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Swamp Preacher
posted June 29, 2007


Creator: David Sandlin
Publishing Information: Fantagraphics, magazine, 40 pages, November 2006, $5.95
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The most interesting thing about the painter and cartoonist David Sandlin's late 2006 comics effort is how it, like many comics these days, covers a limited range from A to B in a narrative sense. In this case what the reader gets is the back story of the artist's Carl Bob deVille. Period. That's it. The story's heft, and this is one of the denser comics I've seen in this decade, comes from specifics inherent to the visual style employed and the straight-ahead, plodding approach to its story assignment. Half horror show and half pure nonsense, the story fairly oozes with an intense humor arriving from a neighborhood near the building blocks of life and still manages to take a few sudden, surprising turns into full-spread batshit insanity. There are very few cartoonists who could pull of this kind of visual sumptuousness with stopping the story dead, this manner of amusement park thrill-ride rock and sway storytelling, and I'm not sure any of them work in comics anymore.

Sandlin's painter's background comes to bear in showcase-level use of two-color printing process. He emphasizes the ooze and muck against which his scenes play out by stretching single colors over multiple textures. The effect is jarring to the eye as you try to grasp what you're seeing by color and outline, two different visual approaches which rarely combine to make anything easy. In other words: this is a really good-looking book, the kind that makes you re-assess other, tangentially similar art that may not be up to Sandlin's level.

The story proves a bit less impressive. It's well realized. Sandlin writes funny dialogue, has a nice sense of what kind of writing works on the comics page, and can turn a phrase. However, as a segment in a longer, grander storyline I'm not convinced Swamp Preacher will ever match the visual world built around it. There's also a sense you're reading a very specific kind of alternative, "outsider" type story that's every bit as well-traveled and unsurprising as any mainstream text. I'm not sure that if you come to Swamp Preacher having had experience with comics from people like Spain or Valium or Tony Fitzpatrick that you won't on some intuitive level know exactly what's coming next. Then again, you may not care. Swamp preacher is a wonderful-looking thing to lose yourself into for an extended period of time, and should be a familiar enough tale to anyone who's ever read a secret origin.