprising moments of grace when no one’s around to notice.

Lenny’s a guy who gets by—scrapes by, sometimes—and it makes him an excellent point-of-view character. He’s plugged into the area he lives in, a community of birds, amphibians, and mysterious fairies, so readers can understand the basic facts of his life. However, he’s no seasoned veteran or wizened wizard; there’s a lot that he doesn’t understand and more that he just doesn’t care to interact with.

To me, this is a big deal in fantastic fiction. Too often, it feels like the world is all worked out: mapped, historically documented, roundly explained, and there’s usually one of the aforementioned veterans or wizards, flaunting their mysterious demeanor and doling out important exposition at key moments.

By diverging from that traditional display of world-building, Lewis presents us with an organic world that’s still a work in progress. As opposed to the metaphorical glass castles of Tolkien or the beautifully intricate machine that is Larry Marder’s Beanworld, True Swamp feels like an expansive backyard to stomp through and build forts in. Reading through it, I want to turn over rocks and tear down branches, and I want to come back months later to see how the seasons affect it.

Maybe I’m wrong and Lewis has True Swamp all planned out. (I’d be way impressed if that were the case.) Seeing Lewis work through the implications of his world is part of the fun, and that’s something I really like about comics that I don’t see as often in prose—this willingness to expose the process behind the work. You can flip from the first page to the last and see how much better Lewis has gotten at drawing, and you can flip past the last page to the reprint of Lewis’s original first issue of True Swamp that he chose to redraw.

You can watch his work grow legs, crawl from the murky water, and take its first ragged breath of air, and that’s something special. How about everyone else? Do you read the “paratext” that comes with books, such as introductions and author bios? If a novel contained the rough draft of a chapter or two, would that add value?

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