ADVANCE REVIEW! Is That All There Is? will go on sale Monday, February 27, 2012.
Joost Swarte is one of the seminal cartoonists to come from Europe over the last three decades. His clear line style, accompanied by his often surreal stories and a magnificent eye for design, has made him a star among his peers. But until now there had been no comprehensive reprint of this great artist's classic work. Thankfully Fantagraphics has remedied that problem with the release of the wonderful Is That All There Is?
This book collects almost 150 pages of Swarte's classic work from 1972 to 2010, and what an amazing trip it is to read this book. This is one of those books that transport the reader to a completely different world than the one he's used to. It's not something as simple or obvious as a different fiction world. No, Swarte's world is a thoroughly European world that may only exist inside Swarte's mind. And what a fun place that is to inhabit!
This book is full of moments that juxtapose the old next to the new in ways that seem particularly European. Just as how you often will see ancient buildings next to brand new buildings when traveling through Europe, in Swarte's work we often see different graphical elements combined to create worlds that combine modernity and classicism.
Take "Babel Revisited," from 1974. This story imagines an enormous tower — taller than the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building combined — that will be erected in the middle of Paris as part of a World's Fair celebration. The tower is a beautifully odd creation, but it's also aesthetically beautiful in its own right. The discussion of the tower leads to an extended flashback to Nazi Germany that combines old cars, an art deco element and just a little bit of sex to create a rather surreal story that works on several different levels. There's a feeling in the story of the past informing the present in powerful ways that brings classicism and modern art together in a way that complements them both.
That element of old and new juxtaposed on top of each other is a major recurring thread in Swarte's work collected in this book. The artist has a deep love for American rhythm and blues music, so it's both startling and comforting to read stories where he quotes or mentions artists like Fats Domino and Albert King.
But it's not just all about the design and deep themes for Swarte. "Goodbye," from 1977, exemplifies another element of Swarte's style. This tale is a slapstick story about Inspector Studds, who joins the suicide unit of the police during a rash of suicides. The story takes a whole series of unexpected and bizarre twists and turns, including an awesomely odd confrontation with the cause of the suicides, only to end in a hilarious final panel that ties up the story beautifully.
One of my favorite stories in this book is "The Rubber Paradise," a completely odd story about the life of a prophylactic after it's used. The silly conceit of the story is that a rubber comes to life when it's used, and joins a happy colony of rubbers when it's brought to the city dump. The story takes a series of madcap turns as it ambles along, and ends in a very silly, almost Looney Tunes final scene.
The title of this book is perfectly chosen, because for a career-spanning work, this book is quite thin. I wanted much more Swarte, but it seems that this really is all there is. Unfortunately.
There really is no cartoonist in the world quite like the great Joost Swarte. His stories are surreal, silly, sexy and sometimes spectacular. They're gorgeously drawn in a classic European style that lights up every page of this wonderful and gorgeous book. Don't worry about these stories being too obscure or strange — this book fun and silly and awesome.
Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.