Getting down and dirty, intellectually, in Jon Lewis' 'True Swamp'

Tue, February 20th, 2001 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Beau Yarbrough, Columnist

[True Swamp]If you were setting out to create a comic that would get widespread critical raves and eventually attention by one of the world's best-known news magazines, you probably wouldn't start with a concept like Jon Lewis' "True Swamp."

"I suppose one might encapsulate the concept like this," Lewis told the Comic Wire on Friday, "'If animals could think and speak, then they'd be every bit as neurotic and miserable as you or I.' Though I should say that misery and neurosis are as much humorous subjects as dramatic ones for me -- both at once, whenever possible. I guess that by giving animals the power of speech, the burden of memory, and the whole shebang, it gives me the opportunity to explore 'from scratch' the basic issue of just how you manage life with a brain, which has always been the big question in my life.

"Lenny the Frog is the central character, though he doesn't monopolize the spotlight the way he did in the first Volume, which is probably a blessing, since he is obsessive, depressive and too ready to talk about it. Despite my fondness for interior psychological noodling the book has taken on a pretty complex plot involving a number of characters of whom Lenny is just one. There's also the Anthill to worry about, and Natural Science, which is the swamp's old-time fundamentalist religion."

Readers who only pick up the latest issue, "Underwoods and Overtime," shouldn't have any problems understanding the story.

"I think of this current sequence, starting with 'True Swamp: Underwoods and Overtime' which came out in September, as True Swamp Volume Two; and the first run of stories in that '96 trade paperback collection as Volume One. I've tried to make Volume Two self-sufficient for readers who never saw Volume One. Right now I'm not sure how long Volume Two is going to be; I just reached the halfway point on the next issue."

Animal-centered books are no longer mainstream, or even common in the comics industry, but the setting and characters were just a natural choice (no pun intended) for Lewis.

"Taking the setting and characters from nature wasn't even something I deliberated about. It was instinctive and almost a necessity. The setting had to be one I enjoyed drawing, and I love drawing foliage and ground-level views where shrubs loom like trees. It also had to be a setting I would enjoy being 'inside of' while working on the book, and the idea of a swamp or a woodsy undergrowth has had some kind of primal appeal to me as long as I can remember. Some of it, I'm sure, comes from this lakeside cabin my folks had when I was little in Minnesota, where I would spend tons of time wading around in the muck looking for frogs, catching toads and making little habitats in a bucket for them, that kind of thing. My whole life, I can't look at a garden without trying to imagine being a tiny creature wandering around in it like a forest."

Of course, having intelligent and self-aware creatures roaming a swamp, mixing introspection in with their adventures brings Walt Kelly's legendary "Pogo" comic strip to mind. While Lewis was aware of "Pogo," it wasn't the influence on him that other works, outside of comics and sequential art, were.

"It wasn't something I really thought about since I was coming much more from the Beatrix Potter and 'The Wind in the Willows' end of things -- these were huge early-childhood influences that predated and probably even influenced any real nature-experiences in my life. I know I took some visual riffs from 'Pogo,' but I think I got them second-generation from Pogo-loving cartoonists, because my own exposure to 'Pogo' has been extremely limited. The character of Hale looks fairly Pogo-esque and like everybody I'm always putting in those squat, wavery trees that Walt Kelly patented. Anyway, for some reason, even though Beatrix Potter, 'The Wind in the Willows,' 'Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh,' et al, always depicted animals as sort of miniature people with jackets and satchels and little houses in the underbrush, I felt certain that my characters should be plain animals, living in holes, eating beetles, having to use their mouths to pick things up 'cause they've got no thumbs. They've got culture for sure, but no appurtenances. The glaring exception is Hale, the swamp's only inventor, who has trained his paws to be able to grasp things, and who has a laboratory under a tortoise shell. The story ostensibly takes place in North America, but if I feel like using a kiwi or a gibbon or an iguana I don't let that stop me; and the cast isn't confined to real animals -- there's fungus people and grotesque fairies and a ball of fire named Willie."

Lewis also got a jolt of publicity on a scale that few comics creators ever do, when "True Swamp" was named one of 2000's best comic books by "Time" magazine, a company not exactly known for its comics industry coverage. This was critical and mainstream attention that Lewis certainly hadn't been expecting for the new issue of "True Swamp."

"Critical, maybe, mainstream, no. That took me quite by surprise. That was probably the highest-profile place I've ever been mentioned. It was well-timed, because it kicked me in the butt to get working on the next issue. It was flattering too, because the other nine things on the list were all really worthwhile comics, things I was more than pleased to be listed alongside. You know, if you make it onto one of these lists and half the things on it suck, it's not a big thrill. Hopefully that generated some interest in 'True Swamp.' In my experience, it's really hard to predict what kind of effect this type of thing will have."

But now that "Time" has kicked Lewis in the butt, fans can expect to see more of his work in 2001, possibly including some more work for DC Comics, for whom he's done some short pieces here and there.

"Hopefully. Right now, I have a couple of things in the vague stages there, but talk is cheap. Right this moment I have to give all my attention to the next issue of True Swamp to make sure it's ready to come out in August or September. It's going to be another 64-pager like 'Underwoods and Overtime.' Like I said, it's about halfway done. I'm finding that amassing a larger chunk of story and releasing it all together once a year or so makes more sense than trying to publish little bits as often as possible. Hopefully the reader will be more satisfied this way too, or at least immersed more deeply. That's what swamps are for."

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