Is That All There Is? is a collection of comics by Dutch cartoonist, graphic designer, and European cultural icon Joost Swarte. The first English-language Swarte collection of its kind, the book features rare, out-of-print or untranslated work dating back 40 years.
Swarte’s style is immediately recognizable for its striking similarity to that of Belgian cartoonist Herge, creator of Tintin and perhaps the grandfather of all Franco-Belgian comics (or bandes- dessinees as they are called over there.)
Swarte’s overt appropriation of Herge’s style takes an interesting stance on the issue of creating a cartooning vocabulary, as style is often the most instantly defining characteristic of a cartoonist. Most artists’ styles, under close inspection, are comprised largely from elements borrowed consciously or unconsciously from their influences. Swarte sidesteps the entire task of amalgamating influences into something original, by tacitly admitting Herge’s influence and taking it from there.
It is clear Swarte doesn't need to rely on the Tintin style to make his visual point. This sharp linework is filled by a warm, dot-patterned color pallet and exists in a world littered with visual treats hiding in the background. Highlights include doodads like a wall-lamp designed like a saw cutting through wood. Similarly, Swarte populates his streets entirely with post-modern architecture. This is especially noteworthy considering most of the work included in the collection is drawn from the mid-70’s, before the post-modern architectural boom of the 80s. Swarte certainly had a finger on the pulse of a variety of mediums.
Swarte’s narrative style is decidedly post-modern as well. Most of his comics feature themes of misfortune and suffering, approached with a lighthearted or even comical attitude, perhaps also borrowed from Herge. It seems his stories are specifically structured to deliver this misfortune to its characters, ending abruptly after some schadenfreude punchline is reached. Yet, despite these dark undertones, which don’t exactly paint a picture of faith in humanity, Swarte’s work still manages to come off as incredibly endearing, perhaps due to his obvious love of the craft. The book features a comic strip explanation of the dot-screen coloring technique Swarte employs with vim. A handful more of the stories are revealed to be a character’s fantasy or dream, perhaps as an allegorical homage towards Swarte’s attitude towards fiction itself. As a whole, Swarte’s nihilistic storytelling take a backseat to his sharp, sophisticated style and sensibility.
As Comics Page alum Chris Ware describes in the introduction: “To watch Joost draw is to fall into a sort of trance of witnessing pure creation, the lines appearing of their own volition and tracing an unseen mental template which he can only see. I don’t recommend the experience to young artists unless one’s goal is to be shamed into trying much, much harder.”