Smash Pages Q&A: Nate Powell on ‘Come Again’

Following his work on the ‘March’ trilogy, the National Book Award recipient discusses his most recent graphic novel, punk rock, politics, his influences and more.

Nate Powell is the only cartoonist to receive the National Book Award. In recent years he’s been busy drawing the March trilogy, and continues to educate and  talk about the book series, the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and John Lewis. Of course Powell had a long career in comics before March, beginning with self-published zines before moving onto a series of Eisner and Ignatz Award winning graphic novels including Swallow Me Whole, Tiny Giants and Any Empire.

Powell’s new book, his first solo graphic novel in many years, is Come Again. A story set at the end of the 1970’s, it’s about a commune that is fracturing, it’s about secrets, it’s about parents and children. At the heart of the book is a supernatural force, but as in the work of Ray Bradbury and others, the force isn’t a metaphor, but it plays a key but muted role in the story, preying on people in a way that is familiar and terrifying. Powell and I have been talking for years – since before he became famous, and we talked about this new book of his, punk and politics, trying to balance personal work like this with collaboration, and the political work – artistic and otherwise – that he’s come to see as so vital.

What’s on your drawing board today?

Today I just finished lettering this 11-page comics essay about style and aesthetic choices that I see signifying a fascist force of fragile masculinity. Basically it’s about Punisher skulls, black and white American flags, Dracula, Steve Bannon, Timothy Snyder’s ideas of the politics of eternity, blacked out detailed high grille trucks, and the adoption of military vehicle specs on civilian vehicles. It’s a lot to pack into 11 pages but I just have to ink and we’ll see if it can find a home somewhere.

How do you describe Come Again?

It’s fundamentally an existential horror tale, or a horror tinged fairy tale. It’s a relationship story about major questions. What do you do when you look around and you see that your ideals that brought you to this moment in life don’t meet up with where your life actually is? What do you do when you really believe in the choices you’ve made in life but they’re not working out for you? What do you do when your life is awesome but it doesn’t line up with your dreams and your ideals? How do your priorities change in parenthood and how do those realign the other bonds you have in friendship and love and the things that carry you through life the people who carry you through life? It’s also a book about privacy, intimacy, secrecy. In a community that’s really founded on openness and a collective spirit, people still really need these things. What are the lengths to which people will go to carve out space for their privacy, for secrets, and what are the consequences of that?

The book is set in 1979, with some flashbacks to 1971. You weren’t around for this period; what interested you in exploring it?

I was born in ’78 so I was a little Arkansan baby at the time. I see 1979 as being part of a major shift in terms of geopolitics, cultural politics and identity. Not only are you dealing with the neocon takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, you’re dealing with the Iranian revolution. On a creative level look at where punk, hip hop and metal were heading. Most of the seventies are people trying to figure out what to do after the implosion of the sixties or after the end of the Vietnam war. Come Again follows a dwindling group of families that have chosen to stick it out in this hippie village reckoning on how to move on past the implosion of the peace movement.

Being an Arkansan but also as someone who was shaped profoundly by punk, not just as a mode of expression but as a means of living, which emerged in the seventies as a reaction to and a development from the 1960s underground subcultures. Little Rock was always a little bit behind neighboring places like Memphis and Dallas and Tulsa. A lot of it has to do with the Sex Pistols skipping Little Rock on their legendary Winter 1978 tour across the South. They played Memphis and Tulsa, and as a result Little Rock didn’t birth its punk underground until the mid-80s, but closer to those locales where the Sex Pistols played, scenes started immediately. There’s a little bit of a current of young people whose lives were transformed by seeing the Sex Pistols off camera just before Come Again. It takes places between ‘71 and ‘79, bookending the era, but also asking different questions which may or may not resolve at either end of the decade.

It’s easy to link Come Again to March and many of those themes, but the book is tied to your earlier books Any Empire and Swallow Me Whole. It’s not a trilogy in any sense, but they connect and really try to map out where we are and how we got here.

That’s one of the major functions of fiction. Thematically and plot-wise they’re not connected, but in terms of being documents of the place where I came from within the confines of my lifetime each one presents questions not just of my own generation but reckonings with my parents’ generation too. Come Again is this document of the little world into which I was born. Any Empire is something that embodied the essence of my mid-eighties middle class boyhood. Swallow Me Whole is a true coming of age in terms of discovering that we as adolescents may have the sovereignty and dignity to have answers to our own questions. And to be able to finally push back against the world.

From the start your books have had a sense of history, an awareness of taking place in a historical and cultural context.

I guess the thread that ties all this together is a focus on memory; contextualizing history by viewing it through the gates of memory. Sometimes that makes it very subjective and intimate to my life experiences. Sometimes it does have more of a historical somewhat more objective vibe. I’m personally very interested in the way that we through our memories process and compartmentalize and deal with our history and our personal paths.

In almost all your work you tell stories about the South, as a setting and a subject. Could you talk a little about what it mean to grow up there?

Prior to Swallow Me Whole –the self-published stuff like Walkie Talkie – I was telling stories about the South experientially and culturally, but really it wasn’t until I was inking Swallow Me Whole that I was finally able to unpack those last layers of Southern baggage and start to deal with them. I had lived in Indiana for long enough that I was able to understand my own Southernness a lot better. I viewed it for the first time as not being something that’s defined and determined through a Northern lens, and a lot of that meant having to deal with some of the nastiest and darkest components of Southern culture and history, which affect everyone who lives there and everyone who comes from there. Prior to Swallow Me Whole I didn’t feel like I had license to use my voice to talk about my own experiences and the South in that way. A lot of that was that I was young so it was an issue of confidence, anxiety, but something really emerged in Swallow Me Whole. I was telling a story of Little Rock or Arkansas or of the South. What it meant to be young and go against the current that raised me in the South. It allowed me to as a creator close an anxiety ridden chapter of talking about where I came from and what it was and what it meant.

By the time I finished Swallow Me Whole I realized, I have so much to say and so many questions to ask and explore about the South. I wound up doing a couple shorter nonfiction comics that took place in Oklahoma or Arkansas. One of my favorite stories was a collaboration with my wife Rachel about Northern dimensions of racism in contrast to my own explorations of Southern racism. As Any Empire was working out I realized that these books could remain tangentially connected in a very William Faulkner like way by linking them in the same fictional town and allowing them to play with each other. So when the time came around to do Come Again I had started writing it and sketching before March and just spent years putting it on the back burner and rewriting and reworking. When the time came to finally draw the book, post-March, it was easily the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done. It was also nice to have free reign in this fictional world but be a little more confident with my voice.

These questions of memory and history and how they intersect is the subject of the moment. Any Empire was about this cartoonish militarism for kids and adults, which has now become the national narrative and policy, which is terrifying.

I call it a nationalist hero glory myth. Up until two and a half years ago, my way of talking about Any Empire thematically had to do with discussing how Generation X and the Baby Boomers would be viewed in hindsight as being this really weird multi-generational window in American society. This particular consumer rebranding of ultra-nationalist hero glory myths was totally cool because there weren’t immediate consequences associated with middle class consumer culture and middle class consumers’ lives. That was the central theme. There were a lot of things that I reworked and took out of the book that would have made the book a lot more prophetic. It did turn out as a “better” book without some of those things but it’s been especially terrifying to see that original version of Any Empire as I envisioned it as essentially being the world we live in now. Interest in Any Empire has increased a lot in the past two years, but it’s also required me to rethink how I talk about the book. My central theme was about looking back at this weird blip on our cultural radar and that’s clearly not the case any more. Any Empire has reframed itself as these two generations of our culture not being equipped to deal with possible consequences of that mythology. I’m really encouraged by seeing millennials and my kids’ generation being much better equipped to see and deal with what’s happening than my generation, generally speaking, and especially better than baby boomers. That’s the new way I think about Any Empire. Instead of a blip on the radar, these conditions illuminate these generations inability to deal with what we’ve just dumped in our own laps.

In terms of Come Again beyond that major thematic setup, what I think is the most timely and relevant theme of the book is the horror of casualness in the face of an obvious crisis. Weaving together what I was just saying about how I’ve had to reframe my thinking of what Any Empire is actually saying to a reader in 2018, I tried to execute that through the storyline in Come Again. Without giving away any spoilers, our protagonist Haluska is forced to deal with a very clear and present crisis within her community and then Twilight Zone-style experiencing the erosion of people’s ability to even absorb that it’s a real thing that’s happening.

Not to spoil anything, but it involves a missing child. It’s hard to read that today and look at the community’s nonresponse in terms of how so many people are reacting to government agents tearing families apart, ripping children out of their parents’ arms.

That’s a central plot point that emerged around 2012 when I was writing the book and it’s been harrowing to see. As the writer I viewed it through the lens of how they relate to me as a parent and literally the way your brain changes as a parent. Your brain goes through all these scenarios to prepare yourself for crises and tragedies and it’s something that takes up a lot of brain space. But there are moments where you’re preparing yourself not just for the possibility of something awful happening, but for the likelihood that it will happen and part of your job is to prevent awful things from happening instead of preventing the likelihood of awful things happening. Where do you still give your children the same freedom that you had, and the same chances to make mistakes, the same ability to get in bad situations – and the ability to get out of them. In 2018 a lot of that has really been flipped on its head by the pressing relevance of missing and vanishing children of our neighbors in a very different and much more potent way. I hope that a reading of this book is able to resonate on both of those levels, but yeah, the situation on the ground is changing so quickly in the past two years, it’s wild to weave any kind of fictional tale. There’s no way of anticipating how a book will be read and contextualized when it’s out in the world.

You referenced The Twilight Zone and Come Again is a horror-fantasy story. I interviewed William Gibson years ago and he talked about how reading science fiction gave him a toolbox to think about and understand the world. I feel like you’re someone who has used and absorbed fantasy and horror in a similar way.

I agree. Generally speaking I view most of my solo work as fundamentally being horror. There are parts of March that I feel like if I do a good job, they should be read as horror. Because they were. I feel like I’m most powerfully moved by a well made horror movie. I feel like the dedication to genre particularly in horror allows so much narrative freedom while still proclaiming its love for its particular medium and genre. In comics, too –whether it’s getting to read Emily Carroll or Katie Skelly or the weirder, scarier parts of Bone or Sacred Heart by Liz Suburbia – the horror threads within these really stick with me for a long time. There’s a part of me that really aims to be part of that tradition of my peers of embracing genre. I think Come Again embraces genre harder than my other books to date.

Come Again feels very Ray Bradbury.

Thank you!

Who are the other writers who influenced this fantastic or South gothic feel?

Specifically with Ray Bradbury, the tone and pace was really influenced by his short stories in October Country and Golden Apples of the Sun. Also Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami. Some of his books have rocked me so hard, and they’re vague and dreamy and intuitive enough that they really affirmed what I saw in my own vision as a storyteller. Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle was really influential on Come Again. Also Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Dispossessed. The Dispossessed kind of changed my life in 2010 when I read it for the first time. It’s the thing that prepared me for a big dedicated life change in terms of getting married, having a real life partner, leaning into the direction of my life, trusting my intentions and my ideals but being able to reconcile that your ideals won’t always line up with the boxes your life is forced into. I think a lot of the contradictions that take place between the two worlds in The Dispossessed and how the main character’s relationship grows and changes throughout the story when placed in this worldview, I think that’s one of the strongest links to Come Again and planted a lot of seeds for me.

This is only touched on but Haluska’s family seems to have a lot of story behind it. Are you interested in trying to explore both that dynamic and that older generation?

Part of that was working backwards to find a good reason for something to exist, that reveals something about this character that I didn’t know. One of the things that I love about Arkansas in all of its weirdness – not quite deep South-ness, not quite Midwestern-ness and not quite Texas-ness – is that there are these really weird pockets of folks who seem like you had to try really hard to put down roots in Arkansas. Whether it’s from shameful stuff like the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps there or whether it’s through the Department of Defense and military service, various cities in Arkansas becoming havens for immigration and migration from various parts of the world.

I had Haluska and I had her name and as I was working through her backstory it made sense that if she was born around 1950 then if her parents were from eastern Europe or the Soviet Union they’d be living under Stalin. Trying to transplant them to Arkansas seemed oddly consistent with the Arkansas that I know, but also in the grand way in which the American South loves to not talk about stuff. It’s a much richer, stranger, more interesting place than you could possibly imagine but damn it, if you can get people to talk about those chapters of their lives that don’t fit into a more socially acceptable kind of casual small talk narrative. That’s a part of Haluska’s backstory that only gets one page in the book and I was very interested in it. From a creative standpoint, I understood that that is outside of this story that I’m telling. I may or may not return to this in a future book, but this is a part of the bigger richer Arkansas that I’m slowly growing over a few decades of making these comics.

This fall, Congressman Lewis and Andrew Aydin have a new book out, Run, drawn by the fabulous Afua Richardson, and you’re drawing part of the book. How is this working?

I drew the first scene, which is the first ten pages of the book. Afua Richardson is doing a fantastic job doing the rest of it. It’s an amazing looking book. Andrew really wanted me to draw this intro as a visual and aesthetic bridge between March and Run. Just as I worked out this new style for myself to do March, Afua is doing the same with Run and she’s doing a bang up job at the mammoth task of finding an aesthetic to bridge our two styles.

When we end March: Book 3 it’s August 1965. The Voting Rights Act was just signed. 25 year old John Lewis is at the White House and at the Capitol with President Johnson. Run opens two days after that. Immediately after that, John Lewis gets on a plane, flies back to Georgia and the next morning he’s with twelve direct action activists and they’re working at desegregating a church in Americus, Georgia. Back doing the work. It’s to highlight that the end of March doesn’t represent the end of the Civil Rights Movement because it’s not a clear victory. The work is not over. We wanted to make it as clear that 48 hours later, in a lot of ways it was the same old situation. It was also the highlight that in Americus Georgia two days after the VRA was signed, there was a massive white supremacist gathering. Hundreds of klansmen marching through the streets. Highlighting how as we see today with the fascist right, they studied the tactics and strategies and methods of nonviolence and adapt them to try to change their optics. To utilize the power of the media to change how they’re seen by the public. The Grand Wizard of the Klan is instructing his evil shock troops basically parroting the do’s and don’ts of SNCC that we saw in March: Book One. If you get spit upon or yelled at, you have to hold yourself with composure. It’s haunting. It’s haunting to see it in 1965 and it’s haunting to see that it’s the same PR method that’s being used to try to move the needle on camera in 2018. That’s the first 10 pages of Run.

I know you’re working on a few other books right now.

I’m done penciling and lettering Two Dead with Van Jansen and then I’m going to jump straight into inking it. I’m hoping it’ll be out by the end of next year. That’s another book that I had started before March and Van was pitching it around, we had some false starts, but it’s a fantastic Arkansas-centered super trippy book. I’m working on a 100 page comics essay called Tornado Children. Essentially it is about raising kids in an era of necessary, sustained protest. It’s something I started scribbling it down for me and to help me remember these slivers of things that were happening between mid-2016 and mid-2017 and then I reminded myself as a parent that I am not alone. There are millions and millions of parents feeling the same feelings. Time to sit down and make it into a comic and send it out into the world and see if that helps with a very necessary dialogue that has to continue.

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