Erik Svetoft: Spa

Svetoft, Erik, Spa, Fantagraphics [translated by Melissa Bowers]
ISBN 978-1-68396-696-8

This is going to be a brief review – there is surprisingly little to say about a 300 page graphic novel. That’s because the book has two aspects – an aesthetic Jekyll and Hyde, so to say. Svetoft’s art becomes increasingly convincing and engrossing, but the plot, if that’s the right word, of the book is entirely negligible. The writing, as it is, is just downright awful. The art and the imagination behind it is extraordinary. Ah, well.

To begin at the beginning: Erik Svetoft is a Swedish artist and illustrator. His work has sporadically appeared here and there, but he made the biggest splash with his fifth book, “Spa.” This is his first book with text – and that’s apparently where the trouble began. In English, you may have encountered his work in Vice, where he demonstrated his wide range of skills. Each of the pieces in Vice is different and intriguing in its own way. Svetoft seems as comfortable with symbols and structures as with grotesque imagery and Lovecraftian inventiveness. He sometimes gets close to the edges of satire, but it’s always just an interpretative offer, a possibility in a creative voice that relishes ambiguity.

That doesn’t change in “Spa” – the ambiguous voice, that is. “Spa” is set in a spa, and is sold by Fantagraphics as “a satiric critique of consumer society and the ‘wellness’ industry.” I’ve also seen reviews claiming that in the book, “the conformity of the soulless luxury society is exposed. The ugliness behind the facade becomes visible.” That’s all nonsense. I mean, I can see that as part of the intended message, but in many parts of the book, Erik Svetoft the artist and Erik Svetoft the writer are at odds. There are visual allusions to Bosch and other artists, but in many places, a major influence seems to be a Japanese surreal tradition, with Suehiro Maruo and Junji Ito as my main points of reference.

There is a nameless, often unexplained horror that drives their best work, a terror that hides equal parts in us, as well as in the darkness of our surroundings. Though it’s fundamentally related, it’s not a broader cosmic terror as with Lovecraft, it’s smaller and deeper. The world in “Spa” disintegrates as the book progresses, but we also find that it has the quality of our worst nightmares in repeating itself. Things happen, other things are repeating themselves – and nothing is ever explained. There is a dark fluid – sometimes water, sometimes not. There are decomposing bodies and invasive animals. Svetoft draws on a broad tradition. There are doppelgangers, automata, and the Spa itself is a classic gothic mansion with its endless hallways and rooms. The physical boundaries of the human body are unstable, and endangered both by the forces of the “Spa” as well as by our own infirmities.

This sounds great – and it is, if not for all the words. Maybe it’s Melissa Bowers’ translation, but at best the writing in the book is superfluous, at worst, it drags the book away from its strengths. Because – no, Fantagraphics didn’t invent that interpretation out of whole cloth. The book does offer that reading in its text and broader structure. And by God I wish it didn’t. Stripping ambiguity from the material in order to offer a statement, a meaning, a clever analysis, is one of the worst habits comic writers can have. I have never been as annoyed after reading a book that contains so much gorgeous art.

The easy targets of attempted satire do not frequently lead to good outcomes – sure, the wellness industry is ridiculous, and yes, rich people are almost as funny as those trying to live a lifestyle beyond their means, even if just for a weekend. There are two movies in Oscar contention this year that trained their sights on the very same target, and both contain facile jokes and easy satirical layups. However, they are both powered by significant writing skills – skills Erik Svetoft does not possess, not even partially. What’s worse is that the art does not help his endeavor here – instead, it often seems to countermand the ideas of the book, giving readings that outpace the writing in complexity.

In fact, despite the admiration I had for the art, my primary feeling upon reading the book was annoyance. Should YOU read it? MAYBE? It depends on how much tolerance you have for facile satire and terrible writing – because everything else about this book is fantastic.