Swear Down

Writer / Artist
Swear Down
Swear Down review
  • UK publisher / ISBN: Blank Slate - 978-1-906653-29-3
  • UPC: 9781906653293
  • Contains adult content?: no
  • Does this pass the Bechdel test?: no
  • Positive minority portrayal?: no

Oliver East’s approach to the graphic novel is observational, starting with a walk and then adapting to whatever he sees or whatever comes to mind as he’s walking. However, Swear Down is even more personal than usual as there’s greater purpose to his walk than a casual stroll around the neighbourhood. A decision has been taken to record the birth of East’s son. He was born two months prematurely with East’s wife Claire nearly dying in the process, and Swear Down takes the form of an illustrated rambling letter to him, presumably to be passed on at some later date.

The walk theoretically involves following the zero degree line of longitude as far as possible from East’s house in Manchester, noting his thoughts in a notebook as he proceeds. It allows for a spontaneity, but also offers an insight into a state of mind as he mulls over what are traumatic events to read about, never mind for someone personally experiencing them. The thoughts are accompanied by abstracted illustrations of what’s seen, ordinary objects such as a park bench, a stile or passing joggers. The sketching is simple, while use of dark green, brown and grey watercolour shading adds to the impression of drab circumstances.

As more memories return, the accompanying notes switch between mundane observations of the surroundings and traumatic recollections of his wife’s collapse. Instead of illustrating these East sometimes supplies visual symbolism, such as plots of flowers or grass stems standing in for a crowd, and on other occasions accompanying the text with sketches of wherever the walk has reached.

A rambling comic to accompany a ramble is appropriate, but interest in what East offers is contingent on your enjoyment of a ramble in either sense. East’s art isn’t in the business of transforming the mundane into magic, so much of what he shows can be viewed via a walk through any neighbourhood, with an exception granted for the airport. And like a ramble, sometimes East just stops for a few pages at a time to soak in the surroundings. The story with the real pulling power is relegated to bit parts. Of course, it’s intensely private and there’s no right of expectation for East to deliver anything more than he does.

That, though, is just the first half, and there’s greater empathy induced by a second half in which East is joined on his walk by his family. It means more than the single viewpoint, extra concerns for the presence of a child and a conversation a long time in the coming. It’s both sweet and revealing, building on the snippets previously disclosed, and the second perspective very different. The euphoria accompanying impending death is entirely unexpected, especially then contrasted by the fear of it.

Yes, Swear Down eventually delves deep into both distressing and interesting territory, but it’s a fair stroll getting there.

If there’s a nagging feeling throughout that East’s art is somehow familiar, your instincts are right, as East is bespoke CD art creator for Elbow.