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A Short Interview With Nate Powell
posted April 8, 2007
 

imageNate Powell's Please Release was this month's comic that jumped off of the pile despite my complete and total lack of knowledge about the work and its creator. A meditation across several vignettes on the wisdom of living life without significant roots or connection to place, Powell's Top Shelf comic book effort distinguishes itself from similar autobiographical efforts through a considered approach to art and presentation, subtle but strong design choices that work their way into the page structure, and a sense of inner monologue that corresponds to the physical depictions the reader experiences panel by panel in a way that hews closely to reality. In a comics world that increasingly rewards oversimplified approaches to art and story, it's nice to see a work stand out due to texture, the pleasure of seeing and experiencing pages above and beyond their ability to quickly pass along the crudest chunk of information.

Powell's answers to my questions are as thoughtful as his comics, and I appreciate his time and effort on this interview's behalf.

*****

TOM SPURGEON: How did you end up in Bloomington, Indiana and how does Bloomington fit into the cities that are featured in your book? Is there a comics scene? A music scene?

NATE POWELL: I moved to Bloomington in January 2004 after leaving Providence, Rhode Island -- the living experience there kind of crushed my spirit and general sense of dignity, and it was time to get out and remember who I was. My best friend lived in Bloomington and I really needed to live near her again; many other good friends lived there as well, and the town was a one-day drive away from nearly anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. I also had a few family situations emerging in Arkansas which necessitated my being closer to home. Bands I was in had played several shows in town, and it already felt like home. A simple solution.

In Please Release, Bloomington is the setting for the story "The Old Haunts" as well as much of "Seriously." There's a ton of creative activity happening here for a town of its size -- a moderate amount of 'zine makers but not a whole lot of comics activity and certainly not a scene of any kind. Microcosm Publishing (who released my omnibus Sounds of Your Name) are a wonderful punk publisher/distributor who recently moved into town. Musically this town is very active and diverse. Shows and bands share members from different niches in the underground punk, hardcore, noise, and indie sub-communities, and it's generally a very unpretentious, fun-loving, and receptive community of folks.

SPURGEON: Your introduction suggests that the incidents in Please Release happened well before you put them into comics form... can you talk as explicitly as possible as to what led you to do these comics, from conception to putting them together in this book?

POWELL: Simply enough, the book was drawn over a period of a year and a half, and wound up answering or resolving a lot of the questions it raised at the beginning. The first story, "The Phantom Form," was drawn for an anthology in early 2004; I eventually pulled it from the anthology and decided to follow through with related stories I'd been cooking up in my sketchbook. The book also fell in a time when I completely stopped creating new comics, in order to learn how to actually write them and tell stories more effectively. I read maybe three novels a month and spent most of my time ironing out fine points of my forthcoming book Swallow Me Whole (when I wasn't trying to patch my life back together). "The Phantom Form" tied my issues at the time to specific direct care jobs I'd held in 2002 and 2003, in different parts of the country. "Work On It" also takes place at the same job I worked in Arkansas in spring 2002. The evening of "The Old Haunts" happened in October 2004 here in Bloomington. I finished the body of work for a while and my life moved forward; "Seriously" took place in July 2005 in Gainesville, Florida and Bloomington. Each story held as its own short piece, and it was not until finishing "Seriously" that I realized all the stories intertwined in such a nice way.

What led me to turn these into comics? The realization that I was making the same mistakes over and over in my life, or stuck on the same unrequited love, or part of a slippery and problematic power dynamic in my life as a direct care worker. [The] comics form helps me see the situation from a more plain perspective, as I must break those elements down to something more concrete, more clearly communicated. To get over the bullshit, and remember what fights are worth the energy, and why.

SPURGEON: Comics memoirs are a pretty loaded category right now -- were there any comics or cartoonists you were looking at that inspired anything about this new book? Any outside works that were inspirational?

POWELL: The folks who inspired me the most in this book were the incredibly honest, open cartoonist, musician, and friend Erin Tobey; John Porcellino's narrative flow and sense of smallness; friends and musicians Ghost Mice for their ability to communicate with a near-embarrassing lack of poetics; the Joy Division/New Order family, for taking all the romantic allure out of self-destruction, for making it so plain that sometimes people just need to start over to feel that brightness again; cartoonist Dash Shaw for setting the example in stylistic and communicative openness in his work. Vanessa Davis' Spaniel Rage. Mike Taylor's comic/zine Scenery as well as his finely-honed appreciation of both sourness and genuineness.

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SPURGEON: I'd love to hear you talk about a few specific visual effects in your book. First, the narrative density of a page like page 7 -- how do you come to approach a page like that, why that much information on a single page rather than spread it across three or four?

POWELL: That story was the first I drew during my quest to learn how to write effectively and concretely. I approached all the stories in the book as comics essays, and "The Phantom Form" is the most exaggerated example of the artwork supporting the ideas communicated. Basically, on pages like that I consciously aimed for communicative clarity and density appropriate to a six-page essay. The number of panels is only great because of six panels right in the middle, which are strung together by a single sentence. I thought that all the parts of the sentence were effectively slowed-down for the reader by dividing them into six sections. Six parallel ideas, six panels.

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SPURGEON: What about the looser pages in terms of panels and an increased use of white space, like page 18 or 21? They stand in alarming contrast to those denser pages.

POWELL: On page 18, the reader is alone in the narrator's bed, late at night, in a very intimate and embarrassing state. The small hours stretch on and on. So more space between panels, more room for the words and the shadows filling the room. We've all been there before, so it gives the reader time to dwell in the pockets of their own lives in which that story applies. Page 21 brings the reader back from sleep, into the morning again, giving a little time in the narrator's brain to establish that he is, indeed, back in the real world. After that page, the mundaneness of the work day shuttles the reader back into more densely packed and rendered pages.

imageSPURGEON: The final element that really sticks out is your use of varied balloon and lettering elements, particularly ribboned balloons to suggest sound throughout a room. What are you trying to achieve there, and how did that become an important visual key for you?

POWELL: On both visual and semiotic levels, I think that carrying sound in such a manner is much more true to the reader's concept of time within the story, particularly with songs. If one can measure a sequence of panels by the number of lines sung in a song, it does wonders to establish an un-intrusive sense of pace. Also, songs operate in ribbons in my comics more than other sounds because of personal attachment to songs -- if I'm walking down the street, and i only catch half a line of the song played out the window of the car that just passed by, I will still absolutely piece together what song is playing if I've ever heard it before. And of course folks have all kinds of identification with particular songs, so a reader doesn't really need more than a line or two from it to graft that identification into the story. All that sounds really over-thought, though -- really, I get lost in songs and sound; I become deeply introspective and can easily disappear into a dream state while exploring those associated memories. Hopefully I'm not alone.

SPURGEON: You make a very astute point in one of your stories about the grounding effects of the horror movie you're seeing, yet the art you choose to is very different from that kind of art. What do you feel your art does for people who might read it? What would you hope that it might do?

POWELL: My elfin sweetheart Rachel and I were explaining to each other what we subjectively get out of reading other people's writing-- it turns out we are drawn to nearly the exact opposites, but still share lots of favorite books. She explained that all day, every day, she feels so hopelessly similar to all the other strangers out there, full of identical problems and obstacles, that she seeks the writing that pulls her out of that human familiarity-- narration that is mind-blowing in the realization that a character or person can really see the world in such a different way. I, on the other hand, spend way too much time always making myself feel completely alienated from both humankind in general and even most of my friends, that I find myself drawn to writing that establishes shared and near-universal states, of celebrating the fact that we all share those mundane problems and obstacles. The piece of writing that started this conversation was a section in my friend Travis Fristoe's 'zine America?, about smelling baguettes, coffee, and oranges in the loft of a van traveling across Europe, of letting "epic" music make you feel appropriately epic when it's blasted over the stereo. Of small shared sensations. So hopefully the stories I tell are able to communicate some of those deeply-woven connections.

SPURGEON: How did you get involved with the Meathaus crowd and how much of that experience or those artists have been an influence on your work?

POWELL: I went to School of Visual Arts in New York, and was in the same classes as much of the Meathaus gang. I moved away immediately after school but remain in touch with many of them, and Farel [Dalrymple] is a good friend (and from the same neck of the woods, geographically) still. Honestly, I did not feel a huge connection to the bunch while in school, though i really liked a lot of the folks' work, and we hung out from time to time; I spent most of my time in school working on my own 'zines and comics for self-publications, and booking months' worth of summer touring for my band. But it was very inspiring that this group of acquaintances were following though on a visionary partnership; it was particularly significant to see a creative example of this outside the DIY punk community.

SPURGEON: I know that it's the nature of your book that you're questioning your at-the-time itinerant lifestyle and your allegiance to certain values, but can you talk about how you developed those values in the first place? What set you on the road that we see in Please Release? What was important to you about living your life in a certain way?

POWELL: I guess to lay it out as plainly as I can, the actual road I'm physically driving down in Please Release is I-75, headed back to Indiana from Gainesville. Several of my best friends live there, I've performed there many times and stayed in many a sweltering warehouse over the years. The significance is that Gainesville was, on this visit, recontextualized completely as I was an educator instead of a punk musician or artist.

The timeline goes like this: I started drawing comics in the summer of 1990 with my best friend Mike (who's still one of my best friends, roommates, and bandmates). We were junior high school metal nerds who also skateboarded and got into punk the following year. In '92 we published our first comic series, aware that the DIY ethic ran strongly through much of the punk culture opening up around us, but relatively oblivious to the fact that the superhero comics we were publishing involved the same politics, business and ethical concerns, scamming methods, and system of distribution. A year or so later we started releasing tapes and records on my small label; in 1997 we booked our first tour using help from our growing network of friends, a list of phone contacts, and a mutually shared expectation of strangers willing to help each other out across the country. In 1999 we made good friends with the thirty-something punks whose bands were our biggest inspirations in the early '90's.

Politically, I think what attracted us in 1990-1993 to particular world visions were perceived as radically left-wing tenets, but now I know that we saw the privileged allure of being young, one-dimensional libertarians. It took several more years of perspective to see a little more of how jacked our culture is. From 1999-2003 I identified most strongly with anarchism. I also lived in towns, environments, and had a particular cultural and age privilege which allowed me to see very small end results of such an idealistic vision. Since then I've come to strongly, plainly identify most with socialism, and most of that is because I spend most of my life working with people who are completely inside the nation's Medicaid system. Lots of folks with developmental disabilities would not have the resources or supports to maintain life with any semblance of quality (or even stay alive, seriously) if not for what remains of our social services (which are constantly in very real danger). I do have faith in an idealistic, anarchist society far after my lifetime, but I'm concerned with keeping and invisible class of people alive month-by-month, and right now it requires government social supports for its organization.

As for lifestyle politics, and getting back to the "growing up in punk" part -- I was always a kid who made stuff, who printed up comics, who invented secret clubs, who wrote lists and presented ideas and essays. It blew my mind that most of the misfits who wound up in punk had this same streak somewhere inside them! So in many ways, it felt incredibly natural to be inside a culture of young people interested in expressing ideas and having dialog, in providing ways to travel the world and present new creations to each other. I've been on 22 tours, and I'm very used to sleeping on hardwood floors every night and living out of a backpack. If it want to visit some town or country, I find a creative reason to be there as an excuse -- I set up a show or a reading to help pay the gas money and meet like-minded people. It's not necessarily something to grow out of -- admittedly it's cushy and short-sighted, but I can't imagine navigating my life otherwise.

SPURGEON: Now that you've had a couple of years since the living situations described in your comics, have you come to some conclusions about the rueful questions you ask throughout the book? Do you have a different perspective now?

POWELL: Always a little different, but consistent. Those insights are: A) Becoming geographically grounded happened at the right time and I no longer feel like such a physical phantom, B) Once a person finds themselves in a sweet phase of his or her life, it's incredibly easy to forget that you will feel like shit again; conversely, in the pits it seems rather realistic to consider that you will never actual feel happiness without being conscious of its fleeting quality, C) I am a person who needs reassurance and engagement -- I am a creature driven by faith in other people but I have a problem with believing that I do not deserve such faith returned -- and it's a big one to fight but it's okay, D) After a series of visionary dreams a year ago, I once again believe in something great linking all space-time, much greater than what can be perceived, but I do not believe in God. and E) I focus too much on how everything can fall apart so I can fix it again, and I don't appreciate the happiness, temperament, and love that fills my life, though it envelops me every hour.

*****

Please Release, Nate Powell, Top Shelf Productions, comic book, 40 pages, Diamond: SEP063611, $5.

*****