Nate Powell began self-publishing his comics when he was a teenager. He has since worked with many publishers, though it’s only in recent years that his comics have received serious attention. Powell’s 2008 graphic novel “Swallow Me Whole,” released by Top Shelf, received an Eisner and two Ignatz Awards and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His 2011 book, “Any Empire,” was named one of the best books of the year by many publications, including here at Comic Book Resources.
Powell’s latest project is something of a departure from the cartoonist’s typical fare. Published by First Second, “The Silence of Our Friends,” a story about Houston, Texas in the late sixties, is illustrated by Powell but is written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos. Later in the spring, “The Year of the Beasts” which Powell worked on with writer Cecil Castellucci, will be released by Roaring Brook Press. Additionally, Powell is illustrating and coloring an issue of Jeff Lemire’s “Sweet Tooth” for Vertigo.
CBR News spoke with Powell about these projects, the success he found in recent years and what lies ahead for the acclaimed creator.
CBR News: Your last book, “Any Empire,” was released last year, and it’s been on many Best of 2011 lists including our own at CBR. Has the response been gratifying?
Nate Powell: Definitely! It’s an intense book, a fairly marked departure from “Swallow Me Whole,” but is also largely a book of questions. I was unsure how it would be received once published, but it wasn’t worth worrying about. I hoped that some good dialogue and discussion would emerge from it, and that’s been great, but I’ve been most excited to talk with folks about a wide range of shared personal experiences and shared sentiments from their own lives, both in my generation and with a lot of baby boomers as well.
With “Swallow Me Whole” and “Any Empire,” you’ve managed to produce two critically acclaimed graphic novels in a row. This year, you have two books coming out which you didn’t write. After achieving so much in the role of the sole creator, why were you interested in drawing something you didn’t write?
Besides the necessity of doing as much work as possible in order to pay rent, drawing someone else’s book is just a very different experience. Working on someone’s script seems to activate totally different parts of my brain — certain information is set in stone, some requires a good deal of personal input and judgment and other parts of the script call for the artist to take the narrative reins entirely. The more I worked on other folks’ scripts, the more I became aware of exactly what entailed my relationship to the narrative, and it got more and more fun and expressive. I drew “Any Empire” and “The Silence of Our Friends” at the same time, but the stylistic differences between the two are pretty pronounced.
What was it about “The Silence of Our Friends” that drew you to the book?
I was intrigued by how the subjective experiences of several characters were being told at the same time, with a stratified sense of intimacy with the reader. Young Mark Long’s character was closest, but his experiences were still told without much sentimentality, and without any judgment, which was essential in a book with so much focus on racism and Black Americans’ struggles, but often told from a white character’s perspective, even if that perspective is autobiographical. This tension, and the reader’s own dissonance and questions brought to the pages of the book, combined to make something potentially very powerful and far-reaching. I was excited to bring everything I could to the table.
What was it like working with Mark Long and Jim Demonakos on the book? I’m specifically curious about how tightly they scripted it and how much freedom you had as far as the page layouts and designs were concerned.
The script was essentially written movie-style, with full dialogue and some direction of action, but without any camera direction. The pacing, flow and layout were left up to me. I thumbnailed the whole book and we all met with Calista Brill at First Second to work through the script and do a large portion of the story edits together. Once final revisions were made, I sent the team five finished pages every week, and we’d all make editorial notes together, occasionally having longer discussions about relevant personal or political issues surrounding the story so we could depict the action in the most appropriate and powerful way, reworking where necessary.
Would you have done the book if you didn’t have that kind of freedom to lay it out? Having been given that level of control does make it feel and read like one of your books.
The answer has a few parts. In fall of 2008, when I got on board for “The Silence of Our Friends,” I never expected to be able to make a living off comics, and so simply drawing someone else’s book was something to which I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit several years of my life. At that point, I definitely wouldn’t have done it if the storytelling was heavily directed and controlled within the script.
I have, however, been fortunate enough to make a living off comics for about three years now. The only way this has been possible has been by taking on paying comics work when it’s available, doubling and tripling up on work most of the time. Had I not taken the chance on “Silence,” I don’t think I ever would’ve been able to make the leap into financial chaos that accompanies full-time cartooning. I have a new baby girl to support, and my financial reality is increasingly strained and uncertain. I would definitely take that hypothetical script these days, but I would pretty much still just draw the book however I saw fit, regardless of what was in the script direction. If I had to go back and redo a few things here and there, that would be just fine. When I work with writers, they’re kept in the developmental loop all the way, so they’d be seeing thumbnails and pencils of their work in progress, and we could work out a compromise everyone would be satisfied with. Openness and compromise are at the very heart of collaboration, after all.
Prior to this, you’ve self-published or worked at Top Shelf or Soft Skull Press. How did working with First Second compare?
The First Second folks are great — they’re an independent, four-person operation that runs under a big-daddy publishing mast and has some good resources to work with, but they generally seem to be left alone to publish books as they see fit. It’s a different experience from Top Shelf, but they still have a nice, personable sense of connection and back and forth with their creators. I have a lot of interaction with Chris Staros in his editorial capacity during the writing/penciling stages of my Top Shelf books, and my relationship with Top Shelf as a whole generally feels like we’re a family, or like the closer relationships I feel from playing in bands. I still work with Top Shelf and hope to do so for decades to come; I have one or two new books and a short story collection in the works with them right now.
Soft Skull has changed hands several times in the last decade, but during my time there it became increasingly clear that they had no business publishing comics. The print runs for both Soft Skull books were lower than my own self-publishing runs. “It Disappears” was misprinted and essentially killed in the water (at the same time, they screwed up Megan Kelso’s “Scheherazade”). I even had to tell them what Diamond was and send them my own self-publishing info and tips on how to pitch and promote books with a Diamond rep six months after the release of “Tiny Giants.” They were nice folks and I was friends with some of them, but they had a lot to learn about comics, for sure. Experiences like that made me value the things I’d had to learn while self-publishing and running a small record label, and I continue to be thankful for that DIY ethos as it influences how I deal with all my business and creative relationships in comics.
Back to the creative aspect of “Silence,” much research was required as far as capturing the look and atmosphere of Houston in the late sixties?
Mark grew up there and had a lot of photo reference ready to send my way. I grew up in Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama in the 1980s, and while Texas certainly has a distinct culture and identity of its own — it’s not exactly Southern or Western or Cajun in Houston — I found myself drawing heavily on my own experiences and memories growing up in the general area. On a technical level, I probably did about an hour of research a day at times, when it came to rendering fashion, cars, technology and neighborhoods.
What was unsettling was that, when depicting the uglier moments in the story, I was able to draw so heavily on my own memories. 15 or 20 years’ passage really didn’t paint that different of a picture between our two Southern childhood experiences. The level of personal connection I held to the time and place (for better or worse) often gave me the feeling that I was telling a tale close to my own life, and that’s when the tangents really began clicking within the book’s pages.
You have another project coming out soon, “The Year of the Beasts” written by Cecil Castellucci. What is it and how did you get involved with that project?
“The Year of the Beasts” is alternating chapters of prose and comics that take place in parallel projections of the story. While the prose parts follow teenagers in a world that we recognize, the comics sections feature mythological beasts immersed into our world as adolescents, each dealing with their own curses and gifts. Woven together, the book’s about sibling rivalry, death, grief, emerging sexuality and when we get so lost in the realm of our own sadness that we forget we’re the one’s who can dig ourselves out.
Cecil and I have known each other for a few years through the comic convention and book festival worlds, wound up hanging out at breakfast one day with some First Second peeps and immediately developed a kinship. About a year later, she approached me with the possibility of drawing this book. I was excited by its tone, its darkness and by the questions raised in it. Roaring Brook Press will be releasing it in May, and I can’t wait.
This month, Top Shelf is releasing a number of books digitally, including “Any Empire.” What are your thoughts on digital comics?
I don’t read digital comics, but I have nothing against them, and am very intrigued and excited to see where they go in the next five years! I just recently got a fancy-shmancy smart phone, and so it kinda blows my mind to be able to download comics directly on there. [I’m] still kinda new to the whole transition.
What else are you working on?
I am currently drawing/coloring “Sweet Tooth” #34, which should be out in June. Right now I’m gearing up to start work on three graphic novels: two of them are with different writers, and unfortunately, I gotta keep my lips sealed on those for another month or two until everything is squared away. One will be with Top Shelf, and the other with Hyperion Books. I’m also working on my next solo graphic novel called “Cover,” which’ll likely be released in 2016. In the meantime, Top Shelf will also be releasing “You Don’t Say” in 2013, which collects all my shorter comics from 2004 to present, including a bunch of new and unreleased stuff. A digital version of “Sounds Of Your Name” will be available in early spring from Top Shelf, and a digital “Edible Secrets” will be available even sooner.