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Like the origin stories of a lot of art, the genesis of Nate Powell's new graphic novel came in a dream. In October 2001, somewhere in rural Massachusetts, he woke up, realized that he had something significant, and sat on the toilet and scribbled for an hour. For the next four or five years, working off, but mostly on, he shaped those notes into a narrative. Once — on the strength of his first 15 pages — he secured a publisher, Powell reckons he spent upwards of 800 days crafting the 200 pages that would become “Swallow Me Whole,” which hit bookstores two weeks ago and already has been hailed as one of the best graphic novels of the year.
It's fitting that “Swallow Me Whole” grew from a dream. The book, which follows the tenuous lives of two teen-aged siblings, has a dreamy, often nightmarish quality. Darkness pervades, insect armies swarm, characters become, literally, unmoored from life.
Like most good teen-aged tales, this one deals in alienation. Step-siblings Ruth and Perry are typical teen-agers. Their parents don't understand them. They have strange fixations and worries. Life is a maddening struggle to find order in chaos.
Or maybe they're not so normal: Perry takes orders from a bullying wizard who rests atop his pencil and commands him to draw. And Ruth is frequently trailed by vast swarms of cicada-like insects, which only she may be able to see.
With lush pen and ink, Powell frames his story within the traditional bounds of comics — he employs panels (a square or rectangular frame of a scene), separates them with gutters of white space, uses speech bubbles and directs action sequentially. But within those constraints, he's wildly experimental. Panels dissolve into one another or the art floats free on the page. Speech balloons communicate tone in novel ways: Dashed balloons signify whispering. Ribbons that wind across multiple panels announce song.
The starkness of Powell's inking, with huge splotches of black and white, dense shadows and thick shading, gives the story an ominous air. But in contrast, Powell's protagonists, drawn rangy and often in a decidedly teen-aged, weight-of-the-world slump, come off sweet and naive, like they're simply trying to wade through.
Powell, 30, grew up in North Little Rock, graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2000 and now lives in Bloomington, Ind. For nearly a decade, he's worked with adults with developmental disabilities (while he worked on “Swallow Me Whole,” he logged 40 hours a week at his day job and 30 or 35 a week on the book).
Like his previous works, available almost in full in the collections “Sounds of Your Name” and “Tiny Giants,” Powell filters “Swallow Me Whole” through his own life. (“Our experiences are tools,” he says unapologetically.) But unlike those earlier stories, many of which felt like journal entries or angst-y philosophical musings, Powell's life seems to inform, rather than drive, the story. That knowing distance helps establish the book's central tension — between stigma and perception. Midway through narrative, one sibling gets diagnosed as showing signs of a dissociative disorder, while the other's symptoms are dismissed as simply part of being young. That distinction, and its validity, colors the reader's take on each character thereafter.
Up until recent years, Powell's life has been transitory and overflowing with projects. He's lived in Kansas City, Massachusetts, New York and Providence, and spent months, off and on, touring around the country, and occasionally to Europe, with the Arkansas-born pop-punk collective Soophie Nun Squad (his role in the band was to wear leotards and animal costumes, dance wildly and holler). He also owned and operated Harlan Records, a D.I.Y. label that distributed Soophie and other like-minded bands.
Powell says he's settled, at least for the near future, in Bloomington. Because its nine members were spread so far apart across the country and tours had devolved into simply re-learning old songs, never creating new ones, Powell says Soophie is officially no more. But! Take heart fans of spastic, participatory dance pop, Powell says just as soon as Soophie broke up, all of its members reformed as a new band, Continental Breakfast. So far, it's purely hypothetical, but Powell's hopeful. Harlan Records also is no longer, at least in an active sense. As its roster quit touring as much, financing it became financially impractical, Powell says, though its back catalogue still remains available (and worth investigating) via harlanrecords.org.
Now, too, after the early success of “Swallow Me Whole” (the book won Powell “Outstanding Debut” at the prestigious SPX conference in October) and the new sense of discipline Powell says he gained from working on the book, he's planning on quitting his job in the spring to focus solely on creating comics.
“The only way it's possible [to make it as a comics artist] is if you keep on drawing all the time and if your old stuff stays in print. This might be one of the only times I have an opportunity to do that.”
He's got several projects lined up, including a collaborative graphic biography of Sam Cooke, a sci-fi fantasy and a more autobiographical essay based, at least in part, in Arkansas.
On Friday, he'll be signing all of his books, including “Cake Walk,” a new self-published short story collaboration with the writer Rachel Bomann, at Collector's Edition in North Little Rock from noon until 3 p.m.