Nathan Schreiber seems to have come out of nowhere, though like all overnight successes, it's been years in the making. A member of the online comics collective act-i-vate, Schreiber has had a busy year. Last November he was awarded a Xeric Grant for his comic "Power Out," currently serialized on the act-i-vate website, and this year "Power Out" was named an Eisner nominee for Best Digital Comic.
"Power Out" has a slow but deliberate pace, telling the story of a teenager left home alone during a massive power blackout and is forced to confront himself and the world in a way that the video game-obsessed teen usually tries to avoid. It's a powerful look at adolescence and there's a reason why it's attracted so much attention. The self-published "Power Out Volume One" collects the first two chapters of the book with the third chapter currently readable on the act-i-vate website.
CBR NEWS: I really enjoyed "Power Out."
Nathan Schreiber: I'm really glad. Some folks really hate. It's kind of funny. The first negative feedback I got kind of hurt, and I've gotten a couple more since then, and it's kind of fun actually knowing that you made something that really upset people.
Do you think part of that may just be because the story is still in progress?
The hard thing about making comics is that the time it takes to make something is pretty laborious and challenging. You're catching me at a pretty interesting time. I recently just had a sit down with somebody where they were like, 'Look, there's a lot of really great things going on in this book, but how is this going to resolve and if you want this to be a great book you need to do some things.' I don't know. I've been thinking a lot about some of those suggestions
So how did this project start?
You go into these things and you don't really know anything about the comics industry. You don't have any real idea what you're doing. I've been making comics in some capacity forever - since I was twelve or fourteen, but seriously since I was in college. I got laid off at my job and I went, "I'm just going to work on this comic." I had a few ideas and this was the one that just felt like I should do this one and just started working on it. I got about thirty pages into it and about June of 2008, [and] just through circumstance, I met a lot of the guys at act-i-vate like Dean Haspiel, Tim Hamilton, Mike Cavallaro, Simon Fraser and Leland Purvis.
I continued working on it and then they just said come onboard and update a few pages a week. I said I didn't really know. I thought maybe [I'd] finish the book and get Fantagraphics or Drawn and Quarterly or somebody to publish it. I had no idea how the business worked. The idea of serializing it online seemed like a really good idea, especially now. It is difficult though to tell a story in chunks like that. I try to relate it naturally to the beats in the story.
So you may post a few pages at a time, but you're not thinking in a few pages chunks.
No, I'm not. Sometimes it stinks because I'll have to break up a thing where it's a scene that's five or six pages, but I'm going to do it in two different segments because that's all I'm done with right now. It can be a little tough to gear your work towards that format.
I would imagine it's good discipline, at least.
It's very good to have that structure, because you need to have some sort of deadline. Especially when you're making something yourself and you don't have a publisher or editor screaming at you. It's good to have some of that outside pressure. It can be a mixed [bag] though. I feel like I'm starting to realize when you start making a book and you start going into it, its flaws, that you would want to fix start to become apparent as you're working on it. I thumbnailed the whole book originally, but then you don't really see how it plays out until you see it on the page. It's good to have pressure and it's good to produce things, but there's no real perfect system.
You mentioned that you had been talking recently about breaking things down and dissecting the book.
I guess I'm in an introspective period with the book. There was one scene that I just wrote and there was something that just doesn't quite feel right. Then I had this conversation with somebody where they were like look this could be a good book and there's a lot of very interesting things going on here but if you want this to cross the threshold and be a great book, there needs to be a little bit more structure. Instinctively I want to push back against it and then there are things that do make sense. I don't want this to turn into a big pity party or anything like that. I like the book a lot. I'm obviously very committed to it. But when you're making this thing you want to go back and edit it and editing comics can be a real nightmare. It's not like prose where you can just go back and type a few new words and delete a few others; you have to really consider your page layouts, your spreads. I was talking to Tim Hamilton last night about this and he was like, "This is why I kept it on a six panel grid." That's genius, I wish I'd done that because then you can just pick and choose what goes where. The editing process would be so simple.
I'd imagine it's much easier to redraw or just shift layout in those circumstances.
You can fundamentally change your comic a whole lot easier if you have a fixed structure like that. Rami Efal does that. His book "Never Forgive Never Forget," it's a locked structure and he's constantly editing it because it's pretty easy. I just think editing in comics in general is just a very difficult thing to do.
It seems as if a lot of the editing is more focused on the writing stage and then drawing it is the final step.
I would love to figure out everything in the thumbnails, everything in the script, but just following that recipe seems a little boring. I'm going to want to add something or do something. There's too much of an instinct to tinker with things. I'm just going to have to keep on creating and destroying and creating and destroying until it gets where I want it to go. I don't know. I'm not sure how this process would work for me, but I know that if I wrote just a very clear linear script of everything that I wanted to do, as soon as I started drawing I would be [thinking], actually I [don't] think I want to do this.
People may know, or not, that you received the Xeric Grant last year. How much of the book was completed by that point?
I had the first two chapters finished. They want to see the finished work. I think that I went back and hand lettered the whole thing because I just started realizing I really don't like digital lettering. I gave them the digital lettering and attached a note saying I'm going to go back and letter the whole thing, but other than that, I sent them the first two chapters.
Where are you at in the process now?
The third chapter's just about done. I'm coming to this stage where it's entering the final act and I need to wrap up all the loose ends or make the ends a little bit more apparent. Some people will ask me, what's this book about, and I tell them, "It's really about the emotional feelings you have in adolescence, the emotional experience of that." That sounds kind of vague. I guess it is.
I don't want to make a bank heist [story]. That's not the kind of story I want to tell. I get very nervous of formulas. I understand some people really like them. I like power pop for instance, and it doesn't matter how many times I hear the same three chords, I hear them again and I like it. But I can understand that someone that makes music, once [they] hear that structure and identify it, it's just tired and boring [to them]. That's sort of how I feel about things that just have formulas to them. You see the first ten minutes of "Avatar" and you know all the subplots. It's like, "What am I going to do for the next three hours." [Laughs] That's how I felt. So part of [me] has an aversion to structure even though I can see how it's helpful how it helps.
The story has its own pace and it is deliberate, but it ambles.
That's by design. I definitely wanted it to have this quietly melancholy feeling to it. I think about that time in my life and I was by myself a lot and it's kind of boring and dull. I didn't really have a personality. [Laughs] I might be going off topic here, but you see this all the time, this snappy hyper self-aware fourteen year old. That just doesn't exist. Fourteen year olds aren't smaller twenty-six year olds. They don't really understand their world and they don't really understand themselves and they're not even aware that they don't understand them. I think in general there's a lost feeling about that whole age. The pacing is trying to convey some of that. I feel like it's a time in a lot of people's lives where there's a lot of things going on but I don't think there's a real strong direction at that age.
Did the idea for the story start with the New York blackout back in 2003?
That gave me the idea. I was supposed to be in New York that day. I was living in Philly at the time and I was going to go up to New York, but I was always curious. When I moved there a year later I started asking people about it and you get a lot of very interesting reactions. One person was trapped in an elevator for ten hours, which sucks. But I talked to a lot of other people and they're like, 'it was really cool.' They described how they walked home and just went to [their] roofs and hung out and watched the sun set. A lot of people seemed to have this common experience of having a very simple time and it was very refreshing. It just seemed very interesting to me, I guess, that a lot of people liked it. I remember one guy said we should do that a couple times a year. I started thinking about my own experiences and sometimes you just kick around an idea in your head and you come up with a few images that just stick. It just centered around this fourteen year old kid trying to figure things out. Like who would be the worst equipped to deal with this is something that I was thinking of and I think he definitely qualifies.
Exactly. He has no idea what to do when the power goes out.
Yeah. Somebody that is kind of sedating his life with all the wonderful ways you can do that now. I read one criticism of my book saying that this seems like a very stern lecture of kids these days need to get off their ass. I apologize if that's how it comes off, but that wasn't the feeling I was going for. You don't need technology to avoid your life. It can certainly make it a lot easier, but that's really what that aspect of the story is about. It's about not enjoying what's going on. Once you take away someone's avenue for escapism, they have to confront reality.
One teenager makes a comment in the book about "Walden," and of course that book, is partly about Thoreau ranting about people ignoring nature and what's real.
People said that about couches. Couches would destroy our culture because people would just sit on couches and not do anything. Maybe they're right. If you eliminated couches people probably would be a lot more productive. [Laughs] It's really just that instinct to get away from your life.
I did want to ask about the main character Justin. Part of the problem with passive protagonists like him is that it's very easy to reduce him to a type.
Especially since he's very much reacting. What's the challenge of telling that story without making him a type?
It's definitely difficult. I really don't like terribly active characters. I think we're a little too beholden to characters that enact our own fantasies - these strong, larger than life characters that take charge of everything. I wanted to make a character that is reacting to the situation that he's in, but also he's fundamentally frustrated with who he is. I mean, the character makes a pretty big decision towards the end of the book. He really doesn't want to be around people. He's a misanthrope and given the opportunity to get away from people, he takes it. That ends up being the big choice that he makes, but you're right, it's challenging. Truthfully, these are some of the things I'm looking at when I'm going back with a critical eye at things I might change. To make the character this confident decision maker is not at all where I would go with that, but maybe making the decision to isolate himself more apparent. That is an active decision. That is a choice. Not participating is a choice. That your reactions are a choice as well.
It seems comparable to songwriters who, when crafting characters, do so in a manner that allows reader to see themselves in place of a character.
Exactly. You definitely want to create empathy. You want the reader to understand what that person is going through. You don't want to make a character that's a victim. It's also important to create a character who has flaws. Real flaws. Not like tacked on things that are not really flaws, fundamental flaws in their personality that hold them back and not just they're bad drivers or something like that. That can be a real challenge.
How much longer is the story going to be?
Is this a sore subject?
No, not a sore subject. It's like what I was talking about before, I almost feel like anything I tell you would be a lie. I see it as somewhere between 170 and 200 pages. It's going to depend on how I wrap things up. I have an outline for the last chapter. I still need to thumbnail it, figure out where everything's going to go, but I see it as being between 170 and 200 pages. If I'm kind to myself I guess I'll make it 170, but you can't force it to be a certain length. It's important to be an editor and cut back things that you think might be excessive, but I wouldn't want to especially given the pace of the book; it's not the kind of thing that you want to end abruptly. Things have to play out.
Your other big news of the year is that you received an Eisner nomination for best digital comic.
I was shocked, honestly.
You're the only person from act-i-vate nominated for a digital comic this year. Are you going to San Diego?
I'd love to go to San Diego, but let's be honest. I don't think I have a prayer in hell of winning. I'm going against "The Abominable Charles Christopher," which is a huge webcomic with a huge following. There's "Bayou," which is a Zuda comic that gets a lot of press. Then there's Cameron Stewart's "Sin Titullo." These are all great comics. I don't know what would happen if I won. It probably means that it's the end of the world. [Laughs] It's not going to happen. Part of me is tempted to go to San Diego just to go, but I'm just not sure if I can afford it right now.
When are you planning on finishing the comic?
I'd love to finish it this summer. That's always been the plan.
Have you started thinking about what's next for you?
I want to keep making books. I have a whole lot of different ideas for stories and as soon as I'm done with "Power Out," I'll probably take a month just to get my bearings, try feverishly to make some quick cash and do sketches for the next project. I have two or three pretty well-formed ideas. I've just started talking with Tim Hamilton about the possibility of working on something together. I'm going to keep making comics for a really long time hopefully. I have at least five graphic novels I feel I have to get done before I'm dead, so that's the next step.
It's going to be great to work on the next one because this is the first real substantial thing I've done. I've started other comics before and they have their charm but this is the first real major piece of work and you just learn so much. With the next book I'm not going to start digitally lettering it at first. The first chapter of "Power Out" was mostly drawn on pieces of bristol that are 9x12, but then I found out it's actually easier to draw bigger, so I drew bigger. You make so many valuable mistakes on the first project that you carry them over to the next one. I can't wait for the next book.