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Nate Powell‘s Swallow Me Whole is a graphic novel that demands and warrants repeated readings. Released by Top Shelf last year, the publisher describes it as “a love story carried by rolling fog, terminal illness, hallucination, apophenia, insect armies, secrets held, unshakeable faith, and the search for a master pattern to make sense of one’s unraveling.” My thanks to Powell for this email interview and his level of candor.
Tim O’Shea: What motivated you to start self-publishing mini-comics at the age of 14?
Nate Powell: Well, I’d been drawing comics with a few friends for a couple of years already. We had many issues of a comic series mapped out, and a friend’s uncle suggested that we finish up each issue and self-publish it. We didn’t really know what that entailed, but soon discovered a few neglected copy machines around town and in my dad’s office. We made 100 copies of the first comic, and they all sold in about two months; we’d never anticipated recovering our expenses, or anyone actually BUYING the books, to be honest. We just wanted to have a comic too, and found the most accessible way to make them. At this time I was already into the punk subculture and had been exposed to people who made zines and released records in much the same manner, but it was not until a few years later when I started writing zines and putting out records that I saw the inherent connections between these two realms of DIY entrepreneurship.
O’Shea: How many different languages has Swallow Me Whole been translated into–and how much are you involved in reviewing or approving the foreign editions?
Powell: So far, there are English and Spanish editions available, and there are French, Dutch, and Italian editions on the way in the coming months. Unfortunately, I can only read French (and I’m no master at that), but I do have total trust in Top Shelf to work with strong translators. It’s exciting to see my lettering transposed to different tongues!
O’Shea: How hard was it to tackle an issue like mental illness without allowing it to overwhelm the story?
Powell: Hopefully mental disorders didn’t overwhelm the story because it’s not a story “about” mental disorders—I see the book as being just as centered around aging, dignity, adolescence, death, and personal sovereignty. Having said that, a good degree of caution was certainly exercised to allow the characters’ subjective experiences carry weight and relevance without exploiting the nature of mental disorders for the sake of narrative.
O’Shea: How much, if at all, did your years of experience working with the developmentally disabled influence or inform your approach toward tackling Swallow Me Whole?
Powell: It’s tricky—on one hand, I don’t really see my line of work as directly influencing the book at all, but that’s because I take for granted that I’ve been close to disabilities all my life. My older brother Peyton has autism and some other minor learning disabilities, and I must’ve been twenty or so before I realized just how different my experience of growing up was from most of my friends. My entire perspective on affection, family communication, physical contact, rites of passage, playtime, change, and transition are filtered through this context. I credit my time spent working with folks with disabilities as drawing those experiences to my attention, but I’d give more of the credit to my family life in childhood.
O’Shea: Are there any particular artists that have influenced your sense of layout (use of negative space/lettering style)?
Powell: Chester Brown’s I Never Liked You opened me up to the possibilities of playing with margins, panel density, and space to control pacing and gravity—the early printings of that book had entirely black gutter/margin space which I’d never really seen before, besides in Mike Mignola books. Will Eisner, Lynda Barry, Dylan Horrocks, John Porcellino were all very impactful as well, especially on the lettering tip. As far as layout is concerned, I greatly enjoy making more traditionally structured comics; I feel that more conservative formal boundaries allows for greater experimentation within those boundaries. So I’d also credit Art Adams, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr., Dave Sim, Eric Talbot, and Bill Sienkiewicz for massive influence earlier in life.
O’Shea: How did you find out you were nominated for the LA Times Book Prize?
Powell: The folks at Top Shelf sent me an excited email one day.
O’Shea: How hard is it working on two graphic novels at once, The Silence Of Our Friends and Any Empire?
Powell: It’s not that hard, it just takes pacing, piecemealing, and a little discipline (of which I’m lacking). I tend to be more productive when I have more than one thing going on at once; I just quit my day job, but find that I get less done at the drawing table despite having more time to do it. If I’m able to bounce back and forth between projects, I get less burnout and can actually move through both projects more quickly.
O’Shea: Have you found an increased in interest in your past works, like Please Release–as the accolades for your latest work piled up? Do you think attention for Swallow Me Whole has helped benefit your webcomics at Top Shelf?
Powell: No real increased interest in older books that I’ve noticed, and I’m not actually sure whether or not anyone reads my webcomics anyway. I’m a lover of tangible paper comics and find it hard to look at webcomics, to be honest—there’s something missing without the weight and smell of the paper product. I do have a self-published minicomic version of those web-available stories, and it has sold surprisingly well, so yes is a solid answer.
O’Shea: Given your love of music (as evidenced by your years running Harlan Records) and more recently, your new band Universe–do you ever work out storytelling challenges in your musical pursuits and vice versa?
Powell: Yes, but usually narratives are lent to whatever medium works better. I was in a band from ’92 to 2007 called Soophie Nun Squad that had lots of narrative focus in its songs—we did skits, rock operettes, lots of hip hop narrative, and reflexive song referencing. Soophie was also comprised of many visual and performance artists, so we all leaned on the side of wanting to tell stories. After Soophie, I was a one-person narrative hardcore band called Wait. Wait was an attempt to bridge these two creative sides; I’d yell and play bass with a slide show or flash-card sequence, or a little busted puppetry. A more recent project called Divorce Chord had narrative focus as well, but my new band Universe is intentionally un-narrative, with the exception of one song thus far. Universe covers ground I miss by NOT doing zines and shorter comics so much anymore—the songs are more emotionally raw and immediate, less filtered, and more reactionary at times.
O’Shea: What were the highlights of the LA Times Book Festival for you? What were the dynamics like at the “Problem Child” panel with Laurie Halse Anderson, Suzanne Phillips, and Jacqueline Woodson?
Powell: The panel was absolutely great, and all three other panelists had insightful and relevant things to say. My personal highlight was walking through a doorway only to come face-to-face with Bob Barker. I also ate dozens of genetically modified teeny tiny hobbit squashes.