ED. NOTE: From now through the end of the year, Comic Riffs will take a closer look at our favorite comic/graphic-novel reads of 2013. Today we kick off with one a very special achievement: Book One of Rep. John Lewis’s civil-rights memoir trilogy, “March,” co-created with writer/staff aide Andrew Aydin and artist/author Nate Powell.
EVERY STEP OF the way, Nate Powell has fully committed himself to the project that is “March.”
When Top Shelf publisher Chris Staros urged Powell in 2011 to audition to become the trilogy memoir’s artist, the Eisner-winning graphic novelist (“Swallow Me Whole”) put his full talent on display.
Once Powell was teamed with Rep. John Lewis and staff aide/co-author Andrew Aydin on the book, he traveled with his collaborators to hear and see firsthand what Lewis had experienced as a civil-rights pioneer who endured beatings and arrests throughout the South. (Lewis’s passion is unabated; he was arrested just this month as part of an immigration rally at the Capitol.)
Powell dedicated himself to the drawing board, working long hours to visually tell Lewis’s story in persuasive and precise detail.
And when the bestselling “March: Book One” was released this summer, Powell was fully on board with spreading the good word.
“March is always, always on my mind, every waking hour,” Powell tells Comic Riffs, “and this summer’s travels have taught me that these regular events and discussions are just as much a part of the life of the book as my time at the drawing table.
“While I was just holed up in my room drawing ‘Book One,’ I had absolutely no idea what to expect, but I’ve adapted as best as possible, my wife has been extremely supportive, and it feels wonderful to be able to foster timely and necessary social discussion — not just about this comic, but about comics themselves finally getting past the ‘Guess What? Comics Can Be Literature/Art’ stage in our culture.”
“It very much feels like I’m just doing what needs to be done,” Powell notes.
As Comic Riffs wrote in August, “March: Book One” is so compelling and vital, it deserves to be shelved in every school library and stocked in every bookstore. And it’s certainly one of our Top-10 comics reads of the year.
Comic Riffs recently caught up with Powell to talk about his visual style, his sense of story — and his ongoing journey with “March.”
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congratulations on the book as an achievement, Nate. ... After many long months, did the book turn out as you expected, let alone hoped?
NATE POWELL: I’m very proud of how the book turned out, and the three of us have grown together through the process, creatively as well as personally. I’m deeply honored, and still in mild disbelief surrounding all the buzz. It’s surpassed my wildest expectations, but there’s still a lot of work — and two more books — to tackle. I do find some comfort in keeping my nose to the drawing table, where it’ll remain for several more years.
MC: Between its [bestseller-list] success since August and the simultaneous box-office success of "The Butler," there seems to be a large audience hungry for true-life civil-rights stories. Is that something you foresaw and anticipated with “March” — or does a creator just hope that's the case?
NP: I personally just saw this as the account of an incredible human being, his personal journey and involvement with a massive and necessary social upheaval, and it helps that John Lewis is the genuine article. On one hand, I had never considered whether or not the story would strike at its proper time because I was too busy drawing it in solitude in an Indiana bedroom, and on the other hand our history is full of people working together to resist control, and it’s always the proper time for this dialogue to emerge.
MC: What's the origin story: How did you become involved in ”March,” and what's it like to work on a creative project with a living legend?
NP: Congressman Lewis and Andrew Aydin had been working up the script for a couple of years when I read Top Shelf’s press release announcing the book [sans artist] in early 2011. At the time, I was finishing up work on “Any Empire” and “The Silence of Our Friends” simultaneously, and was too busy to give it any thought.
A few weeks later, my publisher Chris Staros called me up, suggesting that I try out for the artist spot. I took a few sections of the script, made a few rounds of demo pages for John and Andrew, and we quickly realized this was the right team for the story.
John Lewis is an amazing man. He’s very genuine, easygoing, and measured — one feels immediately at ease with him. However, once we started spending a lot of time together, I finally realized the level of reverence so many people have for him. If you’re walking anywhere, you can’t make it twenty feet without handshakes, hugs, and photos. What’s amazing is that he disarms any potential weirdness by taking it all in stride, treating everyone kindly and fairly. It’s been a transformative experience, helping keep my own anger, anxiety, and self-righteousness in check.
MC: Both Rep. Lewis's life and personal leadership can be inspiring. Did you draw inspiration from these as an artist, and did this have extra depths of meaning to you as a Southern artist?
NP: Certainly — and as a white, middle-class Southerner with baby boomer parents, there’s a lot of well-deserved shame and complicity, with my family’s life on the fringes of, and immediate aftermath of, the segregated South. My sense of politics and justice was deeply shaped in adolescence by my involvement with the underground punk-rock scene, and though lots of social and political issues had come forth in my comics, it wasn’t until my late 20s that I felt properly equipped to address certain issues of race, power, and violence in my work. Working on “The Silence of Our Friends” helped free me from that anxiety and served as a creative proving ground by which I could approach “March” most effectively.
On a personal level, John’s life and example has pushed me to remain open, to take everyone at face value, and to resist those small, cramped spaces in my heart that fall back on cynicism and judgment.
MC: You visited the Pettus Bridge personally with Rep. Lewis and Andrew [Aydin] — that site of so much historic bloodshed — because the congressman [as he put it to me] wanted you to see it, feel it, in order to re-create the scene. What was your process like for rendering and summoning all these many scenes from his life beginning from his rural childhood?
NP: Much of it demands getting over any anxiety I might have about depicting someone else’s narrative, and that’s magnified by certain kinds of privilege, as well as plain old self-doubt.
My narrative style centers around intimate, highly subjective depictions of personal experience and internal landscapes. In “March,” everything fell into place as soon as I began identifying strongly with John Lewis as a young boy, and saw how we shared the same kind of gravity and intensity as youngsters. I found it very natural to put myself in his shoes, to look around in the environment he’d described, to take in the new surroundings as a hybrid of his memories and my own.
Yes, it does take a bit of the ability to split your psyche open, but from my perspective, that’s just empathy.
MC: “March” is a visually powerful book — which it needed to be to match the narrative. Did this come easy given your virtuosic pen and brush — or did you find yourself pushing to conquer any visual hurdles? Because your always moving "camera" is downright cinematic.
NP: Thank you! There are constant challenges in the drawing process, especially in a period piece, and therein lay the fun. I do a lot of daily research and reference for technology, fashion, buildings, plant life, and incidental background folks — I’m nowhere near the level of accuracy that some cartoonists or filmmakers have attained, and have no interest in being so, but I think doing a historical comic helps fight some of the laziness in my visual shorthand. The rendering itself is neither difficult nor easy — it’s simply the place where I’m most at home, making lines and figures, listening to records and getting lost in the process of creating.
MC: ”March,” of course, has two more books to go in the trilogy — where are you in terms of production? And do you take on other projects while you're doing this, too?
NP: The script to the whole trilogy is nearly done — John and Andrew are ironing a few things out based on what we learned together doing Book One. I’m currently penciling Book Two, which should be out at the very end of 2014. In the meantime, I’m also drawing a graphic novel adaptation of Rick Riordan’s “Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero,” which should be out in the fall of 2014, as well.
MC: I’m curious: Could you tell me ... about how a dream inspired [your first book] “Swallow Me Whole”?
NP: I was living in South Hadley Falls, Mass., in autumn 2001, and just before 5 one morning, I was visited by a powerful dream. Among other things, it featured a version of [the character] Perry and his parents, the Little Wizard on a pen ... and a slightly different version of the Queen Bullfrog and her insect army, along with very complicated scenes involving a VW Bug made of moss, toting around a small family of Lettuce Children, and a card game played with someone’s father — buried up to their neck in the yard — as he explained the secrets of some great cosmic order.
Upon waking, I hurriedly scribbled down all I could remember, and spent the next year or so shaping it into a story. I was also writing a book around then called “Lightness,” featuring prototypes of Ruth, her stepdad and her grandmother, along with some little bird-fairies. Soon enough, these two stories were combined, and that narrative was shaped by some real-life components to produce the narrative in “Swallow Me Whole.”
MC: Would you mind ... [talking about] your art sales donation to [writer/publisher] Steve Niles [this month]?
NP: Steve is a very talented and hard-working writer, a dedicated indie publisher, an extremely good fellow, and was also the bassist for some 1980s D.C.-area punk bands that were deeply influential in my life [Gray Matter and 3]. Last weekend, I saw that his and his partner’s house was severely damaged by floodwaters, and [that] most of his personal possessions as well as priceless scripts, original artwork and books were destroyed — all without the benefit of flood insurance. Comics creators are generally screwed in life: Most of us who are fortunate enough to do comics full time — which is very few of us — will literally draw until we die because we have no employment structures intact for retirement, much less insurance! If a friend needs help, you help them.
The best way I could raise a few bucks was by donating my original artwork sales directly to Steve. It’s something I’ve done before to help with friends’ medical bills or living expenses while battling illness, and it’s something I’ll be doing again when a friend needs a hand.
MC: Anything I didn't ask about— your next personal project? ... — that I should have?
NP: Once the “March” trilogy is done, I have a few of my own books lined up to work on. The forthcoming one is tentatively called “Cover,” and Top Shelf should be releasing that one in 2017. In the meantime, I’m also finishing up some short comics stories to round out a collection of all my out-of-print or unpublished shorter comics from the [past] decade. That’ll be a book called “You Don’t Say,” which Top Shelf should be releasing sometime in the next year or two.
MORE BEST BOOKS OF 2013:
‘THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER’: Junot Diaz and Jaime Hernandez deftly collaborate on deluxe illustrated edition.