"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
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.
What was it like working with Rep. Lewis?
Andrew and John Lewis work in the office together, so in addition to being cowriters, Andrew is the head of new technology and media relations for him, so pretty much every day or every couple of days I have to double check something or go back and forth, because obviously there's a lot of daily research that goes into the nuts and bolts of transferring a script to a visual format. But John Lewis is eager to answer questions and since they both have professional obligations on Capitol Hill, Andrew will run it through and get me the answers quickly. But usually every couple of months or few months I manage to spend a weekend hanging out with John Lewis, and never have I gotten the feeling that there's any sort of creative division or removal from the project. It's very much a three-way, hands-on experience.
One of the challenges for this book is, I've worked with a couple different script writers and everyone has a different way of writing, but as I was working through this script, first I read his memoir, "Walking with the Wind," which is an incredible book. But once I was working through the script trying to figure out what to keep and what might be redundant if I was also doing the visual component, so much of the text in the script — whether it's captions or balloons or just the description — comes from John Lewis telling some of these tales orally for like 45 or 50 years. So initially I'd be reading his memoir and I was like, "Man, it just feels like I'm doing an adaptation of this memoir in places." But then I had to respect that the memoir is not the primary source, the primary source is that he's been talking about this stuff for 50 years, thousands and thousands of times. Interesting. For once the primary source for the text doesn't actually exist in a written form, it's like a living craft that John Lewis has been telling these stories for half a century.
Does telling someone else's story change the actual creative process for you?
Yeah it does. Previous to this, I did this book called "The Silence of Our Friends," which was just a little bit fictionalized in terms of making the story a bit tighter, but for all intents and purposes it was an autobiographical story of this guy's life as a kid in Texas in '67 and '68. That had its own challenges, and I learned to adapt and grow from it. But with this book, not only is it John Lewis' story, but it's also the story of this massive social upheaval, which involved millions of people. So in the same way that his script is seeking to find the balance between having it be his story and being the story of millions of Americans, from my end one of the challenges, especially because so many recognizable historical figures are represented, is finding the balance between accurate and responsible representation, and thus doing my homework whenever possible, and trying to figure out where the areas lay within the book for me to pursue the kinds of narratives that I'm naturally drawn to.
And for a lot of this, I'll look at the script and you can clearly see what is described and what is required by what's written, but then you look with a different set of lenses to see what is not described or written. So a lot of this, with "March," one of John Lewis's pivotal involvements in the Civil Rights movement was being a big part of the Freedom Riders campaign in 1961. And for example, all the Freedom Riders are pulling up into a Montgomery, Ala., Greyhound station and they're rolling into this alley and it's suspiciously empty and quiet and obviously something is about to go horribly wrong. But it's about realizing that there's a 10 second window where everyone on the bus knows they're about to be hospitalized or possibly killed, but they're not sure from which direction, exactly at which moment or from whom. In the greater context of the Civil Rights movement, there's so much as far as tension, dread, anxiety in the waiting and in the struggle. And even when he's a kid, hiding from his family and sneaking under the house so that he can sneak on the bus so he can go to school when he's needed in the fields to farm. So identifying where a lot of these wordless moments when time starts flowing in a different way, and drawing those out and expanding upon those — that's one of the biggest challenges, the balance between this accuracy and faithfulness and then the expressive depiction of these subjective experiences.
Tell me about some of the other folks you've collaborated with recently.
Another thing I'm doing for hire right now is I'm drawing the graphic novel adaptation of a "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" spinoff series. I was not aware that this was such a phenomenon until I signed up for the book. This guy Rick Riordan has a hugely successful sort of young-people-meets-swords-'n'-sorcery-meets-The-X-Men adventure series. And my friend Rob, his bread and butter has been writing these graphic novel adaptation series for several years. So I'm doing that. With this first book I'll be finished next February. And in a lot of ways it lets me check in with my 12- to 14-year-old self, because it's very similar to drawing X-Men or the New Mutants, and in contrast to "March," the script is also pretty tight and everything, but it has much tighter limitations. The panels and page numbers are completely set and broken down. It's a finished script. And one thing I like about drawing comics, especially with different writers, is that each script has different limitations that are imposed upon you and I sort of like knowing your limitations and confines, because then you get an idea of how much room you have to move around and get weird and where that room is. Strangely that's been the most challenging thing I've done because it's a much tighter ship that I'm sailing on, you know?
So I'm doing that, and I did a three-page spot in a horror comic that's co-written by Ghostface Killah and The RZA. It was actually through an old punk connection, this guy who put out some records in the late '90s, and we kind of knew each other from way back then. He approached me last year at Comic Con and he was like, "I'm doing a comic that's a tie-in with Ghostface Killah's new album, it's called 'Twelve Reasons to Die.' " And I wound up just doing a couple pages of it, but the whole time I was like, this is some really full circle stuff. Not only the fact that it was Wu-Tang and it was being produced and co-written by this person I knew from our underground music world, but the publishers were horror comic writers Steve Niles, who was in the old D.C. punk bands Gray Matter and Three, and the guitar player from Bad Religion [Brett Gurewitz] was the other. It was like man, this one project just ties it all together (laughter).
Are you writing and illustrating as a fulltime gig now?
Yes. Since early 2009 I've managed to do it. In general there is no money in comics, and I've been able to creep by. I've been able to afford the hospital bills for the birth of my child, but in general the only way I've been able to do it is by doing double duty, drawing a graphic novel for hire and while writing and drawing my own book. And I've got a couple of friends and peers of mine who are one further step up, who do a lot of writing for DC Comics or whoever, so occasionally I'll get a nice big paycheck to draw just an issue of a friend's comic that Vertigo is doing or something.
What are some of the ones you've worked on?
The major one is a book called "Sweet Tooth" that my friend Jeff Lemire writes and draws. He kind of blew up as a DC writer in the last year or so. And he started a re-launch of "Animal Man" and started writing stuff for "Justice League" and "Superboy" or "The Atom" and a bunch of different books. But it's been a real lifesaver every once in a while to switch gears. There's a whole lot of constant hustling as a cartoon artist, and really I credit DIY punk as far as shaping the way that I navigate the world to allow me to still tap into the constant hustling necessary to keep my head above water.
Hopefully it doesn't involve as much chicanery at Kinko's and that kind of thing.
No joke man! What's funny is, now I feel like the statute of limitations has gone long enough that, whenever I have to explain it, if I'm doing any kind of a talk or anything, I'm like "OK, here's this thing that happened in the '90s..." In the tours that Soophie went on in the late '90s, Kinko's existed in our lives in such a way ... that was one of the primary ways I was able to get so many copies out to so many people at the time. Otherwise I don't know how it would have gone on.
Do you get back to Arkansas very often?
Since my daughter was born a year and a half ago I've only been back once. And I should have come back a second time because now she's in this window where after two hours in the car she's like, "Oh hell no." So I did swing by for a few hours to clear out a storage space in Sherwood back in March. But my plan is to hopefully be there in November or December and really just work through this new parenthood challenge as far as, how do I get a small, impatient child to a different state nine hours away? How can that be done? Millions of people do it. I need to start getting back more and it really puts me in a way sometimes when I realize that life is so chaotic right now that I'm like, "Well I guess that's another three months that I'll go without being home." And really, no place has ever felt like home to me except Arkansas and that becomes more pronounced every day. I love the town where I live and I have a family, but no place I don't think will ever be home to me except Little Rock and Arkansas.