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Nate Powell's 'Come Again' startles 

A folk tale, elevated

click to enlarge WHERE THE TELEPHONE LINES STOP: That's where "Come Again" takes place, the new book from self-proclaimed 'early riser, Arkansan, dad, aging punk' Nate Powell.
  • WHERE THE TELEPHONE LINES STOP: That's where "Come Again" takes place, the new book from self-proclaimed 'early riser, Arkansan, dad, aging punk' Nate Powell.

The name Nate Powell ought to be familiar to any Arkansan who appreciates the stroke of a brush across a page. For his illustrations on the "March" trilogy of graphic novels about Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) and the U.S. civil rights movement, the Little Rock native won a slew of awards, including an Eisner (think: Oscar for comics) and a National Book Award, the first bestowed on a cartoonist. Living in Indiana now, Powell reps his home state in his Twitter bio ("Early riser, Arkansan, dad, aging punk") and has the Ozarks on his mind in his forthcoming graphic novel "Come Again," due out in July from Top Shelf. The local boy made good has made another good one, it turns out.

"Folks already think of the South like it's another country," the opening pages explain. "But even to Arkansans, the Ozarks are remote." It's the '70s, in a place "where the telephone lines stop," set in areas not so unfamiliar to Arkansans (the nuclear cooling tower outside Russellville makes a cameo). Up past Hallelujah Springs (which bears a striking resemblance to Eureka) you'll find a fictional community called Haven Station, home to a handful of families and announced by a butterfly-shaped welcome sign to anyone making the walk up the grassy hill. By my count the word "hippie" appears just once in the book, as someone mutters it derisively in a town square, but they're what Powell's evoking here: back-to-the-landers growing their own beans and selling dreamcatchers (and little bags of weed) at the farmers market to make ends meet.

But a free-love oasis this isn't. We see the world through the eyes of Hal, the caring mother of Jake and ex of Gus, an affable dad who by 1979 has left to "go downhill," to live closer to town. The couple goes back at least to '71 with another Haven Station couple, Whitney and Adrian, parents of Shane. The boys are about 6; from the look of flashbacks to '71, before the kids arrived, everyone was already paired off — yet Hal and Adrian were stealing glances and small touches. They discover in the woods a Hobbit-sized door, obscured from others, that leads to a curious cavern where they consummate their affections.

Powell uses their trysts to build a genuine tension in Hal's life. She feels the guilt of her friendship with Whitney, yet she relishes the sex and the attention and the nourishment of something approaching a private life in a tiny village where everyone knows everyone else's business. Then a narrative twist tugs the story into a realm that blends dreams and folklore in a way that feels distinctly Southern, if not a touch Appalachian. The very secret between Hal and Adrian carries a sort of magical charge that attracts a strange other presence best left underexplained here.

In this telling, Powell succeeds in elevating the elements of a folk tale (and a tale about folks) into a haunting piece of literature. In "Come Again" he displays a cinematographer's deft touch in framing, and leverages color to move us through time and other, more subtle changes. The overall effect is somewhere between a Stanley Kubrick movie and a John Denver album, and even that is only going to get you into the ballpark, because Powell's sense of pacing and knack for gentle misdirection — over 272 pages, he has time and the patience to bake in some real foreboding — sets up a mood and a payoff unique to the medium. Powell's talent, or one of them anyway, is building in such tactile sensations as a breeze swirling, or an amp blaring, or the feeling of a lover's mud-covered fingers squishing between your own. It's moving, it's startling and it's very much of its time and place. Get your copy in August. Share it with your neighbors.

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