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December 29, 2013

CR Holiday Interview #12—Nate Powell



imageAs Comic Arts Brooklyn this year, two different people cornered me to talk about Nate Powell. Powell is the Little Rock-born musician/artist whose art on the John Lewis history of the Civil Rights movement through his personal story March Book One has driven more attention his way than at any point during his career. Both of the people at CAB who wanted to talk all things Powell wanted to make sure I was paying proper attention to what they thought was a potential major indy/alt career in the making. Powell is prolific, and because of his background in DIY music-making seems to take care of the small-b business end of comics-making in a way that may frustrate many similarly talented comics-makers; given the tight margins of being able to make comics of any kind, this is a supremely valuable skill set. I always enjoy running into the Bloomington, Indiana-based Powell at shows, and he was the first person I contacted this year about doing one of these year-ending talks. Our interview involved Powell moving around the house trying to find the best place for cell-phone reception, and I appreciate that extra effort. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: This is one of the books of this year. This is something that will be prominent in your career, no matter what direction it takes from here, for however long you continue to make comics.


SPURGEON: Has it performed ahead of how you thought it might? Was there a moment when you kind of figured out that it might hit with people as hard as it has hit with some people?

POWELL: Oh, yes. For the most part, when I signed on to the project, I was aware of who John Lewis was. But it wasn't until I read his memoir and was moving through the script doing my own reference that I realized exactly what I was dealing with here in terms of the initial level the scope and scale of the project. Really that was just in terms of the book that would wind up being made. It wasn't until I'd been done drawing it... I live in the middle of Indiana, I spend 23 hours a day in my house doing stuff [laughter]... really, I was in a serious vacuum while drawing March. I finished maybe last February for Book One. It wasn't until June rolled around when we started doing some engagements and touring and stuff, doing some events for March about a month before it came out, that I realized that I had not really given any serious thought to the actual scope and scale of the finished product.

Ever since the book was released, there's been several months where maybe twice a week I would have a reality check that was surprising and encouraging?

SPURGEON: What kind of thing are you talking about? Are you talking about a personal encounter?

POWELL: On the immediate and personal levels, number one the enthusiastic presence and support from teachers and librarians that show up. Also from parents that brings their kids -- sometimes prepubescent kids -- to meet Congressman Lewis and to get the book. The gravity that a lot of folks -- the parents, professionals and baby boomers -- would lend to us in terms of the project. That's one thing. Another thing was the part in which March was going places my own comics work could never anticipate going. So whether it was Rachel Maddow having us on TV, or kicking it with Al Gore [Spurgeon laughs], a variety of these things would never have happened.

The major part here is being a person that doesn't really look very much at the marketing side of comics or exactly where book are being sold, I've worked with First Second before and Mark Siegel was always very serious about this trifecta of marketing comics where you're hitting bookstores, the Direct Market and libraries and schools' institutional sales. I'd heard that before, and it was very interesting, but it was something I never really worked through. With March, I saw it fully applied and taking off, so that the bulk of the sales in years to come, a decade down the line, are consistently going to be from this institutional sector, as the book shows more and more potential to integrated into schools and libraries. That's something I had never considered, even for a second.

SPURGEON: What was brought to you? I know Andrew Aydin and the Congressman are considered co-authors are the script, or at least that's my understanding, but I'm interested in what was brought to you.

POWELL: What was actually given to me was a completely finished script, done in a very standard Marvel/DC comics-script type way. It was divided up into pages and panels; everything was clearly delineated. When I cracked it open, though, originally this was a single-volume book somewhere between 150 and 200 pages. I've worked with writers in varying capacities and there are different levels of leeway that the artist is given creatively. For this I was sort of taking a bit of narrative liberty, and taking control of the layout of the pages. Once I started chopping up the script and re-pacing it, that's when I realized in a couple of days that we were dealing with a 500-page book instead of a 180-page book. So then kind of everything was thrown out of the window there. The script kind of remained intact; we did a little reworking. I'd say that on terms of a narrative level, I definitely stepped in and looked for elements that were between the lines of the script that needed to be explored or fleshed out more. A lot of that had to do with intense objective or emotional experiences that John Lewis' character was going through as a young person, or whether it was looking for the emotional weight that might be happening.

For example in book two, one of the things it covers is the Freedom Rides. There might be a five- or ten-second section where the Freedom Riders are entering the Montgomery Greyhound station. It's very quiet and dead there and they know this is a very bad sign, that there's no one there at all. They know they're about to get attacked or brutalized in some way. They don't know when, or where or what direction, or who these people might be. What the extent of the damage will be. They might have occupied a line in the script, a line that was intended to be one panel. I realized that really the dread, the anticipation, the fear, that's something that is more at the core of the storytelling than a lot of the acts of violence. So that one panel might be turned into three pages.

Since we are working this out as three books, by the end of working together on the first book the three of us had worked out a more even creative, collaborative style. Even going into Book Two, they did a lot of rewrites on it. But a lot of that had to do with bearing in mind what I was going to be focused on as a visual storyteller. Even though the script for the story was done before I started work, it continues to sort of evolve and grow as we become sort of one narrative entity for the course of the book.


SPURGEON: I don't know that you hear from the Congressman in a way that you know what you're getting from the Congressman and what you're getting from Andrew, but I'm interested in the fact that 1) this is the Congressman's story, 2) he may not be as immersed in comics as you and Andrew seem to be. So I wondered after his priorities: what his notes were like, and what his concerns were.

POWELL: That's a very good question. One of the things that I really took for granted until I finished his memoir, Walking With The Wind is that John Lewis is primarily an oral storyteller, and a lot of these tales he's been telling for 45 or 50 years. So I read the script to the book and immediately after that I read the memoir before jumping in to really start work on breaking down the script. There's a little bit of a speed bump where I realized that so much of the script was verbatim from Walking With The Wind. Number one, it's coming from the same place in the same voice because it's the same writer, so I had to check myself on that. But then... I'd never had the experience of working visually with someone who is primarily an oral storyteller. There were a lot of script considerations where I would step in and do some minor edits, or all of us including Chris Staros and Leigh [Walton] would work on some things together. You want to keep a lot of his dialogue and voiceovers, a true to his voice as possible, but almost all of it is stuff that he's been speaking out loud primarily. So some of that simply doesn't translated. I'd never really had a scripting experience quite like it. I'd never thought about the applications of it. I'm not sure that covers exactly what you were asking.

SPURGEON: If if it didn't, I prefer your answer to my question. [Powell laughs] You talked about some of the research that you did. You live in southern Indiana, and there's a line that the South starts about 20 minutes south of Indianapolis. You're from Little Rock, which has a history in terms of the Civil Rights movement and the issues related to that struggle. You're maybe not from the deep south, although I'm not all the way sure about that, come to think of it: you might have spent several years there for all I know. Something about your book I think worth noting is its immediacy, and I think that's something you grapple with through the framing sequence. This is history about that person right over there, interacting with that person next to them. It's the Congressman's life. Dealing with that as history -- was there anything for you in revisiting this as history given you're someone who lives in the world these experiences helped create.

POWELL: That is a constant, daily presence of my mental life and process since most of my brain is March these days. I would say that... for one, until I was in my late 20s it took until then before I was able to really integrate my own thoughts and reflections and questions growing up as a moderate liberal turned radical left generation-X kid whose parents were MIssissippian, white, baby-boomers. Most of my life was spent with a working knowledge of all of this stuff. When I was in elementary school I lived in Montgomery.

SPURGEON: Now that I didn't know. Okay.

POWELL: My parents are from northern Mississippi. I would learn all of this stuff, but it was always peppered with the statement of "That was a different time." This never gave me a lot of answers or clarity. A lot of southern kids go through that same thing. There's a lot of push-back in your twenties against that statement, against baby-boomers and political moderates -- white political moderates that are boomers -- and finally, thank God, you're able to get past that and have a real conversation about the place and time your parents came from. You can appreciate that they arrived at a better place.

With March and with The Silence Of Our Friends, really the work on Silence Of Our Friends worked as a proving ground for the storytelling methods I would employ on March. A lot of that is because it allowed me to acknowledge that there's an historical component to remain as faithful to as possible, and to maintain a certain level of responsibility. It illuminated how much had changed in the 20 or 30 years between my lifetime and John Lewis' lifetime, or in Mark Long's lifetime as a kid in Texas in Silence Of Our Friends. Not only how much had changed, but the instances in which absolutely nothing had changed in 30 years.

It also allowed me to finally get over a degree of southern guilt I guess in terms of being able to acknowledge the wonderful things about the American South. I've lived in Indiana for ten years now. I love the town where I live but I've never felt like Indiana is my home. I don't ever think it will be. It's made me more appreciate of the culture the South has fostered in its wake. I feel like there have been a number of profound eternal changes as a result of building this relationship with John Lewis while working on this book. A lot of that I guess alongside a lot of people in my generation and my parents' generation doing a massive wave of processing of what this means 30, 40, 50 years later.

SPURGEON: I wanted to ask a few formal questions about the book. Your page layouts are fairly fascinating to me because you don't settle into any specific framework, which is a pretty standard way of dealing with material that is intended for a wider, not-necessarily-comics-reading audience. In actuality, though, your solutions on the page are all over the place. Does that indicate perhaps you were going moment to moment, story to story in terms of figuring out how you wanted the structure of the story to work on their page. Or are there general principles there I'm just not seeing, connections I'm not making. It seems like such a wide variance in how you approach structure.

POWELL: I would say that a lot of this... especially because the script was given to me in a highly structured way, that one of my necessities in working on it is to find the cracks in the structure where my weirdo self-published comics storytelling style can creep its way into it. Really stylistically for me, a lot of the moment to moment, aspect to aspect transitions that occur, and a lot of the weird flow changes are still being heavily influenced by '70s and '80s superhero comics and '80s to '90s Japanese comics that I was into when I was a teenager. I feel like... I do try to take each scene on its own. Once I threw out the page count that was given to me on the book, I realized that the door was wide open. I try to keep each scene self-contained unless there's a device or a cross-cut that means it has to end at a certain point. Once I get in there, it's liberating knowing that adding a whole extra page, or two pages, for whatever purpose, is totally okay.


SPURGEON: There's a significant use of blacks -- something you don't see a ton of in comics for a more general audience I think because of the effect on eye flow. It encourages an abandonment of the story by novices in favor of becoming absorbed in a specific image. There had to be moments where you wanted to nail the power of a certain visual, or the effectiveness and importance of a specific moment. Was it hard to find that specific balance between flow and hitting these specific points you wanted to hit? Was pushing certain moments into black a solution for that, a way to slow the eye down without capsizing the progression of the story?

There's a page with a phone ringing that'd done with a dark background that seems particularly power for that visual choice. A lot of pages like that, really. There's a jail scene that ends with an open cell done in a kind of silhouette.

POWELL: Right. I think that a lot of that comes from Chester Brown. When I read I Never Liked You around 1997 or so, that changed the way I saw the page forever. It wasn't even until a couple of years later that I discovered he drew panels individually and then taped them onto a master page, and that controlled the jogging of his panels. There are some "splash pages" in I Never Liked You that are surrounded by black in early printings of the book. All black. The use of really heavy blacks has become more pronounced in my books really with Silence Of Our Friends and March because I'm also incorporating grays... so instead of having -- Swallow Me Whole is an extremely literally dark book. The art work is so stark because there's no tone in the book. I feel that we as comics readers read that a certain way. It takes on a certain quality once the grays are brought in and the highlights are brought out, where they never existed in the first place.

It does slow down the reader. It's true. There are a lot of moments in the book like that. The original script was brought to me with six panels per page throughout the entire trilogy. Once I was looking for the correct punctuation, if it was left to me I'm more apt to include a sparse splash page as punctuation as opposed to ending on a larger but traditional panel at the end of one page or in the first panel of the next page. I appreciate the breathing room very much. When I read comics... it's a little different now that I have a kid. I like to sit down and read the entire book in one sitting. It helps a lot to have breathing space in the form of hyper-minimal splash pages. I don't have the luxury to read comics in one sitting anymore, but it actually makes me more thankful to have these moments of punctuation.

imageSPURGEON: Another thing that's striking about this work is the cumulative effect of the lettering. You use everything from hidden word balloons to changing size to illegibility. I wonder how instinctive that's become for you. A couple of things you do: one is the way you portray secondary dialogue almost as ambient noise, dialogue that takes place when other dialogue is foregrounded. That's a really interesting effect: you see that up top in the framing sequence in the Congressman's office but maybe more dramatically in some of the counter scenes about 100 pages in. You see the insults, for instance, via a kind of lettering that's smaller, and not as distinct. I wonder if you could talk about that as a strategy.

POWELL: In March, almost all of those secondary lettering additions are my interjections. Where this really started is when I was a kid reading X-Men and I'd maybe just started drawing comics. There'd always be these moments where Jean Grey or Psylocke or whoever is a telepath where they have this cliched moment where the thoughts of the people around them threaten to overtake them. "I can't handled it anymore!" [laughter] I remember in the [writer Chris] Claremont X-men run that I was really into those sequences but that the lettering, the random thoughts, were perfectly legible. They were overlapping, a lot of the time. But everything was at the same visual volume. The lettering was the same size and was readable as everything else.

When I was working on Swallow Me Whole, that was the first time I experimented with this. So much of that book has to do with sensory information and patterns. In the comic book visual language we are very much used to and take for granted information being out of focus. Things drawn further away are drawn more sketchily, or hastily. We have no problems with this. There are very few ways to explore this as written information. Near the beginning of Swallow Me Whole there's a scene right when the two kids get to school, in the cafeteria -- that's when I first stepped into the foray of trying find a visual representation of this kind of auditory information. The crowded cafeteria and hallways are full of chatter. Not only can you not hear most of it clearly, in real life, but most of it doesn't matter at all in real life. A lot of it was understanding that scribbling instead of writing words was perfectly fine. Making it half-audible is fine.

All my books since then I've gotten complaints I'll occasionally see on Amazon comment that are like, "Well, I think they printed the book too small because it gave me a headache trying to read all the tiny, tiny word balloon. They didn't even make sense. One star!" [laughter] I enjoy catching those reviews. Especially with March and Silence Of Our Friends when you're talking about massive public retaliation and riots and anger, I think the auditory confusion makes it... when you just have the necessary dialogue inserted in there, it's like who cares. You become aware you're reading a scene of a mass protest somewhere, or a riot, if you just have one or two word balloons somewhere from the pertinent characters saying what they need to say. To me it seems like a no-brainer that if you have 150 people in a scene, 60-70 of those people are going to be yelling some bullshit and that this should be considered.

SPURGEON: I thought it actually made the cafeteria scene more frightening, in that you couldn't quite understand what these folks were saying.

Let me ask you question just as a representative of Team March. It's a broad question, so my apologies. Do you guys conceive of the book in terms of contributing something to our knowledge of that story. Not just the notion that more people -- or different people -- might read this, but in terms of the content itself, are there specific stories, a point of view, an outlook that the collective you behind this book thinks is a unique contribution to our understanding of this history? How do you look on it as an historical text? Does comics play into that at all? Is the fact that this is comics make it unique in terms of the content and impact of what you're getting across?

POWELL: There are a couple of things. One of them is relevant to this as a story. Strangely, I'd have to evoke the framing device, in that the trilogy is framed with President Obama's first inauguration day in 2009. On a narrative level, one of the things that surprised me is that it's a true story -- so certainly everything you've said applies here -- and it's the author's life. But in a literary/structural way it comments on a fairly recent part of our lives. The framing device of Obama's first inaugural day, there was a part of me that headed into that with a little bit of hesitation. Some of that is still anxiety that hasn't been worked through yet, which is sort of that the right wing controls political discussion of the Obama administration in a way that makes it so that the Left isn't even allowed... they don't even accept that many elements of the Left are disappointed with President Obama and this administration. I'm one of these people. It took me a while to remember and embrace the fact that I cried on election night in 2008 when he won; I cried watching his inauguration on TV that day. There was something that slipped away back into the mediocrity of politics as usual soon thereafter. The narrative requires you respect that there was this window, this thing in the air for a couple of months, in our society. The framing sequence and structure of the 2009 scenes demands you respect that you were a part of that, too. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, this whole symbolism of Congressman Lewis's struggle and where we wound up on January 20, 2009. It's so easy to discard that in 2013. It sort of makes you shut up and listen and respect where you were late in 2008 or early in 2009.

imageIn terms of the book in general... like I said before I was too close to the drawing board and working too furiously to really appreciate a lot of the implications. One of the things that really struck me was being a southerner born in the '70s, there is so much about the historical movement that I took for granted in terms of names, faces and places. When I was doing my own micro-editing breaking down this story from the script, I had to check myself a lot of the time. Even massive figures like Dr. King or Rosa Parks, Emmett Till, at first I thought there was too much entry-level information on these people. I soon realized there's too little. Even when the book was done.

I'm 35 now. The thing that has struck me the hardest not just in the reality of these activists but in the way it's brought forward in this book is the fact that John Lewis was half my age when he jumped into this. It made me think of what I was doing when I was 20. He was getting his skull split open. He was speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when he was 23. I think that that's one of the most shocking things now that book one is done, and I think that's something that may resonate with a lot of readers and people as time goes on. I think that's one of the most essential parts of the narrative: how damn young so many of these people were at the time. Asking the question of I guess the privilege of whether or not to involved yourself with social change or to work hard at anything. For some people it's not a matter of deciding to do these things. That's at the core of the privilege of "Oh, what should I do with my life?" A lot of times that's not a question that needs to be answered.

SPURGEON: We had a conversation back in the Spring about the non-traditional, non-mainstream expressions of comics. "There used to be I think more of a secondary industry that served those kinds of comics. People either caught on or they didn't, and if they didn't for most of those people they would tend to not do comics after a while. Now I think you and I would both agree that we're seeing more people charting careers despite the fact that there might not be an industry of any kind to support them, and that many of them are counting on DIY tools to support them in sustaining their artistic output. I know you come from a music background and a scene that's struggled with a lot of these issues in a different way. I wonder if you could speak from that perspective as comics' ability to sustain the number of voice we see getting into the medium. What might you suggest to people who want to maximize their chances and their return due to actions they might take on their own behalf?

POWELL: I think the most important thing related to that is that I feel in general my peers in the comics world have embraced that all of comics from Marvel and DC down to Sparkplug... that's one industry. That's not completely true, but when you find yourself in your little pocket at San Diego Comic-Con, and it's about a fifth of the whole showroom floor, and you realize that DC and Marvel are about 100 feet from Fantagraphics and Top Shelf. Getting over a lot of the context that brought you to the point where you're a very serious, independent creator -- for a lot of of people in the 30s and their 40 a lot of that has to do with reckoning with or parting ways with mainstream comics, or with corporate comics -- whatever. A lot of those stories are very different. But I've found... and Chris Staros has been adamant, that the success of a Jeff Lemire or Matt Kindt and everybody that's been able to make a living from more than on one end of the spectrum, that success anywhere in the comics spectrum is all good for all points along the spectrum.

imageIn terms of my reality, the only way I'm able to make a living doing comics is by doing work for hire that someone else wrote. I've always been able to work with material I like. I love all of my collaborators. If I'm lucky, I'm able to do something with some awesome DC Comics money attached to it. That grants me enough time to spend two and a half years writing and drawing my own book that maybe sells 5000 copies. Or 10,000 copies.

I feel like once you really dive in there, I don't necessarily say you have to see it from a career standpoint, but in terms of passion and focus, you're already in with both feet -- there's no getting out of it. If I'm not able to make a living drawing comics, I have so much work lined up over the next three years that I literally cannot get a job. [laughter] So many of these books have deadlines. There is no escape. Not that there needs to be an escape. [laughter] There's a certain level of conviction here that has to be addressed. It is a very good period right now for indy publishers that are underwritten by big corporate booksellers that do well in the bookstore and library markets. Major comics companies and very successful indies... all of these things bring up the independent cartoonists that are in it for the long haul. A lot of this has to do with recognizing that you are truly on a speeding train, and that you're mostly just going to be treading water. You can get over it -- constant work, a breakneck pace and planning ahead a year, two years ahead of time. I think that's the new shape of things for cartoonists of my ilk or my way of thinking.

imageSPURGEON: Speaking of speeding trains, you have to be knee deep into March Book Two. I don't usually do this, but I think a snapshot of everything you have on your plate might be fairly fascinating. What's next, Nate?

POWELL: Right now I'm almost done penciling March Book Two. I'm a couple of months behind starting to ink it. Also, like two years ago I signed on to draw a graphic novel adaptation of a Percy Jackson And The Olympians spin-off called The Heroes Of Olympus: The Lost Hero. Hyperion is putting that out and Rob Venditti wrote the adaptation. It's really because of that book project that I'm not homeless. I"m almost done with that. I'll be done with that in two months and then I can focus on the rest of the March trilogy. I'm also finishing up a short-story collection for Top Shelf called You Don't Say. That's everything I've done from from 2004 to now. Hopefully that will be out in 2014. Hopefully in the next two weeks I will be finished and that will be off to them to integrate into their schedules. For years now I've had a solo graphic novel called Cover that I've had written and that I've the first half penciled -- three times now. I've had to put it on the back burner until March is almost done as a trilogy. With being a dad, and all of these other books, a little fire in me has gone out in terms of existence knowing that I'm not writing and drawing my own comics right now. But the longer I've waited the better the story has gotten. I feel like it's become something much more worthwhile reading -- and drawing -- when the time comes around. It's an exercise in patience. So I have four books lined up over the next couple of years.

SPURGEON: We'll talk again, then.

POWELL: Of course!


* Nate Powell
* March Book One


* cover to March's first volume
* photo of Powell by me
* a borderless panel from March that I liked, emphasizing the oral storytelling involved
* a page dominated by the use of black ink
* one of the 18 billion lettering effects employed by Powell
* they were very, very young
* a cover collaboration for DC
* from "Bets Are Off," one of the Powell efforts out there to be collected
* a two-panel progression I liked (below)



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