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Comics and the Moral Arc of the Universe

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Nate Powell:  A lot of this has to do with being a part of Generation X, raised by white middle class baby boomers, and realizing very late in the game how much my whole generation internalized a lot of the assumptions that were carried by baby boomers in the relative stability of the second half of the 20th century. And the way that that impacts this myth of the inevitability of social progress in the long term.

Alex Chambers:  That's cartoonist Nate Powell on his latest book, Save It For Later. It's a collection of graphic essays about parenting, protest and the kinds of promises we can or can't make, for the next generation. Powell's March trilogy, which he co-wrote with Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, won the National Book Award For Young People's Literature in 2016. This week on Inner States, Nate Powell in conversation with Earth Eats host Kayte Young. That's coming up right after this.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. I'm guessing you remember where you were when you found out the results of the 2016 presidential election, however you felt about it. Graphic novelist Nate Powell had just finished his National Book Award winning trilogy March, he wrote that with Andrew Aydin and Congressman John Lewis. It's an autobiographical account of The Civil Rights Movement, and I feel the main message we get about The Civil Rights Movement is about the arc of the moral universe. It's long but it bends towards justice. Nate was feeling that too. He was telling his daughter that the first woman was about to be elected president, and then the votes started coming in. Nate writes about and draws that moment in his newest book, Save It For Later, it's a collection of graphic essays about living at a time when it feels less obvious that the universe is bending toward justice.

Alex Chambers:  This week on a special fun drive edition of Inner States, Earth Eats host Kayte Young who is also a graphic memoirist herself, talks with Nate Powell about censorship, military aesthetics and consumer goods, writing about his life almost as it's happening and how to talk to your kids about complex, moral and political issues. But first, a quick word to you dear listener. As you know this is a public radio show. Not only that, it's a local public radio show. I mean that in a couple of ways, it's made locally, handcrafted in the studios of WFIU Bloomington, and we also use local ingredients. Nate Powell may be a nationally known artist but he's also a local, as are Ileana Haberman and Jake Hammond, Dorian Bybee and Sam Shoaf. Just about everyone I've spoken with has some insight into Southern Indiana. So much of our media these days is national, whether it's the excellent reporting on NPR or it's Cable News or The New York Times.

Alex Chambers:  The thing is you can't get an in depth understanding of your community that way. We need to keep supporting local news, like what's produced just down the hall in our newsroom. And we also need media that pays attention to local culture, what's going on in Bloomington, Columbus, Terre Haute or across the state in region. That's what we do here on Inner States and your support makes that happen. If local arts and culture coverage is important to you, help support it. Call 800 662 3311 or go to, and tell us what matters to you on WFIU.

Alex Chambers:  Okay, let's get to Kayte Young's conversation with Nate Powell, here's Kayte.

Kayte Young:  I really wanted to talk to you today about your book, Save It For Later, and I know there's a new release that has come out with additional material, and I was wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about that book, just tell us what it is and talk about the new release.

Nate Powell:  You bet. Save It For Later is a hybrid of essay and memoir that covers a lot of, both my family's personal subjective experiences over the last eight years. Not only equipping my kids with the tools they need to be able to tackle a lot of the increasing and pressing challenges in the world that they are rapidly inheriting, but also the widely shared experiences that a lot of us have had during this authoritarian power struggle in this crisis for democracy. And that's combined with essay segments that are a little more objective and sort of, peel back layers of popular culture and consumer culture, and how they relate to the normalizing of fascist and authoritarian symbols, and presence in our everyday lives.

Kayte Young:  So I was wondering if we could start with you talking about your history as a comics creater, the different kinds of work that you've done and how this work is different from that.

Nate Powell:  I guess from the get go, I have always been interested in making fiction primarily when I'm doing comics that are entirely my own creation. I'm a writer artist and I'm an artist who works with a number of writers. I'm best known for doing non-fiction comics, but I feel like my strong suit and my home planet is actually magical realist fiction. So, I'm best known for doing the March trilogy and being involved with its follow up book run, and working together with John Lewis to convey his experiences as a young person at the center of The Civil Rights Movement. And then, that experience effected me as a storyteller, but also just as a person trying to effect change, and impacted my approach to work since the completion of that trilogy.

Kayte Young:  Okay so before you got involved with the March trilogy, your personal work which was written by you, was mostly fiction?

Nate Powell:  Yes, and a lot of that was a product of my age and the ways in which other life circumstances impact what we want to do. I've been publishing comics for 30 years. I started as a young teenager, but I certainly, prior to working on the March Trilogy, even up into my early 30's, I had kind of a insular, snooty arteurs perspective to just making the weird stories that I make, having a blast, and really not having a lot of consideration for exactly who is reading those stories, why, how, what their own personal experiences might be which they may bring to the table as they're reading. These are a lot of things that were brought to my attention and turned on their head, with the release of that first March book.

Kayte Young:  And how was it turned on it's head?

Nate Powell:  I feel like prior to the release of March book one, I almost had an attitude that I should not consider the potential readership of a book that I'm doing. And a lot of this I think, I would refer to this as punk rock baggage. As internalizing a lot of the individualist attitudes that I would have towards making art and music, without really thinking about it critically. But the very first day that March book one came out in 2013, at the very first signing that changed. Thankfully we had a very long signing line at San Diego Comic Con. It was long enough that many people in the line were able to read at least half of the book by the time they got up to get their book signed. And so, it was fascinating because people on day one were coming to us with reactions, with questions, with personal and historical connections. And we were getting feedback in real time.

Nate Powell:  But specifically educators and librarians were showing up, telling us about, not only their enthusiasm for the book, but importantly what they were doing to make a space for our work on their shelves or in their classroom. And I feel like that was the first time in which I was ever forced to actually put a face on the people who I would refer to as positive gatekeepers. Revealing the fact that books don't just wind up on shelves and in stores, and in schools and libraries, people don't just wind up stumbling into books, most of the time in reading them. It involves a lot of effort, a lot of sticking up for some of this work, and increasingly varied stages of risk on behalf of book store owners, educators, library workers etcetera.

Kayte Young:  Okay, well I really wanted to talk about this later, but I can't resist just diving right into that, since it's come up already. Is the role of these gatekeepers positive or negative, these gatekeepers in libraries and in classrooms, this is something that's really in the news shall we say. It's very current that we're dealing with, I don't know if you want to call it censorship or if it's directly called book banning but there are definitely a lot of new policies in states all across the US that are limiting and restricting the kinds of reading material in public libraries and in classrooms. I know that the March trilogy is probably included in some of those books.

Nate Powell:  There have always been eyes on it, we've had legal challenges in the past, in prisons, in a couple of random schools. But right now, March hasn't shown up on the chopping block with this current very heavy coordinated wave of book challenges and bans. So yeah, it was interesting when you brought up whether to refer to it as censorship or simply as challenges and bans. I do think that the more dangerous and likely possibility coming from this, is that the outright censorship and banning campaign on its face, will not be successful. But, the greater damage will be increasing levels of, what I would refer to as soft censorship, which is people looking out for their jobs and their safety, and simply choosing not to include certain books in their curriculum, or in their libraries, and making decisions which are very understandable, but that are harder to keep track of and which have a much quieter and more pervasive chilling effect.

Nate Powell:  Not only with culture at large, but for something like the March Trilogy, which is history, which is taught in schools as history, and which is a new generations foremost source for history about the Civil Rights Movement. Removal of those books, whether through legislative means or through this soft censorship, achieves the larger goal of removing the history itself from classroom.

Kayte Young:  So, I just wanted to return to your personal experience as an author, and what it was like for you, what it meant for you to be working on a project that wasn't fiction, and that was, like you said, this hybrid of personal essay, commenting on the larger culture and the political landscape of the times. But also some personal history and memoir, and bringing your family into your stories. And I just wanted to talk a little bit about what that was like for you.

Nate Powell:  I think when the initial seeds were planted in my mind, which would eventually culminate in Save It For Later, I personally wasn't interested in doing autobiographical comics at all. And this goes back to underlining the reasons why I make comics in the first place. So, by the end of 2017, I feel like through that first year of the previous administration and everyone getting through their day to day, while working in a very reactive position, trying to catch up with what seemed to be 100 dumpster fires burning every day. By the end of 2017, it seemed very obvious to me that even with some of my closest friends and even sometimes within my own household, there was this unspoken notion that there simply wasn't enough bandwidth to really talk about the smaller quieter, more personal aspects in which this authoritarian power grab was impacting us as a community, as neighbors, as a family unit, as individuals. And a lot of that boils down to stuff that can often be easily dismissed, finding space to talk about anxiety, dread, doom, hope. Things that are less tangible in the face of very concrete problems, with solutions that people need to band together to achieve.

Nate Powell:  However. I also realized that I was forgetting some of the details of those moments, just a year into the previous administration. And so comics were working for me, just as scribbles in my sketchbook, to write down moments and details, and vignettes, so I wouldn't forget them. As I started collecting those moments, it occurred to me that these weren't necessarily specific to me, these were broadly shared personal experiences. And when I say broadly, I really mean outside of a political binary. It's important to remember that in 2016 and 2017, a lot of political moderates and moderate sane conservatives, were also really anxious and troubled, and really uncertain about the car that the dog caught. In my opinion, I think a lot of moderates and a lot of conservatives, accepted the normalization of the circumstances a lot more quickly, and just went along with their everyday lives.

Nate Powell:  And so, as soon as I recognized that these experiences weren't limited to me or to my family, that perhaps there was a purpose to airing the laundry and to clearing out space, because that space for that personal dialog was going to continue to disappear more and more quickly. By early March 2018, I had a general outline together for just the first person memoir parts of Save It For Later. And I wanted it to be a really slim 96 page book that I could do in a matter of months and immediately print and get out into the world. Again, thinking reactively, instead of thinking into the future. But my agent thought it was a great idea and immediately after that meeting, I went back to my hotel room and I outlined, and thumb-nailed, and broke down sketches for the first two chapters of the book in one sitting. And things came together really quickly, and the essay chapters were separate at that time. They were intended to be stand alone projects, but the more I worked on those essay chapters, the more I realized that I was really addressing the same stuff as with my memoir book.

Nate Powell:  So, once I made the decision that this was all one work, then everything really enriched itself and started to open up new narrative possibilities within the book.

Kayte Young:  And so, by the essay pieces you're talking about About Face?

Nate Powell:  Yes, I started that at the same time that I started these early memoir chapters. About Face is a comics essay about the normalization of fascist and authoritarian aesthetican symbols in consumer culture in pop culture. It's about the ways in which that's changed over the course of decades and it's about the ways in which that has impacted the normalization of fascist and authoritarian forces in society at large. Interestingly, as I was just observing things as another driver, recognizing the late model cars and trucks and SUV's, not only that were being bought primarily in black and charcoal, but that extra money was being spent for detailing and modification that would black out tail lights, that were these new advancements in all black rims, and hub cap covers, license plate covers, really leaning into total obscurity.

Nate Powell:  But even corporate logos which were, until very recently, especially in car culture, esteemed as a symbol of status, it seemed like they were quickly becoming replaced with this notion of even blacking out the corporate logo, so that the aesthetic choice of the full blackout had more cultural currency than the status implications of getting a brand new Dodge Ram.

Kayte Young:  And how does that look of the blacked out-- how does that relate to this kind of militarized...

Nate Powell:  Well at it's core, it's about a lack of accountability, and a lack of recognizability, and throughout the pages of the essay, I sort of go into the ways in which this exact lack of accountability, and this kind of facial obscurity was often decried by these same people when it served their ends, often in some racist application of outrage. But that for people for whom this is a child's power fantasy enacted in adulthood, now that they have the disposable income to make choices about spending thousands of dollars on body armor and guns, or buying a 70 thousand dollar modded out truck, that'll put them in a debt hole for the rest of their lives, but it's worth it to feel like they got their big boy power truck, it comes down to revealing the notion that this kind of insecure tough guy fundamentally feels that they are above the law, above a certain level of accountability, and that their existence has ensured them the right to remain above the law.

Nate Powell:  So, during the authoritarian power grab that really kicked in throughout the 2010's, on a consumer culture level, this is about buying adjacency to authoritarian power. Being able to emulate whether it was the military or paramilitary aesthetic from earlier in one's own life, or just buying adjacency to a lot of the aesthetic shift that cops had enacted throughout the 2010's and feeling like if you put enough money into modifications on your truck, there were very few distinctions between your blacked out truck, and that blacked out sheriff's truck that had the same punisher skull, that had the same black, white and blue American flag. It was the blurring of the lines of state power through consumer goods.

Alex Chambers:  It's time for a break. When we come back, Nate Powell talks about making the social and political themes of his work more clear, even when he's doing 90's punk soap opera with inter-dimensional travel. Before we listen to that though, now is a good time for you to support this work; 800 662 3311 or Stick around.

Alex Chambers:  Inner States, Alex Chambers. Graphic novelist Nate Powell, is talking with Earth Eats host Kayte Young, about his latest book Save It For Later, a collection of graphic essays about parenting and the urgency of protest. Let's get back to it.

Kayte Young:  Okay, so you had these essays that you were writing, and then you have these memoir stories that you've pulled together into this one book. And I'm interested in the way that drawing seems to happen to some other part of ourselves than writing does. And I feel like looking at images as a reader also pulls on some other part of myself, and I would like to know what role drawing plays for you in accessing memories, and in accessing those emotions that are connected to the memories, in maybe a different way than writing does.

Nate Powell:  For me, I think a lot of it is the inseparability of my way of navigating the world visually, processing information visually, and finding a satisfaction and a fulfillment in making visual art, really in an unchanged way since I was a three year old. But specifically, I think that oftentimes there's a compromise that's made when you're translating information, especially subjective experiential information or sense memory. When you're translating that into the written word, or maybe I should even say, when I'm translating that into the written word. And I feel like there's an immediacy and a rawness to trying to communicate as much as possible through visual means. I've learned increasingly that this takes an extra step in visual literacy, I think, for readership in general. And it requires challenging my own assumptions, that not everyone has such a visually centered mind, or a visually focused process of reading and absorbing information.

Nate Powell:  So, certainly over the last six or seven years, I've tried to be more mindful of being able to point out things with a little more concreteness and clarity to a reader instead of assuming that they're going to absorb vague non verbal information off the pages of my comic.

Kayte Young:  And it kind of gets back to what you said at the beginning, when you were talking about recognizing the effect on the world that your work could have, if you're considering the readers.

Nate Powell:  Certainly, even right now, I'm finishing up work on a weird kind of 90's punk soap opera that involves a lot of inner dimensional travel, things are getting really strange in my studio right now. And it's pure fiction but it's very satisfying with confronting my own memories of just being on tour with bands, and all of the experiences and feelings involved with punk. But a lot of my work doing non fiction comics accounts really comes to play in terms of being able to convey even really out there narratives with hopefully an increasing level of concern for being concrete, and being clear when it's necessary, as a storyteller. And kind of not leaving as much to be just assumed on behalf of the reader, and I think that's hopefully allowed some of the continuing social and political themes and questions, even in my fiction, to find a home that's a little more comfortable for them.

Kayte Young:  Well can we come back to talking a little bit more about Save It For Later and about making work that is coming from your own life and your own experiences, and in some cases really recent experiences. It felt like sometimes you were making these stories in real time. Can you talk about that a little bit and about what that was like bringing your family into it, and also the effect of living your life knowing that you're making art about it.

Nate Powell:  A very important point to bring up, yes. The content that's within the pages of Save It For Later, largely covers my and my family's experiences between 2015 and the end of 2019. And importantly, as I have never really been very interested in doing something that is straight autobiography or memoir, but realizing that these were not experiences which were specific to me or to my family. Soon after that then I realized, it would be inevitable that my family, including my two small kids, would need to be depicted in some way in the pages of the book. So, one of the just cartoonist Jedi tricks that I used was turning my kids and turning most young people in the book, into this weird kind of equestrian dog unicorn hybrid, some kind of cute animal.

Nate Powell:  Basically, this served two functions, one was a basic consent issue, recognizing that my kids had no ability to consent, and looking for some kind of an ethical way around that nagging sense that I had inside myself that something just wasn't sitting right if I was approaching these experiences as just straight cartooning, out of the pages of my life. The second impact of that decision was that it was achieving what I was after as soon as I decided to make the book, which was that, I knew that these were experiences which were shared really broadly, and my assumption was that nobody's really interested in specifically reading about me or my kids. But by masking my children as these anthropomorphized unicorn deer, hopefully a reader would not be reading those kids as my kids, but would be projecting the young people in their life into those characters.

Nate Powell:  My older kid at the time, while I was drawing the book was six, seven, eight years old. And so, our conversations were getting more complex as my kids world view was rapidly expanding and that was impacting my work on the page, as I was doing it. But inevitably, and there's even a little bit of this at the very end of the book where I'm really talking about as a major takeaway how it's fundamentally important for all adults to recognize that no matter how cool you think you are, no matter how enlightened you think you are, in terms of inner generational reckoning, there will come a time in which you are the person whose out of touch. You're the dinosaur and it's really important to learn when to shut up, and just listen to your kids, or listen to the young people when they're telling you that you're behind the times or when they have an important question that needs an answer. And by the time I was done drawing the book, I had already crossed that threshold, in a very self aware cartoonist way. It was happening in my living room as I was talking about it, in the pages of the book.

Kayte Young:  Yeah, I feel like one of the things that you explore in the book is the challenge of parenting during times of political upheaval, and maybe there's always political upheaval, but it feels different these days. We want to pass on our values to our kids, but we also want to allow and encourage them to think for themselves, even when they're quite young. And to feel free to disagree with us, and I just wonder your thoughts on that line between indoctrinating and educating, or opening up a space for them.

Nate Powell:  I think that, my wife and I have exactly the same perspective and have always had the same perspective about how much information and how much explicit guidance to give our kids in terms of how they're perceiving the world around them, on a social and political level. But a lot of this is more that inter generational reckoning, it has to do with being a part of Generation X, raised by white middle class baby boomers, and realizing, very late in the game, how much my whole generation, generally speaking, internalized a lot of the assumptions that were carried by baby boomers in the relative stability of the second half of the 20th century. And some of that might be specific to being southern white middle class baby boomers, having to do with a lot of assumptions and outright myths involving people who are or were associated with segregation and white supremacy.

Nate Powell:  In my parents generations lives, being given a pass or greatly benefiting from a huge redemption arc in their own lives, and the way that that impacts the notion of this myth of the inevitability of social progress in the long term. And I think that's something that, for my generation, and also older millennials, reckoning almost immediately without the hollowness of that assumption throughout the 2010s. Recognizing that the moral arc of the universe is definitely long, but it does not bend towards justice on its own. And that seems almost like a cliché now, to make that distinction, but six years ago that was the fundamental shock, I think, that went across our society, was people not being able to wrap their minds around the fact that there was no inevitability of progress.

Nate Powell:  There was no arc bending towards justice on its own. And so, I think as parents, in those early few years of our parenthood, in the first half of the 2010s, we were just letting things unfold and trying to be mindful of what our kids were picking up, and what questions they were asking about. But specific to the political fabric of our nation right now, and it's social upheaval as we're battling for the soul of democracy. It was July 2016, after Trump's campaign stop, I believe in Kentucky, that was the big stop where Indianan Nazi, Matthew Heimbach, roughed up and harassed a black protester who was in the crowd and where you got Donald Trump in there talking about the good old days and carrying people out on a stretcher who were protesters and outright encouraging violence, and making hollow promises of paying the legal fees for people who committed violence against non violent protesters.

Nate Powell:  I think that was the news day in which my wife and I recognized that we had an obligation to draw a particular line in the sand instead of making an assumption that someone who's eating up every second of the media landscape every day could actually be absorbed neutrally by a young child without some kind of baseline, moral and ethical guidance. So, that was actually the day, as is depicted in Save It For Later, where we had to be like, look, we just have to be, this is a bad dude, for the reasons of encouraging violence, for the specific ways in which he has shown himself in public and in court to be someone who is a purveyor of the worst qualities of human kind. It's our obligation as parents to do this, and the fact that we feel a certain kind of tension, that there is no room for a redemption narrative in there, really indicated at that time, the cracks that were very quickly forming in that inter generational post war assumption about the inevitability of progress. If you don't point these things out, you are making space for those things to be normalized. And these seem like little decisions, but that's what a lot of Save It For Later is, it's the cumulative impact of these little decisions on a mass societal level.

Nate Powell:  The things we choose to do or choose not to do. What we choose to show up for and what we choose not to show up for. The times we choose to be silent and the times we choose to alienate ourselves from our neighbors, on occasion, by standing up.

Kayte Young:  And there's a moment in the story too when the child is playing and has a symbol on her arm, and the parents are talking to her, and I really love the image of the dagger coming from the eyes. The character who represents you is wanting to get into how violent Nazis are or were and.

Nate Powell:  Which doesn't exactly translate to a three and a half year old, who's living in a fantasy play zone at the moment. Yeah, so this is a scene that ties in my love for comics, with the sort of pop culture applications of representing fascism and authoritarianism. So yeah, it basically goes back to watching the 1970's Wonder Woman show with my kid, as a three year old at the time and forgetting that from the very pilot episode, it revolves around this fight against actual Nazis during World War Two and then realizing that there's this whole trove of information that I immediately needed to wade through to figure out what was necessary to convey. And a lot of that chapter really revolves around, figuring out by failure, how much is too much information. And at what point, that quickly becomes unhelpful, especially for a very young mind. And also the role that fantasy plays.

Nate Powell:  The symbol was this very crudely drawn swastika a few days later while my kid was playing and quote "pretending to be the bad guys". And so, my wife and I had to sit down, and again had to draw a line in the sand, and had to make the distinction that it was okay to pretend to be bad guys, but there were certain specific bad guys in the real world, who we never pretend to be. And also in these moments, my wife and I work as a team, but in the pages of how I convey it in the book, it increasingly became important for me to always be the fool or the overreacting idiot whenever possible. And a lot of that is just really taking advantage of comics ability to compartmentalize and magnify certain sides of a conversation or a dialog to their advantage. So, I'm very lucky to have a child expert and social worker as my life partner, to guide me through these difficult moments. But also, it feels good to make fun of myself along the way, for being the one whose almost knocking it off the rails by being like, oh no I've got this, I can explain this fine.

Kayte Young:  Yeah. It took a pretty serious and delicate moment, and it did make me laugh a little bit, to see the little daggers coming from her eyes.

Nate Powell:  Oh yes, the not now dad.

Kayte Young:  Too far.Yeah, and I think just those scenes really are just showing the complexities of trying to wade through so much historical material with a small child, who's not going to be able to take it all in, and then trying to deal with the day to day, how is this showing up in their own psyche, as they're working out stuff through play.

Nate Powell:  It's obvious to any parent or any educator, but again it's something that I don't think is discussed in a very general way amongst a lot of people, is the fact that, very young kids are able to tackle pretty complex information. It's just an issue of learning what their level is at that moment, and recognizing that a kid is going to come back and have follow-up questions. They are going to contextualize it with their life. And so, it really is just an issue of seeing beyond that one moment and waiting for the follow-up questions, waiting for your kid to process the one or two things you said, and come back looking for a few more answers.

Kayte Young:  The other thing I was going to say, we are starting to get close to running out of time but, just about her play with that symbol on her arm, really pulled in the essay that you had about being at a Comic Con and seeing someone show up in a Nazi uniform as part of their cos-play or whatever. Yeah, it just felt like there was a continuity there.

Nate Powell:  And a lot of those asides from the memoir narrative had been observations that I had slowly been writing down and making, as early as 2008. A lot of it went into a book I did, called Any Empire, which came out 11 years ago but really was a precursor of this moment of absolute crisis that we're living in now. But at that time, it wasn't commonplace but you could definitely count on occasionally seeing the highly questionable Nazi cos-play at a comic convention, or at any geeky pop culture space. And you never knew, unless you went and confronted the person, you never knew if they were actually cos-playing as a character. If they were being someone from, a quote "character", from like The Man In The High Castle, or if they were being a quasi Nazi fascist character, that would be in like Starship Troopers.

Nate Powell:  The point was that they were just being trolls, the reason they were dressing that way, was in this contrarian sense, the knowledge that everyone was made uncomfortable by their presence, but the only way to get clarity was by directly confronting them. And so, it was a challenge to ownership of the space. But it's also important to point out that in 2011, I was getting enough plausible deniability that as I was twiddling my thumbs about the right thing to do, I was watching other people be more proactive and directly confront them. And recognizing that was a failure on my end, but simultaneously praising the courage and bluntness of strangers around me who didn't have those reservations at the time.

Alex Chambers:  This is Inner States, we're talking with graphic novelist Nate Powell, who co-wrote the National Book Award winning, March Trilogy and Save It For Later, a collection of graphic essays about parenting, protest and, as you heard, the militarization of consumer culture. If you appreciate what we're doing here, support us at 800 662 3311, or at We'll be right back.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. Let's get back to Kayte Young's conversation with graphic novelist Nate Powell. His latest book is Save It For Later, promises, parenthood and the urgency of protest.

Kayte Young:  So, we've talked about the role that some of these projects can play in a school setting, in education. And I know you have a one page comic or a poster that you did for The American Library Association, could you talk about that?

Nate Powell:  You bet. Throughout the year, I've done a set of three shorter comics that are basically meeting with the rolling demands that are happening right now, with these organized far right book challenge and book ban campaigns. I recognized that, we had a couple of experiences early on, through the course of doing the March trilogy that were helpful to people as they were confronting these organized book challenges. There was a legislative side to the book challenges that were using cut and paste language in dozens of states, that needed to be addressed as a whole. That people needed to understand, where the legislative language was doing work that would effectively limit books from even being considered for inclusion in public schools. Or even, that would prevent the writers themselves, from not only being class speakers, but from even discussing the work with educators, even without students present.

Nate Powell:  And then the third comic that I did, this ALA comic was in recognizing that, since we're facing this very broad organized campaign, it was important to get a set of talking points, but in order to take the offense, to limit the amount of time that we spend being in a reactive state, against the forcible demands of these pressure campaigns. And it was important that we convey to people that when you see a comic, when you read a comic, this is what's happening, these are the strengths, this is what's going on in your mind. There's a lot of non verbal informal that you're absorbing. Comics can be very high minded and cover really heavy stuff, but they don't have to be like that, comics are their own medium, they're their own format. They're able to be all of these things, but it was also necessary to point out the inherent weaknesses of comics, or instead of weakness, I would say, the inherent vulnerability of the medium, which allows it to be such an easy target for these organized book ban campaigns.

Kayte Young:  Yeah, both of those points are really interesting. Would you mind reading a little bit from this?

Nate Powell:  I would love to. Sure. So, in this one page poster, I'm discussing just a few of comics unique strengths. This is five strengths and a vulnerability. Number one; we live in an interfaced driven society, whose visual language was developed in comics, by cartoonists over the past century full stop. Comics literacy is key to a sharper modern literacy in general. Number two; comics operate on multiple levels at once, offering a more immersive, engaging reader experience than any other mass medium. So much content is conveyed non verbally and our brains process it readily when we read comics. Number three; comics can make huge ideas and subjects accessible. Take it from me, working to convey a first person historical account of The Civil Rights Movement, into something many more people can process, humanize and apply to our world today. But they don't need to be huge ideas though, comics can just as easily be about donuts, squirrels or the feeling of grass on your bare feet.

Nate Powell:  Number four; comics are the most democratic mass storytelling medium, they're cheap, low risk creative platforms for people to express themselves, helping reflect our society more fully when we encourage people to both convey their own ideas and to better understand the people around them. You don't even need to draw well to make a comic. Number five; as you may be aware, comics are often easy targets for those averse to ideas, empathy and uncomfortable history. Comics historical vulnerabilities from McCarthyism to today and their visual nature, allow comic subject matter to be attacked without even being read, all to undercut the impact of my previous points, points three and four. And number six; importantly, comics make lifelong readers, they're not a gateway to reading as much as they're an effective format for cultivating habits and curiosity, making reading part of the fabric of everyday life.

Nate Powell:  I initially made this one page comic for the ALA conference, which put out a librarians guide to graphic novels. And then, I got such an immediate passionate response from library people and educators. The day of the ALA conference, I was crushed with dozens and dozens of messages and emails that were so enthusiastic about what was communicated through this one page comic, that I wrote the ALA to see what they thought about getting a poster made. And so, they just requested a header, and I needed something that was basically going to lead us into it more seamlessly, and so I settled on, "Comics are Reading".

Kayte Young:  Well I just think it's great, because I know so many parents who fret over their kids who only want to read comics at a certain age. And they should be reading chapter books now, and I may have been guilty of this with my own child at one point. But I just really love the messaging that I find in our own public library, which is "all reading is reading" and you don't need to be censoring or pushing, or guiding. Let the kids read what they want to read.

Nate Powell:  The more we read the more we want to read. And the more we're following our curiosities, the more curiosities develop. And so, yeah, I've been very much the same way, obviously I'm a comics person, so my house is full of comics. And I've had those moments of "whoa" in the past, of like, we should really be getting some of the pictures out and getting more text only books. But it turns out, yes indeed that happens naturally. The more a kid reads, the more they want to read across the board. They do not make these distinctions that we are projecting upon them.

Kayte Young:  Yeah, and what I like about that piece too, is that it really talks about the complex things that are happening, when people are reading comics. And it's not a lesser form of reading.

Nate Powell:  Yeah, and that's the important thing, is understanding it's not a genre, but it is a format, it is a medium, and so there are simply different cognitive processes happening. There are cross sensory situations happening, when you're a comics reader, so that everything's being conveyed visually, but you're receiving information that is auditory, that is tactile. You're really running through most of the five senses, as well as traveling back and forwards through time, and all of it is being conveyed using one sense. It's magic.

Alex Chambers:  That was graphic novelist Nate Powell in conversation with Earth Eats host, Kayte Young. Powell's latest book is a collection of graphic essays called Save It For Later, promises, parenthood and the urgency of protest. Kayte Young's graphic memoir is called Eleven. I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks for listening to this special fun drive edition of Inner States. As you know, WFIU is made possible through the contributions of listeners like you. And I just want to say, we both know it's not going to go away tomorrow if you don't contribute. That's part of why public media's so worthwhile, it's free for everyone, whether they can afford to pay for it or not. Keeping it free for everyone depends on the listeners who are able to give. Whether it's 10 or 20 dollars a month or even more. So, if you haven't supported us yet, or you feel like now is a good time to increase your support, give us a call at 800-662-3311, or go to

Alex Chambers:  Alright time for the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Aaron Cain, Mark Chilla, Yané Sanchez Lopez, Payton Whaley and Kayte Young. Our executive producer is John Bailey. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar, we have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Special thanks this week to Nate Powell. Alright time to go somewhere and listen to something. That was robins on a winter day in Southern Indiana, until next week I'm Alex Chambers, thanks for listening.

Artist Nate Powell

Artist Nate Powell (Anna Powell Denton)

Whatever you felt about the 2016 presidential election, you probably remember where you were when it happened. Graphic novelist Nate Powell had just finished his National Book Award-winning trilogy March, which he wrote with Andrew Aydin and Congressman John Lewis. It’s an autobiographical account of the Civil Rights Movement, and, you know, I feel like the main message we get about the Civil Rights Movement is about the arc of the moral universe. That it’s long, but it bends toward justice. Nate was feeling that too. He was telling his daughter that the first woman was about to be elected president. And then the votes started coming in.

He writes about – and draws – that moment in his newest book, Save It For Later: Promises, Parenthood, and the Urgency of Protest. It’s a collection of graphic essays about living at a time when for many people it feels less obvious that the universe is bending toward justice.

This week on a special fund drive edition of Inner States, Earth Eats host Kayte Young – who is also a graphic memoirist herself – talks with Nate Powell about censorship, military aesthetics in consumer goods, writing about his life almost as it’s happening, and how to talk to your kids about complex moral and political issues.


Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

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