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Today, the superstar graphic novelist Nate Powell is known for beautifully rendered comics with a strong moral core. But, as Tori Marchiony reports, for more than a decade he was dedicated to serving those with developmental disabilities.

Transcript

There’s a bestselling, groundbreaking maker of comics, who’s proving just how serious his medium can be. Nate Powell, the first graphic novelist ever to win a National Book Award has been making cartoons almost as long as he’s been reading them. Always drawn to stories of heroism, the young Nate was obsessed with the X-Men. He was also an avid admirer of G.I. Joe, that is, until his father, an Air Force Officer and Sunday school teacher, disavowed him of his unrealistic romantic ideas about what it means to be a soldier.

Nate Powell: He was very quick to point out that the older you get, the more you’re gonna recognize this is not about individuality. This is not about any of the glorified mess that you’re growing up with. This is a very different thing.

As he matured, Powell developed a keen social conscience, and an unrelenting desire to help address injustice. Throughout his 20s, he traveled the country with his punk band, Soophie Nun Squad, and supported himself by working as an aid for adults with developmental disabilities. Powell was uniquely suited to the job thanks to his older brother, Peyton, who today would be diagnosed with autism, but in the 80s when they were growing up there wasn’t a name for it yet. Still, the condition profoundly shaped both siblings’ lives.

Powell: So it was weird and difficult and confusing, but also, that was my life. That was my brother, that was my family. We got along. It wasn’t until I was almost out of high school that I realized, that I started to become aware, of how relatively different my family’s structure was in terms of adherence to certain kinds of routine, certain kinds of norms. The kinds of interactions my brother and I would have or we would have with our parents. I mean, for example, like some of the earliest realizations I had were like when I talk, I’m really handsy. When I’m thinking up stuff in my head, ideas for stories or songs, or even just like going over conversations or arguments, or things I should have said, a lot of the mannerisms that I’ll have in terms of like pacing and muttering and movements of my hands, I think a lot of these were modeled behaviors as a result of my big brother being who he is, and that being a natural function of what your bigger siblings pass down to you.

Powell took his job as a caregiver seriously but always continued making comics on the side. Essays about that period show up in two different collections, “Please Release,” and “You Don’t Say” in 2008. Powell’s world changed when his first full-length graphic novel, Swallow Me Whole, exploring the madness of adolescence, was published to great acclaim. Swallow Me Whole won an Eisner Award, the comic world’s highest honor, and became the first graphic novel to be nominated for the prestigious LA Times Book Prize, since Maus, Art Spiegelman’s seminal Holocaust allegory. Then, in 2016, Powell won the National Book Award for March: Volume Three, the final installment of the epic historical memoir about the iconic civil rights leader and congressman, John Lewis.

(Excerpt from John Lewis’ “March on Washington” speech):

We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds of thousands of our brothers are not here, for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all. While we stand here, there are sharecroppers in the Delta of Mississippi, who are out in the field working for less than three dollars a day 12 hours a day.

Today, Nate Powell has fully blossomed as a bestselling graphic novelist. His book, Any Empire, was celebrated for its vivid, disturbing depiction of what happens when child’s play turns into real violence. Next came Come Again, following the reckoning between members of a so-called intentional community in the Ozarks. It’s been called one of his finest works yet. But he’s also continued making shorter stories. In 2019, the online magazine Popula published his essay About Face. It echoes his father’s early warnings about the dangerously seductive power of the armed forces, tracing the evolution of various military symbols into everyday consumer goods. Powell cautions that this fashion is not harmless. It is its own show of force, a threat.

Powell: It’s not actually about a black and white American flag. It’s not actually about a blacked-out truck. It’s not actually about the Punisher skull. What it is about is understanding that style and aesthetic are signifiers and that these things are actually communicating something. So I try to lay out a breadcrumb trail that goes from military service and aesthetic choices in there into law enforcement and post-active duty service until they manifest themselves as civilian consumer goods. When they’re presented, divorced from any of their political associations, any of the reasons behind their designer existence, or any of their statements, or any statement that they’re counteracting. It’s once they’re presented in a more sanitized way, simply as something to buy, something as an extension of self, that they actually become really dangerous.

There is, it would seem, no limit to what Nate Powell will address through his work, no gray area that can’t be untangled in black and white.