State of the Art: Nate Powell Tracks a Decade of Growth with You Don’t Say

Comics Features

Nate Powell has been producing comics since 1992, but the artist entered the greater public eye as the artist for March, Congressman John Lewis’ autobiographical trilogy in the making. The book, co-written by Andrew Aydin, led to spots on countless year-end best-of lists, both in and out of the comics field. March: Book Two, which came out in January, has continued to elicit critical praise over its evocative portrayal of the civil rights movement in the early ‘60s.

69bb6c8a257b8b41a40e8d8893903e0f.jpgPowell’s lyrical, line-driven style is an integral part of what makes the work speak to large and diverse audiences. It’s immediately recognizable, driven by sonic elements represented graphically, arty panel structure and beautiful brushwork. With Powell’s long and storied history, publisher Top Shelf (which has released a large portion of his work) has just compiled an engaging selection of his shorter work from 2004 to 2013 in You Don’t Say, which comes out tomorrow. Within its pages, Powell’s unique style and elements take root early on and flourish beautifully over the years.

Not all artists have a way with words, but Powell does, and though he’s devoted his career to stirring visuals, his multi-email exchange with Paste shows a thoughtful and nimble mind, able to express itself verbally as much as pictorially.


Paste: One of the things that’s nice about this new compilation is that it shows the changes and development of your style. Even within the first four or so comics it collects, you can see differences. How do you think your work has changed over time?
Powell: Generally speaking, my line simplified over the course of several years, and that’s pretty natural as any cartoonist begins making constant output, refining their own shorthand, but also gaining the confidence that allows one to leave noodly details, hesitant textures and visual distractions behind. I consider the first six or seven stories to be before that transition, but they are also markedly different by their having been such a departure from the half-fiction work I’d done beforehand. I spent a year or two focused on shorter non-fiction comics essays that allowed me to clarify my voice a bit more, and gave me the space I needed to transform as an artist by the time I finished Swallow Me Whole (which was completed roughly halfway through the stories in You Don’t Say). Finishing that first 200-page story also changed the game completely, as it revealed there’s no huge difference between drawing a 50-pager or a 300-pager—once that threshold was crossed, long-form work didn’t seem daunting at all anymore, and I was finally able to give every story the space and length required to best serve the story.

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You Don’t Say Art by Nate Powell

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You Don’t Say Art by Nate Powell

You Don’t Say Art by Nate Powell

Paste: Have you always worked in the same medium, or has it changed?
Powell: There have been a couple of additions to the toolbox, but for the most part I’m using the same tools I used in 1998: crowquill nibs and brushes with tarry, rich india ink on bristol, occasionally spreading out into pencil, toothbrush and opaque white inks. Once I started using gray washes with The Silence Of Our Friends, I kept it simple by making three shades out of diluted india ink, and that’s what I use to this day. I did transition my color work from acrylic and gouache (over which I’d ink the final line art) to painting with transparent acrylic inks/watercolor dyes, but that’s about it. I only use Photoshop to process my final pages into files—and that’s not by principle or anything. I was just a year too old to have computer access for art in high school, or to have any required Photoshop or computer coloring/lettering classes in art school, so I’ve just kinda rolled with it. I feel I don’t have any time to learn.

Paste: There’s a panel in “Seriously” when you’re talking about the comics your students made, that suddenly feels like “oh, hey, there’s that Nate Powell line.” Would you say that work is any kind of a marker for you?
Powell: Definitely! That happens to be the one story from Please Release that I did a year after all the others, and I feel it reflects having re-emerged on the other side of all the stuff I was working through.

Paste: Do you find looking back at your early stuff embarrassing? (Not that it should be. I just know that’s a common feeling among artists.)
Powell: Not really—it’s a real trade-off with older work. I’m certainly much happier with the way I tell stories and draw now, but all that’s heavily shaped and informed by making a full-time living off the seven-days-a-week cartooning schedule, and knowing that I have to keep my schedule booked a couple of years in advance to ensure that my kids will have food on the table. Earlier work was truly made in a vacuum—no editors, self-published, and very rarely even friends reading the stories before publication. Some of my favorite stuff I’ve ever done was in my self-published series Walkie Talkie from 2000 to 2002 (now collected in Sounds of Your Name), and when it works, it works in a way that truly seems like magic to me, even when some of it is forged out of ignorance or impatience. I remember drawing Walkie Talkie #2 without ever changing my pen nib or brush (simply because I didn’t yet realize how often one needs to replace those things), but the lines I started making with those worn-out tools are something I look at with amazement today—I have no idea how to replicate that touch, and still try to “get back there” today! I think that a lot of those early stories have a dreamy, unclear quality that works in their favor, and arguably became a part of my “voice” as a cartoonist, but in truth most of that was due to being too young and impatient to fathom that a story may need to be told in 100 pages instead of 30.

Paste: You gravitate toward black and white over color. Is that fair to say? Why?
Powell: I love line art. There’s nothing quite like it. The joy and immediacy of black ink on white paper struck me like a thunderbolt in 1990 thanks to the work of Arthur Adams, Barry Windsor-Smith, Michael Golden, Katsuhiro Otomo and a few others, and it hits me in the same way today. For a junior high schooler, especially one who soon became involved with underground punk rock and the DIY self-publishing aspect of creation, the simplicity of black and white made it possible to bring work to completion, allowing me to understand overlaying dialogue, correcting, photocopying, collating and taking advantage of a number of copy-shop scams that made self-publishing sustainable. Line art remains the foundation for a reason; its accessibility provides for nearly all cartoonists’ first work to land on the shelves of their local shop.

Nowadays, there’s an added component of time, and the fact that there simply isn’t that much money in comics. For the last six years I’ve constantly worked on at least two graphic novels or book projects simultaneously in order to stay afloat, and working in black-and-white helps make that possible. In 2010 I drew 500 pages of line art. I’ve been a parent for the last three years, and my ceiling of productivity is about 250 pages a year, so I’ve gotta make it count. I do love working in color, though. I’ve done some shorter full color stories for Sweet Tooth and the In The Dark horror anthology, as well as color animated illustrations for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot documentary, and I have a still-under-wraps full-color comic series a few years in the future.

Paste: There’s a kind of rural emphasis in your work that feels relatively rare in the comics field. I don’t know if comics are inherently associated with an urban environment, or why they would be (access to comics stores?), but can you talk about why that element might recur in your work?
Powell: The comics I made from 1990 to 1997 were largely based in vaguely urban, vaguely dystopic settings because that was my reference point for comics storytelling in general (on that note, much of that early work was obviously guns-and-boobs adventure comics). My hometown of Little Rock is a relatively suburban metro area of about 300,000, surrounded by swamps, farms, lakes, cliffs and small mountains, but it wasn’t until I read Chester Brown’s I Never Liked You and Al Burian’s mini-comic The Long Walk Nowhere in late ’97 that I saw The Light: that I must notice and embrace what surrounds me, that I can tell stories about the world we live in, and that these suburban and rural expanses are a fundamental part of my life. I’ve lived in Indiana since 2004, and continuing to explore my home state of Arkansas in my comics has been an increasingly important means by which to remain connected to it (and even to Southernness in general, something I’ve embraced more and more since living in the North), and to all the things that make my homeland so strange and wonderful. So unlike anything else.

I’m also greatly interested in how our concepts (as a people) of wholeness or connection have shifted in the last century, from the so-called “closing of the American frontier” in the 1890s, to the installation of electrical power in the farthest reaches of the countryside in the 1930s (which is one backdrop to the story “Conjurers”), to our inability to conceive of borders as living, changing things, and ultimately temporary ones (as explored in “Postcards From Sovereign Skies”).

Paste: Relatedly, I would guess that WPA-era (1930s and 1940s) prints are one of your influences. Is that true? And, if so, where did it come from?
Powell: Not directly, though they have always struck me powerfully from a design perspective, and have mystified me in my younger efforts to do silk-screen printing and think of compositional elements in terms of separate, single-color layers. WPA-era social photography is a much more powerful influence (Dorothea Lange being the go-to reference), moving on to include Vivian Maier and the hugely influential Diane Arbus.

Paste: You’ve always had a fascination with music (and obviously a musical career as well) that comes through in your comics. Why do you use music and other sonic elements so much in an inherently silent medium?
Powell: Initially, there was no thought process at all behind it—music filled my life and my adventures, and naturally wove itself into the stories I told. That then challenged me to figure out how to best convey that experience (and why to bother in the first place). Along the way I felt two things strongly: that only a small fraction of a live musical experience is relative to the music itself, and that a reader/viewer/listener automatically projects themselves into a song whenever it has any presence in their life. I love trying to forge a contract between creator and audience in which we are able to meet halfway, each injecting a part of our own experiences into a story that’s being told. The inclusion of music introduces endless layers of association and context, any of which may be explored by either the artist or the reader. And I welcome that. Also, the world’s just a noisy place full of music and sound and chatter—and here’s where we get to the meat of your question.

We all accept the visual shorthand used throughout comics: if something’s farther away, it’ll be drawn with a thinner, simpler line, eventually leaving out most visual information and becoming a gesture, a skeletal representation of a thing. As comics readers, our brains know exactly what to do with that visual chatter (and often it is chatter—most of my backgrounds and people are basically scribbles), transforming it into active world-building information. When I was drawing Swallow Me Whole, much of which was very pattern-heavy due to Ruth’s way of experiencing the world, it became necessary to visually present auditory information in an active, sometimes overwhelming way. I was always struck by layers of overlapping thought balloons in Chris Claremont-era X-Men, in which telepathic characters found themselves overcome by too much psychic information, but was always a bit bothered by how every word in those thought balloons was uniform and perfectly readable. As my characters in Swallow Me Whole would explore crowded cafeterias or blaring jamboxes on a school bus, it seemed obvious to activate the sound information in a comic by using the same visual rules of shorthand—letting music and speech compete for space, allowing text and music to become muddled and illegible as it recedes or joins the surrounding chaos.

Paste: I hadn’t really put together the connections among the civil rights movement, DIY/punk and WPA-era photography until now, but they do all seem to have a lot in common, primarily the fact that they’re driven by big ideas, which means the work that results often isn’t all that subtle. By contrast, you seem pretty much all about nuance, and the ability to find all these shades of gray is one of the strongest elements of your work. It seems like you’ve moved from black and white to gray washes in your ideological approach just as you have in your artistic one. No?
Powell: I like that notion, but the inverse was probably truer at first—I started working in the grey washes as a means of mentally separating my simultaneous work on The Silence Of Our Friends and Any Empire. What I quickly discovered was that the washes were what I was aiming for all along—finding a rich, descriptive means of capturing images without all the clutter and nuance of all the hatching in my line art. Having said that, though, once I got comfortable with the gray washes I realized how much more room there was to play, how many more notes there were to hit—and you’re right, how well-matched the approach was for the content’s complexity. The gray washes then opened up pencil work again, and made the heavy black-and-white areas seem charged with more power than ever. I still love working strictly in black line art, though, and am currently considering which to use for my next solo graphic novel, Cover.

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Illustrations from Cover by Nate Powell

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Illustrations from Cover by Nate Powell

Paste: Are you now automatically the “civil rights”/ “social justice” guy in comics? And does that bother you? Do you ever just want to draw spandex-clad folks punching each other?
Powell: Oh, of course! We all do at times, and hopefully everyone finds an opportunity to do just that. It’s a bit frustrating at times, only being invited to participate in panels or events that relate to the civil rights movement or social issues, but at the same time it’s true that March is a project I will have spent seven years of my life drawing and speaking about. It’s exponentially more visible than anything else I’ve ever done, and I should accept and embrace that this relative tunnel-vision is of its time and place. The more I can engage in dialogue about making this world less shitty, about people’s voices being heard, the better—and now’s a more relevant time than ever.

People do regularly ask me somewhat leading questions about either why I have become “interested” in civil rights, or about what kinds of internal changes have happened as a result of working on March, but those questions serve a kind of forced narrative, I think. They’re pushing for a story about how a person can choose to change paths in a very binary way (“oh, I make civil rights comics now”), or imply that previous work didn’t reflect a focus on social and political issues (which reveals a lack of familiarity with my other work). I see all my work as part of a continuum, and these reality-based period pieces fit in very well with my Southern Gothic mystical fiction books. In a lot of ways March is the perfect storm—it’s so full of opportunities to explore the powerful internal landscapes that have always interested me alongside stories about Southern culture and environment, or about coming-of-age, power, violence and darkness. I still need to make a living drawing comics too, so I regularly talk with writers about possible work in and around the superhero genre too. It’s all on the table, and all lots of fun.

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March: Book Two Art by Nate Powell

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March: Book Two Art by Nate Powell

Paste: That Southernness: What do you miss about living in the South? And what do you think people from other regions don’t understand about it?
Powell: I miss the smells, the way clouds move and colors work with the sunlight. I miss the way that different kinds of clay and soil result in entirely unique kinds of asphalt and concrete. A fresher, more diverse dinner plate—I had no idea that, for example, the kind of Thanksgiving spread I’d always taken for granted could be so culturally specific until I’d settled into the land of potatoes and cheese. A completely different general way of interacting with strangers. A culture fully embracing the value of small talk as an expected stage of any conversation. I’d spent a lot of my 20s under the impression that it was necessary to shake off my Southern cultural affectations—either that Southernness was inherently questionable, or as an important part of establishing my adult identity. Much of my time since 2008 has been spent rejecting that kind of lazy, surface-level play-acting, and letting myself rediscover and fall in love with the South again.

One of the biggest problems with discussing the South as a culture is that the very concept of Southernness is often defined through a Northern, white, moderate-liberal lens. It becomes very easy to feed into a narrative that, because of its horrible (and ongoing) history, the South is a culture defined and controlled by whiteness. It becomes really uncomfortable to disagree with those assumptions, but the truth is that the South is clearly a culture made in equal measure by its black and white residents, both because of its awful history and despite it. This is most apparent in the way non-Southerners sometimes approach (what I consider) pan-Southern cultural components of speech, slang, music or food with either the anxiety or giddy tourism typical of cultural pirates—that these elements are thought of in binary, strictly belonging either to the black South or to the backwards white South. The beauty is that the South that raised me never existed as a binary, not even necessarily the Jim Crow northern Mississippi that raised my parents. They might’ve been surrounded by assholes in a deeply segregated society, but the culture itself has been truly formed by all its participants (including its awful historical specters) for centuries. That richness, and the darkness behind it, are the South.

Paste: Do you prefer writing and drawing the same piece of work? Or not? And why?
Powell: There’s nothing that compares with the time spent all by myself on a creation that is all my own. I still think of my solo work as my “home planet” in comics, though I’ve learned to listen much more to editors and trusted friends for feedback. I no longer create in a vacuum, though I guess my dream is still to get back there again, to be a strong enough storyteller that I can turn in a super-weird finished graphic novel that would just go straight to press without those considerations.

But in a way, that’s just the desire to return to a time and place before responsibility. It’s no different than fleeting desires to play the same kind of music as when I was 16, to go on a month-long tour of playing shows in strangers’ basements in front of 15 people, or to re-play one of the early Final Fantasy games every single winter (something I invariably find myself doing). It’s a place we know well, a safe, empty bedroom.

Really, my increasingly more involved and demanding work-for-hire with various writers has made my solo work much stronger, and has made me more patient and considerate with my process. I like doing both, and feel strongly that they enrich each other. It’s also true that I can only make a living by doing work-for-hire alongside my solo work. Drawing the adaptation of Rick Riordan’s The Lost Hero is the only reason I’ve been able to put money down on a house and cover the cost of both of my children’s births. It’s much easier to be a purist when you’re not looking out for a family of four—and I was certainly that kind of purist a decade ago, one who had resigned to a fate of never making a living off comics.

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The Lost Hero Art by Nate Powell

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The Lost Hero Art by Nate Powell

Paste: Do you draw for your children? I’m not an artist at all, but I found becoming a parent forced me to draw a lot of things I wouldn’t have been comfortable approaching otherwise, just due to the requests of a small person (e.g., “Draw a baby. Now draw a baby crawling and drinking a bottle at the same time. Now draw a giraffe. Draw an ice cream cone.” Maybe I have a weird and demanding child. Or maybe I’m just really accommodating…)
Powell: Oh yes, all the time! It’s one of the best parts of life. My 3-year-old daughter Harper and I draw together daily, either at the kitchen table or up in my studio. It’s so fun to reward her with a new pack of markers or drawing pad, or to let her use one of my fancy pens occasionally. And it’s been earth-shaking to watch the development of both her brain and coordination, as she’s slowly moved into the arena of drawing things that represent real people or animals. Some of these include “A Special Frog,” “A Bad Kangaroo,” “John Lewis on a Mountain” and “Daddy Getting a Haircut”. I love it. What’s especially funny is that she still thinks that all dads must stay home all day and draw pictures in their studio.

Paste: So do you read prose with the eye of an adapter now?
Powell: Fortunately, I’m able to keep those mental spaces completely separate. I’m personally uninterested in adapting anything to the comics medium; in the case of The Lost Hero, my writer friend Rob Venditti handled all of the adaptation and script-work, and though my copy of Congressman Lewis’ Walking with the Wind is quite well-worn, it’s used as reference material only, to unearth extra details and compare them to other accounts, or to ask him certain questions about his experiences, hoping to open up new memories. Of course I read plenty of comics, but I still prefer reading prose in my scant personal time. I’m a lover of words alone, and I feel they’ve ultimately been more influential than comics on the direction of my own books. Italo Calvino, Ursula K. Le Guin, Miranda July, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Haruki Murakami and the multimedia storytelling of Laurie Anderson have made huge impressions on my voice and vision.

Paste: From a visual perspective, how do you think comics are able to tell stories in ways that words alone can’t?
Powell: Its most pronounced strength is the ability for a reader to process multiple elements at the same time—though this isn’t about the multiple panels on a page. I’m talking about time travel. It’s more about how we experience a story in a typical linear fashion, from the first page to the last, just like in a novel, but a good cartoonist embraces the reader’s capacity to reference other pages or panels simultaneously and immediately. It allows everything to exist at the same moment for the reader, and works more like the repetition and variation in music than text; themes are revisited and echoed, stacked on each other, but absorbed without as much conscious thought as in a novel. In that sense, comics aren’t entirely a linear reading experience, nor should they be. I believe in a contract that can exist between cartoonist and reader, in which the two parties meet halfway, each injecting their own narrative sensibilities and personal experiences to produce something unique with each read. It’s also possible to activate synesthetic experiences in a comic, particularly by activating and controlling a reader’s experience of sound through visual language (in fact, one can create an entirely new visual shorthand for this experience); it’s something I began exploring seriously with Swallow Me Whole, and which continues to excite and fascinate me.

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Swallow Me Whole Art by Nate Powell

Swallow Me Whole Art by Nate Powell

Paste: Would you say you’ve got a bit of synesthesia yourself?
Powell: If only I had the mixed blessing—Eddie Van Halen experiences it, and it’s always fascinated me to think about him and his brother Alex playing together pre-VH, with Eddie on drums. Eddie testifies that his snare drum sounded “brown,” and once he realized he was an unparalleled guitar genius and switched duties with Alex, he built a special guitar pedal to specifically generate the same color from his guitar sound that he’d previously gotten from his snare—thus, “The Brown Sound” (not to be confused with the COINTELPRO-era CIA poop-weapon of the same name)!

I have a slightly different strain of wire-crossing: my memory has worked against me for much of my adult life, as I tend not to ever forget things, and especially in the Please Release-era stories within You Don’t Say, often found myself treating the past with the same weight as the present, or allowing myself the dark luxury of reliving memories with the same raw emotion as a fresh experience. My older brother has autism, and I think a lot of my tendencies, affectations and focus on memory and replay are a result of the sibling-modeling from growing up together. I’m already a nostalgic, eternally replaying pack rat as it is, and at my worst I was truly a ghost in my own life. I get really hung up on certain things. Fortunately, the best cure was a natural one—fatherhood. The brain just doesn’t have space for everything anymore, and I’m happy to say my memory has gotten just foggy enough to make room for the important stuff—the present.

Paste: Do you ever think about moving into non-comics visual art?
Powell: Nope, I feel very fulfilled as a comic artist, and fortunate to have found my calling as an 11-year-old. Comics are really time-intensive, and the financial gains are pretty minimal, but they also provide a space to bring an incredibly broad range of skills or knowledge to the drawing table. I really do see the medium as a playground of potential, and love its accessibility. At its best, it’s about exploring and developing one’s voice, both in observing and participating in our world, and it’s possible for anyone to develop that voice with everyday tools, and publish that voice with just a copy machine.

Having said that, I’m fairly serious about my novice-level photography. I shoot a lot of (mostly underground) bands and other stuff, but try to keep it in the realm of pure pleasure by never upgrading from a super-nice point-and-shoot camera. I’ve been asked once or twice about having a show of band photography, but there’s something about the prospect that would make it seem too legit—I’d rather keep my photography a purely personal pursuit.

In the last year I’ve also stepped into the realm of screenwriting for a couple of films in early stages of development. I can’t discuss those just yet, unfortunately, but it’ll be very interesting to see what happens.

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