cover image Crossing the Empty Quarter and Other Stories

Crossing the Empty Quarter and Other Stories

Carol Swain. Dark Horse, $24.95 (197pp) ISBN 978-1-59582-388-5

This career-spanning collection of Swain’s short stories is a needed retrospective on an underrated cartoonist. Swain trained as a painter, and her comics are distinguished by an accomplished, atmospheric tonal style that delicately shades her carefully observed, heavily stylized characters and landscapes. Her panels feature striking compositions within a strict grid for panel layouts that enables startling transitions keeping the reader off balance. The stories vary from slight incident or political parable to visual tone poem, usually building to an oblique punch line. In some, Swain refracts subcultural narrative traditions through a blue-collar, British sensibility; other pieces are merely elusive to a fault. Many of her best stories take place in a literal nowhere—an uncharted land (in the title story), an obsidian deposit, a toxic shore—but even in recognizable landscapes characters seem to be on an endless search. The book is rounded out by some sharp political work, including an effective piece recapitulating the well-documented barriers Florida voters encountered in the 2000 U.S. presidential election. The collection overall makes a case for Swain as a visual storyteller whose unmistakable style will surely earn her followers willing to forgive the occasional slight plot line. (Dec.)