Book Review: Spa by Erik Svetoft

Swedish writer/illustrator Erik Svetoft’s Spa is a Kafkaesque adventure that plunges into a Lynchian nightmare. Set in a high-class, luxury spa somewhere in Northern Europe, its story isn’t so much a throughline as a strange series of vignettes. Sometimes they come back to each other but mostly stand alone, told in just a few pages. The art is sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque, and often both on the same page.

An example: The spa manager stops to look at a painting of a snow-peaked mountain. Then a small creature appears from behind the mountain. The comic zooms in as we watch the creature go skiing, cook hotdogs, meet up with some friends, and have adventures. Then the manager’s assistant disturbs him to which the manager angrily chastises her with “Can’t you see I’m busy?” There is no indication as to whether that little scene in the painting is a drug-induced hallucination, a product of a diseased mind, or actually real. Something similar happens later in the book but it is never explained.

Not a lot is explained. Especially not the black, viscous liquid that seems to be spreading throughout the spa. It seeps into everything and wreaks all sorts of havoc. But no one seems to notice, or at least not care all that much. It seeps into the company’s safe, destroying all the cash on hand. This causes the manager to be short on his payoff money to the local safety inspectors, but even then, there is no serious scramble to get it cleared up and removed. A new employee tries to clean it and gets a little on his uniform. For this, he is punished – forced to wear a pig nose and ridiculed by his fellow employees. There are two mouse-looking characters who claim they are maintenance, but they seem to do more damage than repairs.

At one point we see two people in bed, making love, in a window (or possibly a mirror it is very difficult to tell what is what in this book) as a pair of grotesque-looking monsters watch them. Then the scene switches and the monsters are having sex while the humans watch.

The black mold or whatever the hell it is, makes things even more grotesque and nightmarish. The art becomes darker. Both literally as blacks begin filling the panel, and figuratively as the characters become more monstrous and sickening. Some people look like reanimated corpses. A four-headed walrus-looking thing shows up at some point and is promptly killed with harpoons. A friendly worm creature burrows into the manager’s brain and takes him over.

Over and over again, these little stories, lasting no more than a couple of pages, get told. Sometimes they are funny. Sometimes they are horrific. Always they are interesting. I don’t know what any of it means.

It all feels vaguely satiric of the wellness industry in general and high-end spas in specific, but I’m not sure that aspect of it works particularly well. Outside of the spa’s tendency to care more about aesthetics than actual wellness and the need to periodically pay off government officials, I’m at a loss as to what any of this is actually saying. But maybe that aspect was lost in translation.

I do love the general vibe of the book. It is something that is best read in small chunks. Flip through a dozen or so pages at a time, and linger on the intricate, strangeness of the art. Or dig your way through the entire thing in one setting, let it fully absorb your senses, and get lost inside its grotesque world.

This is my first time reading a book from Fantagraphics and they’ve done a marvelous job with it. Spa comes in a nicely sized book with a solid, hardback cover. The pages are sturdy and thick and the art really pops. I’ll definitely be checking out more books from them.

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Mat Brewster

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