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Graphic Novelist Nate Powell

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(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES’ “BLU-BOP”)

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Payton Knobeloch. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Nate Powell.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIS WILL DESTROY YOU’S “THE MIGHTY RIO GRANDE”)

Nate Powell is a graphic novelist. To break that down, he's a writer, artist, inker, letterer - kind of a Swiss Army knife-comic book creator. He is most well-known for his work on the March Trilogy, a series of graphic novel memoirs from Georgia Congressman John Lewis recounting his experiences on the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement. Written alongside Andrew Aydin, March earned Powell two Eisner Awards and made him the first cartoonist to receive a National Book Award. The trilogy is now in history curricula in schools in over 40 states. His other works include Any Empire, You Don't Say and Swallow Me Whole, which won him the Eisner for best original graphic novel in 2009. He also has a background in music, having managed an underground record label for 16 years and performed vocals for punk band Soophie Nun Squad and Universe. Powell is an Arkansas native and now lives in Bloomington with his family. Today he joins us in the WFIU studios. Nate, thanks so much for coming in.

NATE POWELL: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: So, Nate, what is a graphic novel? Because until a few years ago, that was kind of the term I used to get my parents to take comic books more seriously, but it's not just that.

NATE POWELL: True. And it still serves that purpose. I'd say, in a nutshell, comics are a medium of storytelling and they're a language. And graphic novels are one format for comics. S,o in that nutshell, they're basically just comics with a spine instead of stapled on the side.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: So how would you describe the kind of books that you create?

NATE POWELL: In general, I divide it into the stuff that I produce solo as a writer-artist and then the stuff I collaborate on in just the capacity of artist. My solo work may be considered, you know, magical realism that always has sort of horror and mystery overtones, but a lot of it is usually about relationships between people and in communities and moving through a process of questioning both as an author or a creator asking questions, but also as the characters arrive at states of questioning the world around them and then coming out the other side.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: From the books of yours that I've read, it seems like the human conflict is what's at the forefront, and the sort of supernatural otherworldly stuff that kind of comes in that's sort of layered on top.

NATE POWELL: Yes.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: Would you kind of agree with that?

NATE POWELL: Without a doubt. Yeah, I'd say that what drives my need to make a book is generally a series of questions or explorations. And most of my themes are questions instead of statements. And those things emerge very quickly. So, over the process of a couple of years of figuring out how that's going to turn into a book, the plot elements and especially like any sort of the genre that is laid over what I want to explore in the book arrives along the way.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: What got you into comics, going back?

NATE POWELL: I guess I started reading comics when I was three. I was living in Montana on a nuclear missile base at the time. This is 1981, and it just happened that in '81, you had the Hulk, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man on TV at the same time. So, my first comic was The Hulk: Number 280, or something. It was the first appearance of Rocket Raccoon who's now wildly popular, thanks to Guardians of the Galaxy. And I started drawing at age three, also. I stayed really into comics from that moment on. And yet, it never occurred to me to actually draw comics until the summer before 7th grade. One of my good friends had been drawing for a couple of years and it took him explicitly stating to me, “We should draw comics together.” And the fact that statement hit my ears was really what woke me up. Like, “oh, that's so obvious! Why am I not drawing comics?” And I really never looked back from that moment.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: What were those first comics that you were drawing with him? What did those look like?

NATE POWELL: Well, we were deeply entrenched in 1980s Marvel, so being mostly inspired by X-Men, Daredevil, Spider-Man, they were definitely like dystopian superhero adventures. They were definitely exploring, you know, those early crystallizing concepts about conformity, individuality about self-empowerment. A lot of the things that really struck a chord with me within a year or two as I got into underground punk rock, and as I started self-publishing soon thereafter, was sort of a circular process of inspiration and creation.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: How did you kind of see your own style develop and take off? Because I think a lot of kids who are fans of comics, they get those “how to draw comic books,” and then it's these “here's how to build a guy with a Dorito for a torso,” and all these muscles and stuff. So how did that evolve into your style today?

NATE POWELL: I was also one of those kids. And a lot of it has to do with balancing that kind of nuts-and-bolts education with just spending time copying drawings from other artists and other books, and sort of folding that into your own style. So, growing up in pre-internet Arkansas, drawing comics then self-publishing them, I can't overemphasize the fact that it was very difficult to find real information about how most professionals made comics. At the time some of our seventh-grade misconceptions - they're very cute. You know, like comics are printed on newsprint. It's sort of like “oh, you draw on newsprint.” So, you know, we would go to the grocery store and buy 99-cent pads of newsprint and all those pages are just horribly browned and decaying and brittle now. We had no way of knowing that cartoonists draw comic book pages larger than the printed size. I got a coffee table book about Marvel Comics for Christmas in eighth grade and that had a sequence in the back that showed a Ghostrider page being executed from start to finish, from script to the printed product. And it came with photos of the process. And that was my window into the creative process itself. I became obsessed with the details that were in each of these photos and what these bizarre new tools and implements were; what purpose they served. So that eight-page sequence became my new roadmap to exploring how professional cartoonists do it. I'd say by 11th grade, I was no longer really interested in superheroes so much, but again, in Arkansas, still kind of pre-internet. I really didn't have an awareness that comics existed outside of superheroes. So, there were attempts to kind of draw more real-life comics, at least featuring regular human beings and teenagers. But most of the conflicts in those stories were still basic power dynamic struggles. You know, it would be an earnest but ill-advised attempt by a bunch of high schoolers to overthrow their high school and it goes horribly wrong. But if you just throw some telekinesis and some flight in there, it's just a superhero comic. But there are a couple of comics in the mid '90s. One is called Flood!, by Eric Drooker. It was a wordless graphic novel. And another one by Chester Brown called I Never Liked You. And those were the two books which really blew the doors open for me and made me realize that every facet of our existence is something that you could tell a story about, and thus to pay attention to the world around me and not to shy away from that - that anything could be a comic.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: When you were first self-publishing at 14, you said - what did that process look like? Were you putting together the spine, the pages all that stuff? How did that look?

NATE POWELL: It looked a little shoddy, but passable - to answer the question literally. My town, the Little Rock-North Little Rock area had a little bit of a back history of self-publishing. And the comic book store owner who eventually gave us a little shelf space - this guy, Michael Tierney, he had done some self-publishing in the late '70s early '80s. So, I kind of grew up seeing his books on the shelves. Essentially, it involves finding somewhat ignored photocopiers that might be in the office where my dad worked or in the church that our families went to and basically using those photocopiers until they broke and then quietly leaving the room. You know, in our 13, 14-year-old way, letting someone else fix it. But along the way, those early years of photocopying comics, I gained a lot of side skills as a photocopier repair person, because you had to. You know, like, especially if you're doing things under cover of darkness, or you're doing some somewhat shady photocopying at various photocopying chains, you better be able to fix the machine yourself if you want to get away with all those extra copies. And, yeah, a lot of it is you take it home and you do all the collating, the folding, the stapling. A lot of it involved: you mow enough lawns to get some super-long staplers so that you can actually saddle-stitch your books. And I guess with each issue we would find one more thing we could do to make it look more like the books we read and less like comics that were stapled together by a bunch of ninth graders.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: Is there a photo of teenage Nate Powell somewhere in an Arkansas Kinko's - “just do not let this guy in?”

NATE POWELL: There may actually be. It would have been behind the counter. The first comic that my friend Mike Lyer and I ever published - we had an older friend who was part of our same punk scene who worked at Kinko's. And he cut us a bit of a deal on color copies for the cover, which was a very big deal. But I think we got too quickly accustomed to having that level of familiarity inside the copy shop. So, I think we got a little brazen at some points and ultimately had to go back to our covert copying.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: This is Profiles from WFIU. I'm Payton Knobeloch. Our guest today is Nate Powell. He's the graphic novelist and artist behind the New York Times best-selling graphic novel trilogy, March.

I want to go back to you growing up in the south in Arkansas, and you kind of moved around a lot. Correct?

NATE POWELL: Yeah. The first 10 years of my life, my dad was an officer in the Air Force. I was born in Little Rock, moved to Montana, moved to Alabama, then when he retired we moved back to Arkansas because that was my parent's favorite place of everywhere they had lived. Then, after high school, I moved around a whole bunch before settling here in Bloomington. But I'd say, besides really getting immersed in pop culture and learning to talk as a toddler in Montana, my experiences in Alabama and Arkansas and my parents' experiences before me in Mississippi shaped me profoundly in ways that I didn't fully unpack, I think, until I really settled into living here in Indiana.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: Come Again takes place not too far from where you grew up in Little Rock. How else has the South influenced your work?

NATE POWELL: There are some ways in which, even though some of the details in my work may not exactly line up with the general tone of Southern Gothic literature, has definitely left a strong mark. It's allowed me to kind of embrace some of the parameters of genre, both in literature and allowing my work to take things from movies in terms of tone, in terms of trying to observe my origins, and my surroundings with more clear eyes. In general, I think one of the major super-Southern themes I wind up exploring in my books no matter what - and I think this came out for the first time really strongly with Swallow Me Whole - was the very specific way in which a lot of southerners find ways around dealing with problems or talking about issues, whether it's within a family or in a school, a community or society at large. And I think it's very different from the way that the American Midwest gets around dealing with problems or talking about things. I think there's a certain kind of unspokenness of smoothing things over, and with some of the plot elements in Swallow Me Whole, with these emerging symptoms of mental disorders and the two main characters either asking for help or making a case for their own sovereignty, or just going with the ways in which a lot of those communications with their parents, their school, their community are dealt with or not dealt with, I think brought into sharper contrast a lot of components of my Southern upbringing and culture. Also, on more of a surface level, I think once I got into drawing the March trilogy I realized just how familiar I was with the specific topography, the geography cuisine culture. I started leaning more and more into that; I think in the last five years, thanks to being able to contribute in some way some of my own personal experiences to the historical account in March just as an artist.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: With a book like Come Again or Swallow Me Whole, where you're in charge of the script, the art, the inking, the lettering - what does your work process look like?

NATE POWELL: Well, whenever I do my own work, I don't actually write a script. A good thing about comics is that since very few people ever see the script stage of a book, there are eight or nine solid ways that a writer can whip up a script. I work with some writers and they deal with a very, like, finished page by page, panel by panel script. Some people do straight prose and it's much more open ended. When I'm in the creative process, usually I'm waiting for three things to come together on a writing level: waiting for the big idea or the major themes that usually comes very first, having something to talk about or ask about something I care about. In general, I'm either making notes in a sketchbook or even notes on my phone about certain details from a personal experience or a memory or scenes that are witnessed or overheard in the world at large and trying to tie those into other thoughts I have. But usually each one of those exist just as its own vignette, totally isolated until I get 25 or 30 of those, and then really a lot of that is just waiting for a character to emerge from my imagination who I really care about. This writing process generally takes several years to actually have something go from the nebulous stage to something that actually contains a storyline or contains some character development. I'm usually working on other books for years while stories are slowly gestating. But I will literally take all those vignettes and jot them down onto different pieces of paper, cut them up and arrange them on my floor so that they each exist on their own. And a lot of that's indistinguishable from playing and imagining as a kid, whether it's with toys or just like playing in the backyard and imagining that it's some other landscape. I sit in front of these little snippets of paper with these scenes and I try to interject a character that I've created into some of these scenes and try to envision how those scenes would naturally play out, and then try to see how any of these scenes may relate to each other. That leads to moving those pieces of paper around. And slowly a structure may develop. And eventually seeing how those incorporate themselves into the larger themes the larger questions - but it is a very physical act. Like, you're sitting on the floor. You're moving pieces of paper around. And you're letting your mind go to work for a couple of years while you're doing other stuff.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: So, you do all this physically. You don't do digital? You do physical paper, pen, pencil?

NATE POWELL: Yes. And there are times where I've tried, even on the writing level, I've tried to just open up a Word document and make sure it's clearly labeled and returned to it and use it as a sketch pad of sorts. But, I think, for me, there's definitely a kinesthetic process that I really enjoy in terms of the sensations of writing on paper and watching that emerge. And that's something I'm so used to. It makes me feel connected to what I was doing 20 or 30 years ago when I was trying to come up with ideas and stories. It's also just - a lot of it is, relatively speaking, it's still faster and it's simpler and it's more manageable. I do all my artwork physically as well, except for scanning and cleaning up my scans. And all my lettering is done by hand physically on the paper. A lot of that, however, is because I'm 40 years old and it's a product of being the precise age in which I received zero computer training about anything related to my field. So, I graduated from high school the last year before there were any computers in my school, except for one computer in the newspaper class. And I graduated from art school the year before any cartooning students were required to take any computer classes. So, basically, I got a crash course in Photoshop about 12 years ago. For one day, my friend taught me. And I'm still operating with those skills. But it works.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: Is every story that you think of is that a visual story to you? Are you already, from the get-go, thinking of, “how is this going to look?”

NATE POWELL: Yeah. I think the visuals are the most immediate part. And so, when I talk about vignettes, a lot of it is very much an impression - maybe impressionistic moments might be a better way to describe it because, yeah, the visual arrives first. And a lot of it has to do with exploring the details in that image or in that brief sequence that I might see animated in my head and seeing what other clues there might be that I can go with to try to think my way into a narrative. Up until recently, I was a little bit insecure - embarrassed about that. And this one of the weird things about comics. It has a foot in so many little ponds of storytelling and media but it's constantly fighting for its own legitimacy as an art form and a literary form, that you get a little weird about stuff like that - a little defensible or a little insecure, but recently, thanks to some other cartoonists who have really embraced particular genre parameters and structures, I've been inspired by that. And it's allowed me to be a lot more comfortable with basically drawing what I want to see and then finding a way sometimes to reverse-engineer plot components and details. So, in Come Again, the clearest example of this or the simplest example had to do with the main character, Haluska, who has a fairly punk haircut but who lives in a hippie village in 1979 in the Ozarks, and in Arkansas terms is definitely pre-punk. Half of her head is shaven asymmetrically and it's something that I created for that character back in 2008. And once I realized the story was taking place in the Ozarks in the late '70s, a lot of things about her appearance - the dress she wore, her haircut - a lot of these things didn't make any sense. And so, it requires when embracing this notion that, yeah, it's okay to draw what you want to draw. Find a way to string it all together. So, for Haluska's haircut, explicitly asking the questions, you know, “why would somebody have their head shaven in this context?” Or specifically, “why that half of their head shaven?” So, you have to be like, “oh, it's a hippie village.” It has to be a farming community. Why do you shave your head? You're like, lice or ticks or whatever. So, you're like, “OK so there's a lice problem. She's got to shave her head. Why is it half shaven?” It means she has to stop shaving her head. Why would she stop? Maybe there are no lice. Well, then, who's shaving her head? Or, who's giving her the idea there are lice? Well, maybe it's her child who I'd already created at that point. I'm like, “OK. She gets her kid to do a bad job shaving her head.” She realized her kid is making up this story about lice and then that starts all of a sudden to connect with these themes of openness and secrecy and privacy and confronting as a parent your kid's relationship to the truth and to secrets. And all of a sudden a scene began to emerge which justifies this aesthetic choice, but which also is woven into the bigger themes in the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIS WILL DESTROY YOU’S “THE MOVE ON TRACKS OF NEVER-ENDING LIGHT”)

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: This is Profiles from WFIU. I'm Payton Knobeloch. My guest today is Nate Powell, graphic novelist.

You mentioned a little bit ago about comic books constantly fighting for legitimacy. Do you think that comic books are still fighting for legitimacy?

NATE POWELL: Oh yes. And it's been fantastic and quite an honor for March, in particular, to play a big role in hopefully squashing certain parts of that argument; that cultural argument that has been taking place for decades about comics' legitimacy. Now I can see that this is really just kind of a swing of the pendulum. And as comics progress, as their creative pool and as their readership expands and broadens, I think it just involves new waves - you know, new corners of the room which need to be illuminated and which often need to stand up for their own legitimacy. Whether you're starting in the mid '80s with Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, really making a case for the legitimacy of the medium and then sort of moving on to the early 2000s with a lot of the literary success of like Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware, or Blankets by Craig Thompson or Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis - not to mention Maus, of course, which came out at the same time as Watchmen and Dark Knight. These are great strides, but I think what's more significant in the 2010s is looking back to larger bookstores in the '90s and into the 2000s starting to carry manga in a collected graphic novel form. Not only did it get comics as a medium out of the comic book stores, but most importantly, it caused a huge influx in female readership. And so, the amount of girls and women who started reading comics in the mid '90s - and a lot of it thanks to Ranma 1/2, Sailor Moon, a lot of an anime manga crossover enriched and broadly expanded the readership of comics. And those are a lot of kids who are millennial adult cartoonists now who are peers and friends of mine who basically have entered comics through a slightly different branch in the comics family tree. And so, yeah, it's been really interesting. There's been a lot of, you know, pushback. There are hard right wing quasi-fascist groups who are related to the GamerGate community. There's the ComicsGate community, who are basically pushing for a more conservative, traditional kind of comics fare that they feel is more in line with their erroneous vision of comics they grew up with. And that comes within the world we live in today, its own line of threats, harassment. So, comics as a community and an industry are grappling with a lot of the social and political issues on its own microcosmic level as well.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: Let's get into ComicsGate, because, for people who might not be up to date on it, it's a group of people saying that in general they want quote, unquote, "politics" kept out of comics. And it's this online campaign that claims usually, without any evidence, that a more diverse set of creators and characters are killing the comic book industry. That usually manifests, like you said, through harassment of people - online offshoot of GamerGate, which is notorious for the kind of same thing, with videogames, of wanting to keep women and other marginalized groups out of their sandbox. So, what's your reaction to comics gate and these harassment campaigns?

NATE POWELL: I think it's impossible to separate ComicsGate from GamerGate, particularly and most importantly, seeing how the means of communication and organization that happened through social media platforms with GamerGate were massively influential in the kinds of social media tactics that were used to bring about a legitimate attempt at an authoritarian regressive regime in politics, culture and society. GamerGate is massively influential in that. And there is a fairly direct transference of tactics and strategy into comics gate. I think that from my position of being on the inside of the industry, creatively and socially, but remaining kind of free of the smoke and some of the damage that has occurred as a result of GamerGate, I think that a lot of it has managed to survive by some of the chief organizers of ComicsGate tightly controlling the narrative of who wields power in what conversations, what movements maintaining a certain level of plausible deniability in terms of following breadcrumb trails back to inciting harassment and threats. A lot of the prime movers and shakers have deactivated and taken down their accounts or they've been suspended. And then they'll pop up in different forms days or weeks later. I think some of the prime movers - a lot of it is kind of just like snake oil to basically fundraise for their own projects which, devoid of all political concern should be fine, except you see how it doubles as an organizing tool for the far right. Evidence shows that there is a large group of participants and funders within ComicsGate who have - I know that being the artist of drawing a civil rights epic, I'm sensitive to the term “outside agitators,” because it's a phrase used to discount a lot of the activists and protesters in the movement, but in the comics sense, I think there are a lot of folks who had nothing to do with comics - even had never really read a comic - who were willing to plop down 50 bucks for a floppy comic to help fund this campaign and this movement. So, I think that it's inseparable from discussing other online platforms for far-right organizing harassment threats and social control.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: A lot of that harassment is done under the guise of this nebulous definition of politics. They say, “I want politics kept out of my comic books,” whether that's literal or coded language for something else, it's not really hard to guess. What do you say to the people who say that they want politics kept out of comics?

NATE POWELL: It's very transparent to me that that wish only applies to politics, that one does not ascribe to one's self. I guess in the bigger sense, comics - going back to 1930s pulp superhero, comics across the political spectrum have generally been stories of reckoning with the status quo, in one way or another. The evolution of comics is parallel to the evolution of our society in the 20th century, comic book stories including - but especially mainstream superhero comics, since their inception, have been deeply intertwined with commenting on the world. I mean, sure, that in a pre-1960s world comics were considered strictly kid stuff. But that doesn't even hold up to much scrutiny when you talk about the role that comic books played in World War 2 for G.I.s and in fundraising movements and in propaganda, frankly, as well. Comics are inseparable from the world which they reflect; which they provide new windows into seeing. The comic that shaped me the most was Chris Claremont and Annie Nocenti's work writing X-Men and various X-related titles in the 1980s. They were so important to me at the time in terms of finally allowing me to see more clearly concepts like racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, nationalism in the world around me in the late '80s and into the '90s, filtered through these superhero narratives, these power struggles, this fight against oppression. I don't know. I think that sort of argument that politics had been recently injected into comics due to the emergence of certain climates or the swing of the pendulum, it's fairly baseless when you take a look into the history of the medium itself and the concerns of the people telling these fantasy tales.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: You've been very vocal about sort of getting involved in your community and things like that for a long time. Would you say that a lot of that comes from your background in punk music?

NATE POWELL: Oh, without a doubt. So, eighth grade was my real transition year. That was the year where I sort of crossed over from listening to a bunch of thrash metal and speed metal into punk. And it's the same year I started working on the books that I would self-publish the next year. In Little Rock, in the 1990s, we had one of the best underground punk communities in the country. I discovered punk basically thanks to an underground radio show that was happening on public access radio. The person who introduced it to me was, like, you wouldn't believe it. They play punk music from all over the world, which is a mystery to me as a 13-year-old. How are you even getting this music? But interspersed with these bands from Denmark, or whatever, or France or Japan, there are bands from my hometown that are playing. And all of a sudden you're hearing about a bunch of other high school kids or junior high kids who were putting on a show in someone's house or at a park. And oh, some of the deejays on this local show are in some of these bands. And then you wind up getting a ride or skating to the show, and then all of a sudden you discover that other teenagers have been spending their time not only writing music or putting out tapes or records but making fanzines for a more explicit sort of disbursement of ideas and ideals. And so that started to get more interwoven with, “what can we do with what we are building together?” So, as we move outwards, we start getting more involved as a community in things like Food Not Bombs and redirecting unused food and clothes to the needy. And then that started moving into antifascist resistance - you know, showing up against white supremacists at rallies in Arkansas or being involved with, like, the cop watch program, watching out for police brutality and moving into, you know, stuff about the death penalty. But also, especially in the mid '90s, as Little Rock changed, you know, moving into Bill Clinton's second term in office, a lot of the gentrification and community renewal that would happen in Little Rock required thinking about things like privilege, wealth, the size of the microphone that you're wielding. And so, as we grew, we sort of had to grow with our town, with our community, and figure out how to best use our energy and our time. So yeah, as an adult, as a parent, as a member of another community now, I think that a lot of the DIY ethos like: show up. You know, ask your own questions. It's OK to look for your own answers. It's OK to spread your own ideas. Listen to others as well. All of these things apply. And I don't see these as being separate from what I was aiming to do as a 14 or 15-year-old. It's just nice to be 40 and have a better means by which to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIS WILL DESTROY YOU’S “VILLA DEL REFUGIO”)

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: You're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm Payton Knobeloch. Our guest today is the graphic novelist behind the books Any Empire, You Don't Say, Swallow Me Whole and Come Again, Nate Powell.

You managed a record label, Harlan Records, for 16 years, correct?

NATE POWELL: Right.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: Tell me about that. How did you get into it? What was that experience like?

NATE POWELL: There were a couple of small record labels in Little Rock at the time - you know, kids as young as 15 to 18 putting out mostly seven-inch records, a couple of LPs or CDs - a lot of tapes still in the first half of the '90s. My first band started in the fall of '92 and we played our first show in the spring of '93. We located a friend who had a four-track recorder. Being able to record a demo tape for the price of a pizza, then being able to take that tape and reproduce tapes ourselves - I'd been self-publishing comics for long enough at that point that I knew how to do the layout and the printing for tape covers while other labels had started putting out seven inch records, et cetera. So as those next steps arrived for my own band, it became apparent that I should just have my own label to release my friends' music. We would put out between 10 and 100 copies of the tape. We'd put out five hundred copies of a seven inch. But a lot of it was, you know, you pay attention to the kids just a couple of years older than you and what they had done. You ask them questions. They will give you answers. When you have a band that has five people in it and you want to put out a record, it's a matter of each of you doing enough odd jobs to pool 700 bucks to make that happen, and then moving forward from that. It really started as a means by which to make my own band's music exist in the world. And at a certain point, I realized that it was possible to collaborate with other people to put out other bands tangential to my band and then other bands in the community. And then as we started touring, that expanded to friends across the country or even in Europe. At a certain point, it was able to pay for itself. And then after that, as my direct contact with people who might be able to distribute records across the country in the world, as that started to diminish or recede, as I was touring less, as I was getting more connected to the comics community - it did become more of a labor of love. If I wanted to put out a record, I would just take money from my paycheck and just put it out, and hopefully it would pay itself back. That had kind of a natural life cycle of moving into a sustainable movement that was very much a part of punk and then kind of moving out of it again. And a lot of underground labels have that same life cycle.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: When you were performing with your band Soophie Nun Squad, I'm seeing a lot of costumes and hearing about puppets and things like that. Do you think that you work in punk music and your work in comics share any of those performance aspects?

NATE POWELL: They do. But I actually think that they're kind of like foils to each other, especially doing both of them at the same time. On a creative level it was very obvious to me that I far and away prefer making comics by myself in a sort of a closed system. And I'm allowed to explore weird ideas with a very strong vision. And I have had solo musical projects and sort of bedroom recording projects that should function in the same way. Those are enjoyable and fulfilling, but I get the most value out of making music when I'm collaborating with three or five friends to come up with something that none of us would have come up with by ourselves; being able to compromise. I'm much more receptive, I think, to those kinds of compromise and collaboration on a musical sense. Maybe it's because I'm just not as good making music as comics, but I think there's a community aspect to the creative process that is more valuable with music. With Soophie Nun Squad, because we were ever changing in terms of our roster, the size of the band and the concepts we wanted to explore in music, a lot of it was the notion of somebody coming up with an idea - and I guess now this is defined as “yes-and,” - the rule of improv theater there was a lot of yes-and happening with Soophie Nun Squad. Often that had to do with escaping some of the limitations of punk, some of the more conservative lines of thought that might run into how you're supposed to make music or how you're supposed to look, how you're supposed to move - especially in the 1990s when the second wave of what I will call emo hardcore involved being very serious, very earnest, involved resisting looking or acting like you're having much fun playing or watching music be performed. Little Rock was a pretty serious punk community in the early mid '90s when we started playing. It was really enjoyable to bring some jubilance back into that and sort of recognize that we are teenagers. And we are a very serious band. We're a serious hardcore band. But it's also true that we can have elaborate and bizarre visual themes. We can use puppets. We can have uncomfortable audience participation. We can push these limitations of the social structure and the aesthetic defining this community or this musical genre as much as we want.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: Speaking of collaboration, I kind of want to move into talking about the March trilogy. How did you get involved with that? How did they reach out to you about that?

NATE POWELL: Sure. Well, Andrew Aydin and Congressman Lewis had been working for about two years, I think, on and off, on the working script for what would be March, a single graphic novel. That was late 2008 to late 2010. They signed a book deal with my longtime publisher, Top Shelf, with no artist. And I remember I was drawing Any Empire and The Silence of Our Friends simultaneously that day. And I think during my lunch break I saw on Top Shelf's website their press release about this graphic novel, March. I was like, “oh what a great project. That sounds cool. I can't wait to read it.” But I didn't put two and two together that the absence of an artist listed meant there was no artist. So, I was busy working on two books. So, I was like, “well, back to work.” And I did not think about it again. And then a couple weeks later, my publisher called me making sure I saw the press release for March, and he strongly suggested that I try out for the role of artist - some of it having to do with the stylistic balance between my ability to do representational realistic art with a decent amount of detail and accuracy, but also doing weird sort of intuitive, emotional, kind of cartoony storytelling that would satisfy human and emotional requirements for telling the story. But also, being a Southerner and being geographically very familiar with Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, he just got me in touch with the congressmen and Andrew. And from that point, it was really like the process of deciding to collaborate with anybody. So, they sent me a couple of pages of script. I did some demo pages. They sent me notes. I re-drew the pages. They sent me more notes. I re-drew those and within two weeks we realized that we just clicked together very well on a personal level, too. And we just decided to move forward. It also happens that I had kind of a proof of concept emerging in the form of this book, The Silence of Our Friends, which was also a mostly true to life story that took place in Texas in the '60s against the backdrop of a forgotten chapter in civil rights history. And it used the same kind of grey ink wash that I wound up using through March. In many ways, the process of making that book was like boot camp for March. And it allowed me to kind of - Andrew tells me and when we had - I think we'd just inked the deal to collaborate and there was a review of Silence of Our Friends in the New York Times. And Congressman Lewis was like, “Andrew, what's the name of that artist again?” He's like, “oh, it's Nate Powell.” He's like, “I've never seen this much comic artwork in a New York Times review. He's, like, a good pick.” I didn't know about that ‘till later, that I lucked out by getting a review at the right time when John Lewis would see it and feel like this was the right decision to make. Yeah, but beyond that, it was a very standard personal means by which we communicated and figured out whether or not to work together.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: After these books have come out, they've kind of had this meteoric impact. New York Times best sellers, Eisners - now they're being taught in history classes in over 40 states. Is that a lot of pressure? Is that really a cool feeling? How does that feel?

NATE POWELL: It almost never felt weird. And there are moments where it definitely seems surreal. It's essentially nothing but cool. In relation to the process of creating March as three books to speak for myself, I knew that March would be a bigger project than anything else I had ever tackled before. But I really had no idea what the potential scope or scale of March would or could be. So, March: Book One, because so much of it is so much more subjective, the world is so much smaller for a young - you know, for John Lewis the child and John Lewis the teenager, and for the early days of the Sit-In movement in downtown Nashville, specifically, I do think we kind of lucked out in terms of being less accountable to such a wealth of documentation that was available later in the Civil Rights Movement. So, in that way, I was set pretty free to tell the story visually in the way that I saw fit. And it was still - you know, it was a very in-depth collaboration amongst all three of us and our editor. But this is where this sort of intertwines with learning about how history is documented, learning how media works in its coverage, re-learning the history of the Civil Rights Movement. So, once that first book came out and we started directly interacting with teachers, librarians, bookstore people, families, about the role that March was playing from day one - from the day that the book debuted, we were having these conversations - but then recognizing that, you know, it was being taught is history in history classes which is wild for a comic, but also becoming quickly aware that I didn't know what the parameters were that would keep a history book in history classes. So simultaneously, while researching, drawing, fact-checking, following my own interests along with Andrew's and the Congressman's, we were all educating ourselves on those guidelines - parameters that would allow it to keep on doing what it was doing in schools and in libraries. And it is interesting to see how through March: Book 2 and “March: 3, the press coverage and the documentation of those historical events expanded so rapidly that finding that balance between accountable responsible representation of this history and the expressive intimate depiction of personal experiences had to recalibrate itself on a regular basis, sometimes in real time, both as the aims of March as the scope of the narrative and the destination for the books changed.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: With these books being taught as history, there is the very real possibility that your kids might be taught those books as they're growing up. Have you kind of thought about that and kind of wrestled with that?

NATE POWELL: It is wild, yes. That has been an intermittent thought. I guess, mentally, I've crossed that bridge already because my older daughter, who's almost 7, her lifespan is precisely as long as my time drawing March. I think she was born like the week I signed the contract to do March. And, basically, I never pushed March on her or even really tried to show it to her because, you know, she grew up just surrounded by these images - not only my art, but the images of protests and of the movement itself. I knew that eventually she would raise some questions, but right when she turned four she started requesting reading Book One at bedtime. And so, it's been interesting these last several years. Each time we read through - and she's read Book Two now also - but reading it with her with an awareness of where her world view is at the time - where her concepts of fairness and injustice are, her knowledge of bullies and people applying force to control the world around them, injustice based on difference about something as arbitrary as skin color or national origin - a lot of these lessons, well, as she's gotten older, the applications have become more worldly as we're able to talk about our social and political climate. But throughout, she has always gotten it on her level based on where her world is where her interactions with other kids and with adults and with this community are. And so, it's become less weird to me. But a lot of that is because I put in the time to be able to see on that personal level the way in which a young person is unavoidably applying the history in March to the world around them. And so, it is really nice to have an in-family reference for that before I had to think about it finding its way into classrooms or into their classroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIS WILL DESTROY YOU’S “LEATHER WINGS”)

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: You're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm Payton Knobeloch. Our guest today is Nate Powell, graphic novelist behind the Eisner Award winning graphic novel Swallow Me Whole.

Another one of your books, Swallow Me Whole, to paint with a very broad brush, is about these two siblings growing up dealing with their parents dealing with mental illness. And it feels like that in the past few years, the stigma surrounding mental illness has kind of weakened a bit. Do you think that Swallow Me Whole reads differently in 2018 than it did when it came out 10 years ago?

NATE POWELL: I think it may. I haven't really thought about it over the passage of time, necessarily. I will say that I was surprised when the book came out, in that the ways in which mental illness and the questions of sovereignty and dignity as plot points naturally found their way into the story, but because of my own family relationships and also my former career working with folks with disabilities and dual diagnoses, I was trying so hard to avoid any direct influence from my life into those components of the plot. So, I sort of distanced myself from some of those details and tried to make them apply for the characters. However, once the book came out, I was sort of taken aback at the degree to which some people responded to the book, that it finally gave them a voice in 2008, 2009, 2010, for some of the - my minute experiences of living with certain kinds of mental disorders or with those experiences in your family. And I don't think that is necessarily changed. I was just unprepared for the way in which that book in particular spoke to a section of people, especially as I was trying to avoid direct influence from my life, I found that it was directly providing a voice for some other people who I never met. And over the years I've gotten to meet a lot of those folks. I think the reading is probably the same - I guess - I read it over the summer when my new book came out. I decided to read through all three of my graphic novels back to back. I think it holds up the same. It holds up well. But I don't want to say that it actively played a role in that expanding conversation. I do think that within my literary community and creative community it's certainly provided a voice for which there were only a few examples previously.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: With the success of something like Swallow Me Whole and March, and your most recent book Come Again, what kind of opportunities have you seen open up?

NATE POWELL: It depends. I mean, there are moments in which I've had a chance to do some really cool unexpected stuff. One of my favorite things I got to do was work on a comic for The Weather Channel. I was approached by them. They were doing 50 stories from the 50 states, all intertwined with climate change in some way. And so, they approached me about doing a comic involving the world's largest population of folks from the Marshall Islands outside of the Marshall Islands itself. They are all concentrated in one town in northwest Arkansas for many reasons, but a lot of those reasons have to do with rising sea levels on their home islands. So, I got to collaborate with a journalist from northwest Arkansas who did the hard work of tracking down folks, activists, families, interviewing them, building up their trust and weaving a narrative that I could work with as a visual storyteller. You know, it's sort of amazing to think that The Weather Channel would take a chance on the medium of comics to tell some of this story and would take the time to identify it explicitly as a work of journalism. I think these things are definitely directly related to the success of “March.” But mostly I'm excited about, seeing in a real sense, people being willing to take a chance on comics itself. Other opportunities I've had have been really cool, but have been less out of the ordinary. Somebody'll throw me a bone and I'll get to, like, draw a superhero cover or for the young nerd in me. I got to do a variant movie poster for the Logan movie, which was very satisfying for the 12-year-old in me and the 39-year-old in me. But yeah, like, The Weather Channel comic to me was a real indicator of the mark that March had left for the medium on our society at large.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: Do you have any interest in doing a book for the big two - Marvel or DC?

NATE POWELL: You know, I would still drop almost anything to draw the X-Men at some point. But I feel perfectly happy at this point. Every once in a while, a friend of mine who works doing mainstream comics will get me involved to draw or collaborate on something involving the superheroes I grew up with. And for the most part, that's a really refreshing shift of gears, and especially because graphic novels take years to make, and you don't even know if what you're doing makes sense sometimes, or if it's good. And by the time you're done, you're already mentally working on something else. Like, you're like, “I just need to finish this thing.” So, it is really nice to take a break for a month or a week and go draw some superheroes. For me right now, that's the primary value, is it helps keep things fresh across the board. It helps keep a little bit of balance and keep fun in what are otherwise very arduous, laborious, thankless projects while they're being made.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: What kind of comics are you reading now? Are there any creators or artists or writers that you follow?

NATE POWELL: Oh yeah. I still go to the comic book shop on a monthly basis. My reading tastes have changed because, like, my older daughter is reading herself, now reading independently - for the last several years, you know, we read a lot of books together. Like I just reread the entire Bone saga - well, the whole family reread the whole Bone saga, and that was very satisfying. I still read both Hawkeye series from Marvel. In terms of mainstream comics, it really is quote "a writer’s game" these days. I think that it's broadly considered that, in this decade, it has shifted to a focus on who's writing what titles compared to the late '80s and through the '90s where it was certainly an artist's game, capturing people's attention. People are following artists much more. I will tend to follow - yeah, like Kelly Thompson, Cecil Castelucci, Shade the Changing Girl and Shade the Changing Woman. That's one of the best comics of the decade. Right now, I'm reading a new book by my friend Noah Van Sciver, One Dirty Tree. It's basically a comic's memoir about his growing up and how it shaped the person he is today. I feel like I have less and less time to read comics. And so, when I'm traveling, I usually have a prose novel to read and then some kind of comics to knock off my list. I have a stack of unread comics that's probably three years deep. And there's just no getting out of it. So, I've recently started just shelving the unread books. I got to move on. Someday I'm going to read these. I'll have them forever.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: Recently, we saw the loss of comic book legend Stan Lee. What kind of influence did Stan Lee have on your life and your work?

NATE POWELL: Predominantly, Stan Lee, along with his collaborators, specifically Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, because he was the voice and the front and center sort of PR rep for comics as a whole, particularly in the Marvel Age that I grew up in, I think that he set a very strong example early on about showing fictional characters - and for a kid, I mean, superheroes - showing fictional characters as being no more necessarily redeemable or virtuous than you or I and being able to embrace that. For his time and place, he took a pretty strong stand in terms of people's right to exist and people being treated equally in society and in the eyes of the law. I think that really set the tone for the Marvel Universe in the 1960s that made me as a kid of the '80s. His ability to have his voice front and center and to do an editorial column well past his time where he was actively making books gave me a sense of even though it may have just been a public persona, but getting the idea that the people who made comics were in fact people is something that may be almost entirely creditable to Stan Lee in the 1960s. Well, outside of superhero comics, these set the stage for the generation of cartoonists that includes me. And he was certainly a person of contradictions and complexity and has some shady moments. But I think in terms of his vision of comics embracing possibility, embracing making your ideals known and striving for something better, those are the ways in which the Marvel Universe made me the person I am today.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIS WILL DESTROY YOU’S ““THE MIGHTY RIO GRANDE”)

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: Nate Powell, thanks so much for coming in.

NATE POWELL: Glad to be here, thanks.

PAYTON KNOBELOCH: I'm Payton Knobeloch. My guest today is Nate Powell, graphic novelist. This is Profiles from WFIU.

MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling 812 855 1357. Information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, can be found at our website: WFIU.org. Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES’ “BLU-BOP”)

 

Nate Powell is a New York Times best-selling graphic novelist born in Little Rock, Arkansas. He began self-publishing at age 14, and graduated from School of Visual Arts in 2000.

His work includes brand-new Ozark existential horror tale Come Again, and the civil rights icon John Lewis' legendary graphic memoir, the March trilogy. Other works include You Don't Say, Any EmpireSwallow Me Whole, and The Silence Of Our Friends.

Powell is the first cartoonist ever to win the National Book Award. His work has also received a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, three Eisner Awards, two Ignatz Awards, two Harvey Awards, the Michael L. Printz Award, a Coretta Scott King Author Award, four YALSA Great Graphic Novels For Teens selections, the Walter Dean Myers Award, and has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Powell has discussed his work at the United Nations, as well as on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and CNN. His books have been placed on school curricula in over 40 states, and his animated illustrations in the Southern Poverty Law Center's Selma: The Bridge To The Ballot documentary have reached over a million students in 50,000 schools across the nation.

From 1999 to 2009, Powell worked full time providing support for adults with developmental disabilities alongside his cartooning efforts. He managed underground record label Harlan Records for 16 years, and performed in punk bands Soophie Nun Squad and Universe.

Nate Powell lives with his family in Bloomington, Indiana. He spoke with Payton Knobeloch.

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