Swimming in Darkness, by Lucas Harari, published by Arsenal Pulp, is an exceptional graphic novel on so many levels. It manages to get you to see comics in a totally refreshing way. This is certainly no easy task to accomplish, especially for the serious comics reader who is perhaps a little too primed to expect the unexpected. As for me, I am in a privileged positon as a reviewer that folks in the comics industry keep up with. As another year comes to a close, one that leaves us without Tom Spurgeon, one of our beloved leaders in the comics world, I feel all the more determined to pick my comics wisely and keep to meaningful reviews, upholding a standard carried forth by my trailblazing colleagues like Rob Clough, Frank Santoro, and Johanna Draper Carlson, just to name a few. All this comes to mind as I contemplate this book. This is what comics is all about and, if I was to choose just one book to represent what is possible within comics, no one would fault me for choosing this one. It is utterly stylish, graceful, and packed with a finely-tuned sense of suspense.
Any good story needs to hook you in and, with this tale, there are plenty of hooks. We begin in Paris, as a downpour compels a man to seek refuge in a tavern. The reader is quickly swept up with intriguing stories, and legends, within other stories, and bits of speculation, hosted by one narrator upon another. We begin with the ghostly narration of presumably the author of the book himself as he kicks off a tale he heard from his father, Harari, the elder, as it were. It’s the father who stumbles in out of the rain and encounters Pierre, our protagonist. It turns out that Pierre was a student of Harari. Pierre had shown great promise during his formal study of architecture up until he abruptly left school. Harari is curious about what became of Pierre’s dazzling academic work. But enough about Harari. Our story quickly takes off to the Swiss Alps as Pierre is determined to make up for lost time.
Pierre is marching off in search of the legendary Vals Thermal Baths, designed by the famous Swiss architect Paul Zumthor, ensconced deep within the bowels of a delicate and rarefied resort hotel cradled within the mountain range. It’s been said that a secret passage connecting the thermal baths to the heart of the mountain lures a foreigner to his death every hundred years. Enter Pierre! This is such a finely drawn work that compliments, stroke for stroke, such a tightly woven narrative. And then there’s that meticulously modulated color scheme of blue and red maintaining a steady balance, or delicious imbalance of cool and warm. As I’ve said before, here is a prime example of what I believe to be an ideal graphic novel: a highly compelling work created by a cartoonist auteur that is a stand-alone book of about a hundred or so pages. There are so many fine examples and this is absolutely, without a doubt, one of them.
Swimming in Darkness is a 152 page hardcover, in duotone, with a new English translation by David Homel, published by Arsenal Pulp. For more details, visit Arsenal Pulp right here.