After four years of nonsensical blather about “draining the swamp,” I think we’re all ready for a change, and Australian cartoonist Pat Grant is proposing the most complete 180 degree change imaginable — in the near-future world of his recent graphic novel The Grot (Top Shelf, 2020), the swamp is quite literally the place to be. Drown in it, and you’ll soon be drowning in cash.
Of course, our soon-to-be-former president had that much figured out too, his actual goal being to re-populate his metaphorical swamp with his own family members and a smattering of sycophants, to replace the hated “Washington elites” with hand-picked henchmen possessed of even lower moral and ethical standards than their predecessors, but Grant’s Swamp City is a decidedly more democratic (please note the small “d”) enterprise, a place where anybody with a dream can try their luck, and where, to quote the back cover promotional blurb, “any moron could make an outrageous fortune in an afternoon and lose it all before bedtime.” A wild west Down Under, then? A billabong Vegas?
As delineated by Grant, Swamp City looks a lot more like Moss Isley on the bayou. Seriously, this place is a real shithole, and odds are that if an unsuspecting newcomer makes it through their first day having managed to avoid becoming the victim of a short con, it’s only because he or she is being set up for a long one. Grant takes great pride in exposing his dual protagonists, brothers Penn and Lippy, to hustles both simple and complex, obvious and obscured. It’s fitting, then, that this book (which began life as a self-published “floppy” comics series) is just the opening salvo in a multi-part saga titled Swamp City Grifters, since it depicts a locale populated, quite frankly, with nothing but.
While Grant excels at the narrative broad strokes, it’s fair to say he’s far sketchier when it comes to delineating the details: precisely why the algae in the samp is so valuable is never explicitly spelled out, nor are we told why the world has descended into the state he depicts. Your mind will likely answer “it must be some kind of energy source” to the first query and “climate change” to the second, but those are just assumptions, and, while it’s only fair to give a cartoonist some time to show his or her hand when we’re talking about an ongoing series, it’s also true that this is a 200-page graphic novel and not a 32-page “floppy.” It’ll likely be a couple more years until we see the next part, so if Grant could have figured out a way to complete his task of “world-building” while retaining some mystery, that probably would have been a good thing.
Still, there’s no use crying over spilled swamp water, and there are plenty of positives here to focus on, the biggest of which is Grant’s cartooning — organic and free-flowing yet obviously thought-through, there isn’t a line out of place in these densely-packed panels. From the makeshift architecture to the downtrodden people to the oppressive climate, Grant’s drawings are as thoroughly “lived-in” as the society they’re depicting, and while you could be forgiven for picking up a hint of Noah Van Sciver or Max Clotfelter there in his overall aesthetic, by and large this singular stuff, indeed much of it downright visionary. As well, the watercolor-style hues and tones applied by colorist Fionn McCabe are uniformly spot-on and serve to effectively “double down” on the rich atmospherics of the line art. These pages don’t just look good, they look great — and while no art is “perfect” in and of itself, this art is perfectly and uniquely suited to tell this story.
Another of this book’s definite strengths is its sparkling and authentic dialogue. As someone who’s spent a lot of time in Australia, I always appreciate being reminded of Aussies’ characteristically blunt method of communication and inherently wry sense of humor, both of which are in generous supply here. Grant’s overall authorial tone is direct without being brusque, cynical without being mean-spirited. Some of the pacing of his story is a bit suspect though, necessitating some info-dumps that break up the narrative fluidity, but even when his characters are laying out the particulars of a scam or expounding on the vagaries of the local economy it feels more conversational that it does belabored, the sharing of information taking precedence over dry exposition. Sure, it’s curious — to be generous about it — that Grant would spend several pages to explain how bettors are rooked at cockfights while still not telling us precisely why the swamp’s gooey bounty is such a gold mine, but he gives you enough to make sure you’re going to want to come back for more. Speaking of which —
In the spirit of full disclosure, it needs to be pointed out that yes, this book ends on a cliffhanger. In fact, several of them. The brothers are, in fact, literally submerged under a deluge of twists and turns as the page count runs out here, and for folks who really can’t abide such things, waiting for an inevitable complete collection some years down the road is probably the way to go with this sprawling saga. Any unfinished story ultimately needs to be given a grade of “I” for “incomplete,” but in this case that “I” can just as easily — and just as truthfully — stand for “inventive,” “involving,” and at times even “ingenious.” Grant clearly has more to say. He just begins to hint at the larger themes of environmental catastrophe and income inequality that seem set to assert themselves as this work’s core concerns — but for this reader and critic, at any rate, he’s done more than enough to earn my trust. I’m happy to kick back and let him tell his story, his way, in his own good time.
That being said, if he surprised us all and had volume two of Swamp City Grifters ready sometime in 2021, I certainly wouldn’t complain in the least.