Spa by Erik Svetoft review – how the other half dies

Fancy a break? Then why not check into Spa, Erik Svetoft’s debut graphic novel. OK, so the sauna is best avoided, the mineral bath will almost certainly bring you out in hives, and the masseur, shirtless and prancing, is on the creepy side. And please, don’t even think about ordering room service! But having visited myself, I feel certain you will find a stay … invigorating. This is The White Lotus as rewritten by Charles Burns (Black Hole, X’ed Out), a combination I believe to be better for the average comic-lover’s morale than any number of toxin-busting facials.

Svetoft’s fictional five-star resort, somewhere in northern Europe, exists to provide so-called “wellness” treatments to the rich, the famous and the bone idle. But if it is extremely luxurious – the kind of place that sets great store by its towels, which must only ever be used once – it’s also highly sinister. In its maze of corridors, a black liquid slowly oozes, its source unknown, its creep utterly resistant to the army of uniformed staff whose job it is to deliver daily sanitary perfection. This horrible discharge is, of course, a symbol of the corruption and moral turpitude of the hotel’s guests; their own various exudations are hardly any more pleasant. However, it’s just one of several horror shows about to come our way. Everyone and everything in the spa is rotting, and no scented candle can possibly disguise the stench.

Arriving guests are blank-faced, tricky to tell apart, and so numbed by their insulating wealth, a bad salad at lunch is no less likely to incur their wrath than a random corpse in the plunge pool. Inconvenience is inconvenience, whether it involves quinoa or, er, death. But then none of them will be leaving any time soon, however bad the service. Each one seems destined to be culled, the bodies piling up, unnoticed and unmourned. Punishment is in the (recirculated) air. Backstage, the staff, bullied by their David Brent-like manager, are encouraged to take part in “bonding sessions” that have a distinctly Lord of the Flies feel.

Svetoft, who lives and works in Stockholm, doesn’t deliver much in the way of plot; his gothic comic, drawn in black and white, has the feeling of a fever dream, albeit one soundtracked by whale music. But I loved its mordant tone, its mischievous, not to say malicious, impulses. An incompetent pair of handymen, given the job of trying to fix the mysterious leak, seem to nod to Hergé’s Thomson and Thompson. A massage therapist, dressed only in tight black leggings, looks for all the world like some antic medieval representation of Death.

Our author, it is increasingly obvious, thinks very little of our 21st-century “cures”; of our ennui and self-indulgence, our conviction that we have it so hard. At its darkest, his modern morality tale brings to mind the work of Albrecht Dürer. Spa’s subject is our wretched and growing obliviousness: the rich man in his castle having reflexology, the poor man at the gate folding fluffy white towels.

• Spa by Erik Svetoft, translated by Melissa Bowers, is published by Fantagraphics (£31.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply