North Little Rock native Nate Powell started out drawing comics that were printed (at times surreptitiously) at Kinko's, and were distributed at punk rock shows, on tours with his band Soophie Nun Squad and via other DIY means. Fast forward a few years and Powell has earned wide acclaim and has won some of the top honors in his field, including the Eisner and Ignatz awards. His publisher, Top Shelf, recently published "March," the first graphic novel in a trilogy that tells the story of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Civil Rights icon. Powell illustrated the book and worked closely with Lewis and co-author Andrew Aydin.
First off, how was Comic Con [the annual San Diego get-together of graphic artists]?
I'm just now recovering from it. It's always truly an intense experience. This is my fifth year to go, and it's an enjoyable job requirement. But the first day, every time, you're like, "Why is life is so terrible?" And you just forget every time what an awful adjustment period it is.
But this year we were taking a big risk in that we sent way more copies of "March" than we'd ever sent of a debut book to be signed. It's not in stores yet, and we weren't sure if people would be super stoked or moderately stoked or not at all. But it was wildly beyond any of our expectations. The three of us did a panel together that was in one of the larger rooms and it was standing room only. John Lewis got a standing ovation one sentence into his introduction, and everyone had a powerful emotional and personal reaction both to his story and really to his presence. I've gotten to hang out with him several times in the last year or so, and each time it's awesome how people go out of their way to make sure they say hey but also let him know of any personal or historical relevance that his struggle might have had in their lives or in relation to their childhood. And what's so awesome about him is that he's so much the genuine article that he disarms any celebrity or famousness he might have around him, and he'll go jumping in asking questions about people. He's a solid dude to be around. This year was off the chain, we did great and everyone had a great response to everything and there was lots of press coverage.
How did you first become involved in the "March" project?
I've been working with Top Shelf since 2005. They're great folks and we have a good relationship and everything. It was early in 2011. I'd just finished working on these books "Any Empire" and "The Silence of Our Friends" that I'd been doing at the time, and I saw a press release from Top Shelf that this book had just been signed sans artist. And I was like, "Oh, interesting." I had stuff that I was doing at the time. So about a month later my publisher Chris Staros gave me a call and basically, he was like, "Nate, I don't know if you've heard, but we're doing Congressman John Lewis's memoir graphic novel and I think you're the artist for the project." So basically he was like, "You should pull some pages from the script and do some demo pages of them, send them off to John Lewis and [coauthor] Andrew [Aydin] and see if the whole thing will work out." And after a little bit of back and forth — I redid one of the pages and tried a couple different styles — but we almost immediately fell into step. And from then on it's been full steam ahead.