Interview: Nate Powell on ‘Swallow Me Whole’
Nate Powell hits upon some pretty heavy subject matter in his latest graphic novel Swallow Me Whole, now out frolm Top Shelf. We’re talking childhood schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, family breakdown, animal telepathy, and misguided love, just to name a few. The Indiana-based cartoonist traverses the familiar territory of teen angst and all the growing pains associated with it in his new work, but without the formulaic melodrama that so often saturates the topic. When he isn’t tackling the troubling madness of adolescence as an author and artist, Powell splits his time operating DIY punk label Harlan Records and works with adults with developmental disabilities.
Despite his oh-so busy schedule, ComicMix recently had the chance go catch up with Powell before he hits up the Alternative Press Expo this weekend in San Francisco. Here’s what he had to say about his new work, how he hooked up with publisher Top Shelf and what’s next on his plate:
ComicMix: First off, let’s start with some background material. You’ve lived in a number of locales, that’s for sure. Where have your travels taken you and where are you at now? As for comics, do you remember when you first discovered them and what led you to create your own.
Nate Powell: I’m from North Little Rock, Arkansas, and since early 2004 I’ve lived in Bloomington, Indiana. In between I’ve also lived in Montana, Alabama, DC, New York City, Kansas City, Michigan, western Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.
As for comics — when I was a toddler in Montana I read a lot of Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, and Hulk comics. Apparently I spontaneously began reading out of a Fantastic Four activity book when I was three years old.
When I was 12 I began drawing comics together with my best friends Mike Lierly and Nathan Wilson (both of whom are still collaborators — Nathan currently lives in Oakland), who had both been working on comics for a few years already. We cranked out hundreds of pages of superhero comics (since they were printed on newsprint, we figured they had to be drawn on newsprint as well!), then started focusing on one title together.
From 1992-94 we published six different issues of a comic called D.O.A., and as that was winding down I started publishing a zine called The Schwa Sound. We’d already been into punk since around 1991, and we were greatly inspired by the Little Rock punk scene’s DIY ethic, but really had no idea of parallels in underground comics. We just always had elaborate and adventurous tales, and it made good sense to give them a form.
When we started bands together as our first comics were coming out, it was for very similar reasons. Look around you feel empowered by the notion that anyone can make music. Learn how as you go.
CMix: You’ve been known to self-publish your work, so what led you to hook up with Top Shelf? What’s that experience like been for you compared to doing things on your own?
NP: Around 1998 or so, I compiled a list of all the artists and writers and publishers who I thought were doing cool stuff. I made sure that I sent every one of them a copy of each new comic I released. Chris [Staros] and Brett [Warnock] at Top Shelf were always diligent about each writing back, offering honest criticism and support. For at least four years I just kept sending new stuff their way, and eventually they were receptive to the notion of publishing something together. Their critiques certainly shaped my efforts over the years and pushed me to pay more attention to structure, clarity, and just making sense.
I love self-publishing, and I still do it. If I want a few hundred copies of a new story, and it’s gonna be a while before it finds a ‘proper’ place, it’s very natural just to take matters into your own hands. I learned a lot about the ins and outs of distribution from running a record label out of my bedroom over the years too.
Largely, I just didn’t have enough money to pay for printing or proper promotion, and it was very hard to find enough time in a week to get everything done. I absolutely love working with Top shelf, and I also periodically still self-publish.
CMix: Your latest effort, Swallow Me Whole, has been regarded as your most ambitious project to date and tackles some heavy topics. What was the impetus behind the story?
NP: The story that became Swallow Me Whole was dreamt in one night in October 2001, while I was living in western Massachusetts. I spent a good two years trying to iron it into a solid story, and in late 2004 I finally started drawing the thing. Lots of the major themes come from parts of my life. My three surviving grandparents died in spring of 2004, and much of the book was a product of wading through that. For the last decade I’ve worked for folks with developmental disabilities, and a lot of mental health issues go hand-in-hand. The issues of miscommunication, passivity, subjective perceptions of reality, social stigma, and unrequited love were definitely weighing in pretty strongly too.
CMix: Swallow Me Whole addresses childhood schizophrenia head-on. What motivated you to address this particular mental health issue?
NP: Granted, childhood schizophrenia is pretty dramatic but I must admit it’s really rare. That being said, I tried hard not to make it a device. Simply enough, a large part of my life is spent around and in support of people who have trouble navigating through a rigid world, who have wildly different perspectives and cognitive styles. Schizophrenia and delusion have affected me on a professional level as well as relatives and good friends. And yes, I certainly had some serious doubts about my own sanity around age 24 and 25, but it turns out I was just being a masochistic idiot in a terrible living situation. It’s good to have myself back.
CMix: As I read Swallow Me Whole, I found that I needed to revisit the same page a couple of times to really understand what was going on as the graphic narrative is pretty complex. Would you say this is integral to the story and how the reader should respond?
NP: Actually, I would chalk half of that up to flaws in my storytelling. I will say, however, that the ambiguity underlines many of the important issues in the narrative. I mean, what actually happens matters less than the notion, in this case, that once a person is stigmatized as having a mental disorder, much of their experience as a person is written off at large.
All the shit that teenagers go through — the indignation, doubt, idealism, confusion, desperation– suddenly become funneled through a convenient "disorder" tube. Ruth’s personal, religious, and political views become suspect, no longer belonging to her intellect, but to her disorder. Ruth just wants a little dignity lent to her own navigation of our world.
CMix: Ultimately, as an author / artist, what is it that you want the audience to take away from your work when all is said and done?
NP: The best part about making anything is feeling like a part of something much larger than yourself, sharing something that previously only had form within you. At the end of every Big Boys show, the late great Biscuit would implore all the kids to go start their own band.
Comics and zines are exciting for the same reason — creating something driven by ideas and the sweet expectation of reciprocity. Finding lots of folks who feel the same way. Creating movement together.
CMix: At times, I feel that your work is reminiscent of Charles Burns. Who would you say your influences are?
NP: In comics, I’d say Chester Brown, David B., Lynda Barry, John Porcellino, Art Adams, Charles Burns, Erin Tobey, Genvieve Castree, Anders Nilsen, Dash Shaw, Ben Katchor, and Farel Dalrymple. In the world of fiction, I feel kinship to the stories of Italo Calvino, Jeanette Winterson, and Haruki Murakami.
CMix: Do you imagine a follow-up to Swallow Me Whole at some point? Or, maybe adapting it for the screen?
NP: No follow-up book for sure, but it would be really exciting to see someone else’s perspective on the story as an animation or movie.
CMix: You’ve worked with adults with developmental disabilities, managed a punk label and perform in a couple bands – how do you even find the time for comics? That said, how have these various activities influenced your work as an author and artist?
NP: I usually just have to block out drawing time when I get my monthly work schedule. I try my hardest to have at least four long drawing periods each week, and try to rearrange my job hours so that I can get as much consistent drawing time in as possible.
Back when bands and Harlan Records were much more active, I was also a more sporadic, on-and-off artist — I’d go months without drawing and then do it feverishly for a few weeks straight. My life has tempered itself since then, and I’m thankful for that. But I guess I’ve always been wearing too many hats, and sometimes it takes its toll on me, but what’s the alternative? Doing less than you’d like to?
CMix: What’s next on your plate?
NP: I’m illustrating a book called Edible Secrets by Michael Hoerger to be published by Microcosm Publishing, and collaborating on some comic stories with writer Rachel Bormann.
I’m also starting up four graphic novels — Any Empire for Top Shelf, Ovoo with co-writer Nathan Wilson, a graphic novel biography of Sam Cooke with writers Jason Rodriguez and Chris Stevens, and a little graphic novel called Wreckage for Microcosm.
CMix: You’ll be in San Francisco this weekend for the Alternative Press Expo. What are you looking forward to most?
NP: New friends I haven’t met yet.