It is a painfully embarrassing moment and we can’t help but watch. She looks like she’s forced to take part in some initiation but it’s by her own design. Sara Goodman, age twelve or so, only wanted to dress up and look like Aunt Jemima for Halloween and join all the other kids in costume at school. That’s the premise for “Cakewalk,” a recent comic drawn by Nate Powell and written by Rachel Borman, which is full of the sweet melancholy of the best of Nate Powell’s work. His graphic novel, Swallow Me Whole, is up for three Eisner Award nominations (Best New Graphic Album, Best Writer/Artitst, Best Lettering) and shares the distinction of being the only graphic novel since Maus to be nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Young Adult). That presentation ceremony will be held on April 24.
Swallow Me Whole is a remarkable book which brings together a vision made up of exceptional outsiders just one step away from running away into the night. With his latest book, Powell has reached a landmark in his comics career. I was able to catch up with him at Emerald City ComiCon in Seattle and then conduct a subsequent interview. Nate was very thoughtful and generous with his time and it made for a great interview.
Blog@Newsarama: There’s a certain beauty in going back to the same story and telling it again. As a cartoonist myself, I suspect that earlier in your career you were finding your way as you retold a story and now it can be a deliberate act, the world of Nate Powell. What do you think?
Nate Powell: I wouldn’t say it’s deliberate by any means, but it is certainly unavoidable. Looking back at older comics of mine, it’s frustrating to realize that I had no concept of doing a story longer than 32 pages, even though I had a lot more to say. Those stories, especially “Conditions” and the main stories from Walkie Talkie, are confusing and cluttered because I tried to cram a whole world, or a year’s worth of thoughts into 32 pages. A few months ago I momentarily got excited to redraw It Disappears and “Autopilot” as 100 page stories, now that I understand a little more about patience and breathing room. Themes are constantly revisited, as are different incarnations of certain characters and activities. Most of that is due to unsuccessful attempts to communicate something in the stories, not that anybody can ever get it just right. I do feel that I worked a lot of themes out of my system in Swallow Me Whole, and it’s really exciting to work on new stories that are free of some older semiotic and thematic elements.
Blog@: The phrase, “swallow me whole,” keeps appearing in your work. How significant is it? Is there a story behind how it came about for you?
NP: Strangely, I had no memory of putting that phrase in so many stories until I stumbled across them over this winter. It’s not personally significant, but in each of the three appearances it seemed to convey meaning in an appropriate way. It’s pretty easy for me to feel overwhelmed by an anxious, agoraphobic terror, and the imagery of being enveloped or swallowed by something does seem reassuring—even when the swallowing isn’t protective. Like in older Dracula movies, when he conceals his dirty work with a wave of his cloak over the body of his passed-out victim: the concept of Dracula’s power is so alluring and effective precisely because people secretly want to feel the security that comes with placing their sovereignty in the hands of something or someone else, even when that means the end of their agency, freedom, or dignity. Re-read Dracula—you get all dizzy and swoony during those moments of vampiric power, and you really sense the sexual allure of safety and domination represented by the vampire. The “swallowing whole” theme is both a refuge and a poison. In It Disappears, the “swallowing” is in reference to the way that snow, frost, rain, or the dark of night covers everything, slows everything during its temporary reign on earth, covering roads and markers of our civilization, reminding us how fleeting that civilization really is.
Blog@: How did your ten years working as a support person for people with developmental disabilities affect your work? I held a similar job for about two years and found it rewarding but draining and didn’t get much art done. It’s an all encompassing world, isn’t it?
NP: Well, it’s simply unavoidable that any line of work done over the course of a decade will deeply affect they way you perceive the world and the art that comes forth from it. For a few years, it hit me that about seventy percent of all the people I hung out with had disabilities of some kind. I grew up with developmental disabilities in my family, and until recently took for granted the special lens through which I navigated my world. Yes, the work is definitely rewarding but draining. There’s a constant turnover of people who work as direct care staff, and awareness of this high rate of turnover is one of the main reasons I’ve tried to stick with it for as long as I can. At certain times I’ve felt that working for folks with disabilities is something that is as important to me, or more important, than drawing comics. I know that, if I’m never able to make a living drawing comics, I’d be fine with direct care work as a primary means of employment. It is so all-encompassing, however, that you can get completely burned-out without ever realizing it, unless you practically force yourself to take regular breaks, trips, tours, and take special time off to focus on other parts of life. Human services work requires a predisposition to be dedicated and self-denying, but those same qualities are what provide for inevitable self-destruction if you’re not careful.
Blog@: You’re in a band and manage a punk record label. How does the punk ethos play a role in your comics?
NP: Fundamentally, I’d say I’ve been so used to the “do-it-yourself” ethic that it’s been difficult to ease up on wanting a hand in every aspect of the production, publication, promotion, and distribution of comics. Not that it’s an issue of trust—most of my publishers have been amazing—but that kind of direct involvement, and that degree of being in-the-know about the stages of production, are difficult to part with. I have absolute trust in the wonderful folks at Top Shelf, and working with them has helped me realize that some folks are way better at those aspects of production than I am. And on the other hand, working with Soft Skull, which required me to personally distribute hundreds and hundreds of copies of my own books, underlined why one can’t assume that a publisher is gonna be competent or responsible just because they can put up the capital to print something.
DIY punk and its culture have also greatly informed my expectations of any scene or community. When I was younger, I believed this quality of support and connectedness was unique to punk, and it was so exciting to see that the comics community is full of the same support, sacrifice, social networking, enthusiasm, and ingenuity. I feel at home with both, and have high expectations of both.
Blog@: From your collected works, Sounds of Your Name, there’s quite a variety of work that’s experimental. I am guessing a lot of the early stuff came out of your studies at the School of Visual Arts in New York City . You’ve said that NYC wasn’t your scene. But surely you enjoyed the tempo on some level. Could you describe what it was like for you as a student back then? And wasn’t it quite a leap of faith to go to SVA in the first place?
NP: Well, I liked living in New York a lot—it was Providence , Rhode Island that crushed my soul. I went to a year of college in DC, and realized I had no idea why I was there. I’d been drawing and publishing comics for years by that point but had only started to take it seriously again. I spent the next three years at SVA in New York , and was really excited to be there, surrounded by lots of folks who were as excited as I was, having teachers whose comics I’d grown up reading. Most of my time was spent strictly on comics; I’d return home to Arkansas during every school break in order to tour and record with my bands, or make new episodes of our DIY sketch comedy show. It was a very dualistic existence at that point, but seemed perfectly natural. I felt at home in New York , but honestly didn’t put much energy into making it my home. When I finished school, I had already booked three tours for the coming months, and had new stories to work on—at twenty-two, it was really easy to adventure onward and leave school in the dust.
Blog@: Can you discuss how you came to develop the characters in Swallow Me Whole? I see hints of Ruth in your earlier comics, right?
NP: Well, the core narrative of the book came to me in a dream I had in October 2001. Perry and the parents were fully formed at that point, and Ruth was a hybrid of herself and a giant, waxy Keroppi-style frog child in the dream. I was also cooking up a comic called “Lightness” at the time, and Ruth was the protagonist in that book. Within a year or so, the two books merged seamlessly and some of the missing narrative components turned out to be related. For the most part, Ruth’s appearance and lots of her personality are patterned after my most beloved best friend. Perry is physically based on another of my best friends. Memaw is very similar to my grandmother, and a lot of her delusional scenes are lifted directly from the last few months of her life, as her cancer treatment began to take a neurological toll. It’s true that there are some similarities between Ruth and the little girl in “Autopilot”, a story I did in 2000 for Walkie Talkie, but those similarities are more due to the revisitation of themes and devices we discussed earlier.
Blog@: Considering that both Ruth and Perry are struggling with schizophrenia in Swallow Me Whole, they still manage to achieve rites of passage for high school: finding a job and someone to date. In that respect, they’re doing better than a lot of kids. Was it important to have them as fully integrated into society as possible?
NP: Certainly. One of the things I was most interested in working with in the book was the reader’s changing expectations of each character, based on their life circumstances. A lot of Ruth’s experiences are ambiguous in that they could represent her subjective experience as a teenager with schizophrenic or obsessive-compulsive issues, and they could also convey the subjective experience of just being a teenager. Ruth struggles a lot with being heard and respected, with finding a little dignity and sovereignty in her life; this issue is magnified once she has the stigma of someone with a mental disorder. After the “Baby Ruth” candy bar incident, the school faculty as well as her parents contextualize the situation through her disorder while she vies for people to listen to the reasons which might push anyone to act in such a heavy-handed way.
Whether someone grows up with or without diagnosed disorders or disabilities, it’s hard enough feeling like shit as a teenager, especially as one acutely dissatisfied with the world around you. I’ve never intended Swallow Me Whole to be a book “about disorders” or anything, as it has as much to do with those issues of sovereignty as love, death, disaffection, loss, and idealism.
Blog@: How important was it to set this book in a small town setting and to comment on it? You get an opportunity to call out some small town bad behavior.
NP: The narrative takes place in a community similar to the one in which I grew up, which is a metropolitan area of a couple hundred thousand people. I contest the notion that racism, ignorance, boredom, and regionalism are behaviors indicative of a smaller town. Growing up in the Little Rock area, I certainly considered smaller towns to be more backwards than my town, but it wasn’t until leaving home that I realized this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, I think that the social frameworks of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia thrive from the misconception that these are small-town issues that don’t exist in larger areas. My next book Any Empire focuses on this issue, specifically how Midwestern racism and paranoia thrives from the notion that racism is a Southern problem. My new home of Indiana is far more fucked-up and backwards than Arkansas , and that’s one of the main reasons—a lot of white folks here feel like they have a free pass to be racist assholes because they’re free from mainstream blame in their sheltered, homogenous Indiana environment.
Blog@: Clearly, Swallow Me Whole is an achievement in your growing theme of wonderment. Do you see yourself as focusing on this sense of wonder?
NP: I do feel that my comics focus on the sense of wonder at a universe much larger, more powerful, and mysterious than we can grasp. I find a little peace and ease in realizing how small human beings are, and try to balance that with a focus on the concrete issues with which we struggle. I guess that would be wonder. A lot of that narrative sense is informed by heavy metal of the 1970’s and 1980’s, in which lots of lyrics focus on a narrator expressing disbelief at a fantastic event occurring before his very eyes. Bruce Dickinson does a fine, fine job at conveying that sense of wonder and disbelief.
Blog@: Is there anything you’d like to say to young people out there who are not sure about where their lives are heading?
NP: It’s all true—no one is sure where their lives are headed, and death is the inevitable result. There is no objective meaning or order. Find your own. (I’m not trying to be a downer, but people always try to cram structural frameworks down people’s throats. I mean what I say—make your own meaning, your own noise.)
Blog@: There’s your comments in your comcis about how the X-Men provided you with a social conscience. Anything you’d like to add to that? Maybe some other influences in books, movies, your life? I would think someone like yourself, drawing comics since you were four, is really tuned into the world.
NP: The two biggest (and earliest) political influences in my life were X-Men and speed/thrash metal. I got into both in mid-1990 right as I turned twelve, and both finally seemed to rip open dialogues about war, nationalism, intolerance, alienation, and idealism. Specifically, the 1985-87 Claremont X-books, and the band Anthrax. Growing up with hair bands and G.I.Joe comics, I really didn’t have much of a concept of art and music even having any real content. It blew my mind that folks were making songs and stories about being a misfit, about disaffection, about struggling against the dominant schema. One reason that punk was a natural step was thanks to Anthrax and Chris Claremont.
Also of great importance was growing up with my brother Peyton, who’s six years older than me and has high-functioning autism and a few learning disabilities. It wasn’t until I was 20 or so that I realized I grew up with a unique and specific view of families, communication, affection, and child development. That’s one of my prime motivators for working with folks who have disabilities, and for trying to be more aware of both my social privileges and perspectives I take for granted.
Blog@: Lastly, we all look forward to your next book with Top Shelf, Any Empire. Any other comments about that or working with Top Shelf in general?
NP: I couldn’t imagine working with a better, more approachable, supportive bunch than the Top Shelf folks. Any Empire falls somewhere between being a graphic novel and a comics essay. It’s largely about living in a culture of distrust, and about how much energy goes into keeping people afraid of each other. About how, when, and why we might work to break free from that framework. Specifically, it’s how paranoia, racism, and distrust serve the interests of a state, and how any state’s prime directive is its own survival, even in defiance of a democratic majority. The personal elements intertwined have to do with being a military-obsessed kid, moving from home to home, growing awareness of being a misfit, looking for love and peace, and trying to quiet those paranoid and self-destructive voices within myself.
The book will hopefully be out at the end of 2010. I’m also simultaneously drawing a graphic novel called The Silence of Our Friends, written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos, and hopefully published by First Second Books (though we have no solid publisher at present). That’ll hopefully be released at the end of 2010 as well.