Nate Powell is one of my favorite people in comics. He and I have had many great conversations over the years, but somehow we never have connected for an interview on Comics Bulletin. On the eve of the release of his new book You Don’t Say, Nate and I finally had a chance to talk for the record – and had a terrific conversation about comics, self-image and personal history, among many other topics.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: It’s been a good year for you between the success of March and the baby and now your anthology. You’ve got lots going on.
CB: How does it feel going back and looking at some of your old stories when so much else is going on in your life?
Powell: In a lot of ways I’ve been trying to get this anthology wrapped up for a couple of years. I’ve looked at it, on my computer or in printouts, in some finished form for years, so instead of being surreal it’s just very, very satisfying to have it materialize as a physical object. It feels like the right time.
CB: You finally have it in your hands, or almost in your hands anyway.
CB: There’s nothing like that feeling of completion. It’s interesting, too, in that a lot of your stories have to do with memories or reflections on the past, and here you are at an inflection point in your life releasing a book that has a lot of stories about reflecting back on previous times.
Powell: Oh, definitely. Mostly since becoming a dad. So many changes have taken place in my brain, far beyond those in my outer life.
As far the thought processes and the shift of priorities, I do so little reflecting right now, which is unusual for me. There’s just no time. It’s nice to approach stories in a way that embodies this completely different place in life. In general I’m in a much better place, especially in terms of losing a lot of baggage and anxiety.
I feel like twenty-something baggage and anxiety are the prime ingredients in the comics making up the first half of You Don’t Say. So it’s nice to see a natural transition away from that through the course of the book.
CB: Yeah, I empathize with your comments, especially about the way you identified yourself when you were in your twenties and your skittishness and this adolescent fear that you have of truly becoming yourself.
Powell: For sure.
CB: It’s interesting to see that your stories are a bit different from mine, but at the same time, it feels universal.
Powell: Oh, definitely.
Those earlier stories, the more autobiographical, essay-centered ones, were almost a complete break from the stories I had been doing. It was an intentional break to work out some of the questions I had about my life’s direction, my decisions, and in turn it served as free therapy.
Please Release helped me understand that I wasn’t nearly screwed up as I was afraid I was, and those stories illuminate those very specific, subjective situations with an aim for universality, beyond a place of judgment.
CB: I love that comment, “I wasn’t as screwed up as I was afraid I was.” That’s so true. I love how you make this comment about how you were embarrassed that you called yourself a radical.
Powell: Yeah, it’s a little bit embarrassing, but to clarify, I simply refuted the claim in the book. Some of that was realizing the parts of punk’s subcultural trappings that I had grown through and past. It wasn’t until 2008 that I really started participating in comics as a community, as a culture. Up until that point I was still playing music in bands, releasing records, and almost exclusively staying with friends from that cross-section while traveling, and that was where most of my social identity lay.
It wasn’t until I had parted ways with the assumption that punk was the framework around which I structured my life that its embarrassing pretense became clear to me. Generally speaking, there is an assumption pervading underground punk that it’s in some way unique for fostering political discussion, a specific kind of token activism, and a very specific manifestation of “community”. This perspective didn’t actively poo-poo other subcultures or scenes, but it did keep me from spending the time needed to grow into other parts of my life, and blinded me to all the ways in which the comics community shared virtually all of the same elements of community, politics, dialogue—and most importantly, that the comics scene is filled with creators spending entire paychecks just to rent out table space and print their self-published work (full of ideas) for the sake of participating in that organism, of making it something on their own terms. Indistinguishable from punk, except that punk defines itself by exclusion.
As soon as I broke with that, I was able to see more clearly a few ways in which punk kinda got it completely wrong. One of those is the assumed ownership over what makes something radical or revolutionary. I spent a decade advocating and working for adults with disabilities—making more positive impact than I ever made on the punk side of my life—and it occurred to me that much of our constructive efforts don’t need to be considered radical at all. To assume (and live) otherwise is to perpetuate a kind of romanticized play-acting, which is fine until you’re about 25 years old.
CB: Yeah, in some ways what you have gone from is this conception of radical- and I don’t want to put words in your mouth- to a sense of authenticity, of realness.
Powell: Yes. There’s a certain point where obviously we are all searching and moving. But I was convinced in my early-mid twenties, that the searching should never be over—that to stop searching was to begin dying. And for me, that’s so bogus. The truth is that I’ve had a very concrete sense of self ever since I was about six years old, only shaken during that brief window. I don’t need to search anymore. I’ve been at home in my skin for a long, long time. So much of a person’s existential anxiety in their twenties is based on comparing oneself against something that doesn’t actually exist.
CB: Yeah, so much is your own internal compass, which is so distorted at those ages.
CB: For all kinds of different reasons. I often think about how I had a completely different view of the world when I was at that age, and it wasn’t necessarily a worse view- not having walked as many miles as I have now.
Powell: For sure.
CB: Plus so much of your work has a real authenticity and- political is not the word for it, but definitely it’s engaged in the world. Work like Silence of Our Friends and March, obviously, is very much about engaging with the past and making sense of it.
Powell: I agree. It didn’t become a more conscious interest in storytelling until right around the middle of the You Don’t Say stories. That’s when I finished Swallow Me Whole, was making a larger narrative transition, and when I started being a full-time cartoonist, balancing my weird half-fiction stories while drawing work for hire, the first of those being Silence of Our Friends.
The You Don’t Say stories include “Like Hell I Will”, about the Tulsa race riot of 1921, and also “Cakewalk”, which is written by my now-wife, Rachel. Those are both very concrete true stories that approach political issues within the personal accounts of a specific time and place.
But it’s funny because when I get interviewed, especially about March— granted, I’m being interviewed by some people way outside of the comics sphere– occasionally people will ask me, “So what made you interested in drawing civil rights?” Or even worse, they’ll be like, “So, how have you… changed any as a result of drawing Congressman Lewis’ story?” It’s sort of leading a narrative, fishing for an answer about how I was either ignorant or apathetic (or a Southern caricature) until I started work on a very specific account of someone’s life in the Movement.
Whenever I can, I try to point out that all my previous stories were strongly informed by politics and by people’s relationships to power. To me it seems like a natural continuum between the content in my own stories and in the real-life accounts from March and The Silence Of Our Friends.
CB: But in a way, it doesn’t even matter anyway. You could be the most commercial cartoonist in the world. John Romita, Jr.-
Powell: Yeah, for sure.
CB: He still may read and be interested in the Civil Rights Movement. We are not all single pipeline people, right?
CB: I love comics. I work in the tech industry. I read books about the financial world. I’m multi-faceted. I’m sure you have many things that are outside of all of these other interests as well. That idea that we are all in these small little boxes with these half dozen interests is always puzzling to me.
Powell: Oh, me, too. You bet.
CB: I wanted to talk about “Cakewalk” because I think that might have been the most interesting story in the book to me, in that it was so subtle and such an interesting look at the way that racism subtly affected your wife’s life when she was young. That one experience seems so much vaster than the story that you are telling.
Powell: Oh, yes, definitely. It’s a story that she had recalled to me a couple of times in the past, then crafted it into a short story to better crystallize her experience. She’s a native Hoosier, so these are her experiences growing up in northwestern Indiana, an hour outside of Chicago. As a Southerner living here in the Midwest, it rocked my world to discover how entirely different dimensions of American racism existed just a few hundred miles apart.
I grew up with Mississippian Baby Boomer parents. Even in the eighties, the spectre of the Jim Crow south was definitely still in the air in my parents’ hometown, especially in terms of how a small town’s economy and society functioned. As a five year old in 1983, I even managed to witness a fully-costumed Klan cross burning at high noon in a town square in rural Alabama. The span between these eras is paper-thin, growing thinner as I age.
I grew up with a basic, working knowledge of the movement, of segregation and desegregation in the South. But like many Southerners of my generation, I also grew up with the assumption that the South was the racist, backwards part of America. One of the things that really smacked me over the head here in Indiana was how, generally speaking, Indiana and Illinois were much more racist than anywhere I ever lived in the South. It’s a much more homogenous area, and white people simply don’t have to live outside their bubble of privilege, regardless of where they exist on the political spectrum.
Rachel told her tale as a twelve year old version of herself, reflecting back on being nine. She was trying to reveal her character’s lack of skills to properly reflect on the experience.
What really came out as a result of preventing her narrator from being able to process the situation, was the utter failure of adults in her life– at every turn—to respond appropriately or tell her what was exactly wrong with dressing up as a fictional blackface character for Halloween. Instead, in different ways, each adult only left her with a sense of confusion and shame, whether it was about her decision, or even with blackness itself.
On a personal level it left baggage and a lot of questions for her. But we tried to make that kind of lingering, haunting sense of shame that her narrator can’t quite put a finger on yet. I feel like that’s the kind of baggage that makes adults not be able to resolve their issues decades later.
That’s still one of my very favorite stories I’ve been a part of.
CB: It’s a beautiful story. Part of what makes it so special to me is the collaboration in it feels very intimate. You really bring Rachel alive in this story with these often very furtive sideways glances that you have in her, like she is almost evading the picture in a way as she is trying to deal with everything going on. It feels like in a very interesting way that you are inside of her head as you draw her objectively.
Powell: Thank you. Obviously, I know her better than pretty much anyone else in my life. We’ve known each other for eleven years now. Sometimes when she’s telling a story about her life, I regret that I didn’t get to know her when she was ten or fourteen or sixteen or whatever.
It’s exciting for me– not just as a life partner, but also a collaborator– to be able to imagine her existence at a certain age. On a relationship level, it’s very satisfying to enter these experiences from long before I ever knew her.
CB: Yeah, There’s this intimacy about it where you really do feel like you are inside of her skin in a way that only someone who has this deep love could be. There’s an element about it that makes it more than simply a character study.
Powell: Thank you.
CB: Then as someone who has released music, you are well aware of the importance of tracks, putting the right tracks next to each other. So you go from this very sweet, open story to “Like Hell I Will”, the race riot story you talked about. There’s so many ways they contrast with each other. One has a very open page design; the other is very black. One is very subjective; the other is very objective. One is sweet and the other is terrifying.
Powell: I think I did those back to back. In fact, when I was laying out the book, I was experimenting with which one of those two stories to put first, as they are both issues of race and power divided by era and geography. I decided that putting the Oklahoma account first would unfairly season the very subjective personal account in “Cakewalk.”
“Like Hell I Will” was also I think my first foray into having to do a research-based comic. Because even a lot of my essay-ish stuff from Please Release about working with people with disabilities came from my professional experiences at the time.
I think I saw a brief account of Tulsa massacre on the History Channel during an overnight shift, and was fascinated by it. Something that I don’t think I actually specified in the story (because I couldn’t get a 100% verification) was that the firebombs dropped on black Tulsans from Sinclair Oil planes loaned out to the sheriff and his deputies were the first time airborne incendiaries of that kind were ever used. By the law, on its own citizens, in our nation in 1921.
Syncopated was a journalism-based anthology, and there were certain rules that I needed to play by. That was one reason why I omitted the line claiming that first use of airborne firebombing. But it made me recognize the different processes employed when narrating real-life accounts.
CB: Did that help you with approaching March, the skills that you built up working on this story?
Powell: Oh, you bet. Of course I got tons of help with access to reference through Representative Lewis and his archives, as well as his broader first-person account in Walking With The Wind. Andrew Aydin and Leigh Walton are both very thorough. I still have to do a good hour of research and photo reference each day.
Doing that kind of homework isn’t a mystical task; it’s a matter of knowing where to go and then doing the work, blocking out a little bit of time, and moving forward once you get what you need. So it helped demystify that process.
CB: Just to get you to know how to approach and how much is the right amount of research, too, I’m sure.
CB: That’s always my struggle when I write historical pieces is how much to have. Then you do a nice palate clearer with a great story about Carlos Santana and his gaze.
Powell: I had a couple other friends who had run-ins with him, and they’re like, “Oh, I read that comic. Rachel is not the only person to experience the wrath of Carlos.” What is amazing to me is that there’s a slight chance that Carlos Santana will become aware of this particular account. So I’m patiently waiting to hear something from Mr. Santana (or his legal team).
CB: You should send something off to his agents or something, to see what his reaction would be.
Powell: Oh, yeah, that would be amazing. And terrifying. I would never do that. No need.
CB: See if he… Did you like him by the way? I mean, you came up through punk so it’s a very different sort of music, especially his later work.
Powell: M parents are just a year or two too old for the Haight-Ashbury scene. They graduated from high school in ’64, and most of life after that revolved around military service. Their direct musical knowledge shifts after “Revolver”, “Pet Sounds”… Like ’66 is really the turning point year for them. So I didn’t grow up with awareness of Santana, Hendrix, The Dead… my folks still have no idea who Led Zeppelin are. I’ve definitely grown to appreciate Santana a bit, but he doesn’t really mean anything to me.
I don’t have any feelings about the man, but Rachel grew up with slightly younger parents than mine, and she’d been listening to Santana since she was born. I was able to be kinda invisible in the story and focus on her account.
CB: Yeah, I’m sure your nostalgic music is a little bit more hard edge than that, a little bit more obscure than that.
Powell: A lot of it. But Memphis soul, Stax and Volt stuff, are also pretty central to my sense of nostalgia. My folks grew up 25 miles from the epicenter of rock and roll, and Southern R&B.
CB: Oh, right, yeah.
Powell: Over the last five or six years I’ve been slowly curating a chronological soundtrack as a playlist on my computer. It’s a playlist of every song in my life that’s embedded in a central memory or experience. It doesn’t have to be one of my favorite songs or even a particularly good one, but it does have to be a part of my core memory of that time and place. The more in-depth that list gets, the more I’m drawn to the first eight years of my life, the majority of which is filled up with a lot of Memphis Soul and a lot of AM ’70s lite rock.
CB: Yeah. You’re a little bit like the guy in the story “Unchained”, confronting the fact that he’s getting older. That’s the way things are.
Powell: It happens.
CB: It happens to all of us. One of the interesting things about the book was it really has a clear progression from youth to adulthood, from introspection to extroversion, from who we are when we are in our twenties to who we become when we are in our thirties. By the end these are stories written by and created by someone who knows how to draw a story to bring out the drama, but also who has had some life experiences. So when you look back at the book, do you see it in that same way?
Powell: Oh, exactly—that was the intent. When I was whipping up new material towards the end, there were two extra stories that I wanted to draw. I still wanted to end it with “Havens Have Not” as a bookend to the Please Release style and structure. But there was actually a “title track”– I had written a story called “You Don’t Say” that was mostly about the things that no one tells you about parenthood.
That sounds like a cliché, and we all know those clichés, but there’s this ocean of other stuff. Most of it can sound pretty depressing, because a lot of it’s about either you not giving a shit about a lot of things, or other people stop giving a shit about the stuff that fills up your life, and learning to deal with that and losing a lot of the peaks and valleys of life. That’s okay. The terrain changes itself completely.
I worked up several different versions of the story, and penciled a version of it. It involved me going on a stroller walk with my one-year-old daughter around this weird neighborhood, filled with wastelands and half-way wildlife preserves and swamps and stuff out on the edge of town.
The longer I spent on it, the more questions emerged and evolved. Children grow so quickly– so quickly that, by the time another two months had gone by and I hadn’t finished the story, it was a completely different set of questions and ramblings and musings.
At a certain point I realized that the issues at hand were going to be continually evolving. So I was like, “This is not the time–this might actually be something that takes another ten years to really grasp.” So I decided to omit it completely.
CB: Yeah, it’s fascinating how much all of that’s a cliché. Parenthood is… You feel like you’re walking through these stories that your parents, your grandparents, all of your friends can tell you. It simplifies your life. The first few years all you can do is try to get enough sleep. All of these things that people talk about, you think, “I’m going to be different than that. I’m going to be the cool parent. I’m not going to take my kids to restaurants with me. I’m not going to be driving a minivan. I’m not going to do all of these things.” Then life forces it on you so you have to be that person because otherwise you won’t survive.
Powell: Yeah, you bet. A lot of that, I think, is where your concept of what it means to have ideals and principles is very different before parenthood. As a parent, I’m having to pick and choose which battles are worth being fought when I am serving as a template for this little human. Especially when my kid starts interacting with other kids and their parents and their sets of principles and ideals.
CB: But as I mentioned, the difference between “The Phantom Form” and “Havens Have Not” is really the story of someone growing up and dealing with their subjective concept of the world versus a more objective reality of the world.
Powell: Yes, using different sets of lenses entirely.
CB: Yet you seem so much more hopeful in “Havens Have Not” than you did when you were much younger. It’s a very optimistic note on which to end the book.
Powell: Thank you. I like to think that I actually feel that change manifested. When you’re twenty-five, you still are not entirely comfortable with seeing the value in certain things that you identified with from a younger part of your life. Though I was nostalgic and wistful, I also had a natural urge to push away the past.
Some of it had to do with growing up and living in the punk world. Some of it was just me. There was this enormous pressure to cast aside the things that brought you to a certain time and place.
I remember when I was debating whether to move here or somewhere else, somebody offered me some awful advice: “If you move to Bloomington, you’ll be able to be yourself. But if you move to this other town, you’ll change.” But it carried this notion that I internalized at the time– that having a crystallized sense of self is something that should be avoided or approached with shame. It was a very toxic idea, and one that summed up my darkest two years.
CB: I started a job recently; I’ve been at it for about six to eight weeks now. I haven’t worked with any of these people before, a completely different company. I’ve found it to be a really interesting experience in that I’m finding all that things that I have done over my lifetime and that I know how to do are all coming to the forward. I feel almost more myself now than I have before because I’m forced to use my own skills and my own experience to help inform what I’m doing now.
CB: It’s really a great growing experience. I feel like my mind is more alive in a lot of ways than it has been before that.
Powell: That makes perfect sense. You can grasp the span of your existence in new ways that retroactively inform your lifelong concept of self.
CB: You’re really at an inflection point because March Book Two is out. It’s done extremely well. It’s certainly raised your profile, although I know that’s not one of the key aspects of the work for you. Obviously your family is expanding. Do you feel like you are on the verge, and as you start to think about your next book in 2018, that this is going to be an evolution but a different stage of your life as well?
Powell: Yeah, I think it already is. I have it written. It’s about two-thirds of the way thumbnailed. I started penciling it twice already over the last few years and decided it wasn’t ready yet.
I’m managing to stay afloat as a full-time cartoonist and I feel hopeful that I’m going to be able to find ways to continue doing that. But that path has shattered a lot of illusions as far as “arriving” at a place of any kind of security or comfort. I recognize right now that any success that might be coming as a result of my active involvement with March is allowing me to do some very important things, like pay hospital bills for my two kids’ births, and drawing The Lost Hero, that Rick Riordan adaptation, allowed me to put money down on a house.
But money and visibility fade very quickly. It’s made me very aware of how hard every cartoonist has to hustle. Everyone I know who is full-time is doing massive amounts of work, and such great work.
I feel like most of us American cartoonists are going to die at our drawing tables. I have strong feelings of kinship and compassion to my fellow cartoonists who are in the same boat. We’ve chosen this path, and are all kinda screwed. So we’re all paying attention to each other and figuring out the best way to survive, which means we get to die together at the drawing table in fifty years.
CB: That’s a great comics tradition, after all.
Powell: It is. A lot of it is not only scheduling and thinking a year ahead of time, but also trying to figure out exactly what your work in comics will allow you to do in other parts of your life.
I don’t think there has been any uptick in visibility or sales in any of my personal graphic novels as a result of March, and I wasn’t really expecting that there would be. It takes a lot of pressure off, knowing that regardless of any success (or lack thereof), every three years I get to finish a book that comes from the core of my being. That’s living the dream.
My next book is definitely coming from a very different place in life and I’m trying to write it as pure fiction. Any Empire is a work of fiction, but so much of it’s autobiographical. This is a very different story and it work of reflects a lot of questions that I have now that I’m a parent and now that I’m in my thirties and everything. It also takes place in the mountains of Arkansas in 1979, and allows me to remain connected to my homeland, even if I’m never fortunate enough to live there again.
CB: From my perspective it feels like the comics industry is growing dramatically these days and that’s helping to lift everybody, particularly high quality independent cartoonists like yourself. Do you see that as a continual evolution where you are making a few more sales each other and it feels like the market is growing? Or do you feel like we are more static?
Powell: I was just thinking about this yesterday. I was looking at the New York Times Best Seller list after Congressman Lewis was on the Daily Show, excitedly thinking, “Oh, sweet, we got double duty on the list.” March was #4 and #5, respectively.
The list itself was amazing because Raina Telgemeier and her comics have an absolute reign over the top three on the list, and they have for months. Also, the entire list was creator owned, independent comics; there was no Marvel or DC at all. Even megahits like Walking Dead are creator-owned indie titles. What an exciting time is it that the top three places can be held in Fleetwood Mac Rumors-style domination, selling to a massive demographic that’s notably outside what people still consider a “traditional” demographic for comics itself.
I feel like creators generally see that it’s the same pond we are all swimming in. There are different models by which people are able to stay afloat. It’s really cool to see that some people are able to work with great focus strictly on their own books and keep those in print, keep pushing and working. Some creators are able to work in other creative fields. Then there are folks who play the whole spectrum within comics– making a living writing and drawing for the bigger companies while doing other, smaller works (or even self-publishing) at the same time.
Five years ago, I thought that the way I needed to spend my time and my energy was by being this focused beam of force that was constantly working on my own stuff, keeping it in print, and staying on a single track.
Now looking around, I see that the latter path found me. At present, it’s only possible for me to make a living by participating in the breadth of the comics industry by doing work for hire for bigger publishers with liveable advances, and carving out the time to do my own books whenever possible. We’re all learning lessons from each other along the way and seeing that there’s no longer the structure of twenty years ago between the pond with the big fish in it and the pond with the little fish; it’s all one pond.
That’s very good news for comics as a whole, and for creators being able to do good work throughout the field, though making a living at comics is still a very uncertain and stressful path.