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Nate Powell

March 6th, 2009 · post by Edd · Make a comment

In March 2009 it was announced that Nate Powell had been nominated for the LA Times book prize, for his book Swallow me whole. It is the first time a comic has been nominated for the prize since Maus in 1992. It seemed like an appropriate time to re-publish an interview Edd did with Nate in Brixton in the hot, hot summer of 2006.

Soophie Nun Squad, Grosvenor, Brixton 2006

I bumped into Nate Powell’s comics in a typically convoluted manner, which had nothing to do with his band Soophie Nun Squad, but the artwork he’d done for other bands. Specifically a Ghost Mice illustration that accompanied their HeartattaCk interview. I searched around for more of his illustrations, not realising he drew comics, and eventually stumbled across a book published by Soft Skull Press. When I finally got the book, Tiny Giants, I was blown away: by his incredible brush strokes, handwriting, and story telling ability. He has an exquisitely precise style using simple black and white artwork. But not only is he an incredible artist he is also in a truly incredible punk band – Soophie Nun Squad. I found him in June 2006 just before he was going to play the Grosvenor in South London with Soophie Nun Squad and this is the conversation that followed.

LH: Would you like to introduce yourself?
Nate: My name is Nate. I’m almost 28 years old. I’m originally from Arkansas but now live in Indiana, I draw comics and I work with people with disabilities, and I love breakfast.

LH: How did you start drawing comics?
Nate: Well actually I’ve been drawing since I was about two. I remember the first thing that I drew was this banana on my brother’s room, on the wall, when we were living in Montana. I drew a lot. I never really drew comics until I was 11 years old, in the summer of sixth grade, when my best friend Mike Lierly, who is one of the other singers in Soophie Nun Squad, had been drawing comics for a couple of years. He’d been working on projects on his own and he said, ‘Hey, you and I should draw comics together.’ He introduced me to a couple of comic artists and ever since then I’ve been like, ‘Yeah, of course that’s exactly what we should do’. That was 1990, so I’ve had a good 16 years in comics now.

“I would say that X-Men was probably one of the biggest influences on my life.”

LH: So you weren’t inspired by any specific comics then?
Nate: Well, I’ve been reading comics since I was very young. I’d read Spider-man, and a very specific arc of Wonder Woman, and The Hulk. It was when I was 11 years old, when Mike really got me into the X-Men and Daredevil. It was things like X-Men that actually gave me a social conscience. The first time I ever read anything and it was like, ‘Wait a minute, racism is fucked up, and homophobia is bad’. I owe a whole lot to the X-Men for really pushing me into that. It was at the same time that I was getting into metal and a lot of the politics of 1980s speed metal combined with X-Men really did a number on me. I would say that X-Men was probably one of the biggest influences on my life.

LH: How was it growing up in Arkansas? We printed an interview with the Gossip in Last Hours and they always have very bad things to say about Arkansas.
Nate: I will say that Arkansas as a state, and I’ve lived in a lot of states, is probably the best state that I’ve lived in. The people are really awesome in general. The topography and geography is incredible and incredibly diverse. [But] a huge section of northern Arkansas, and north-east Arkansas is practically run by the [Ku Klux] Klan. Harrison, Arkansas, is the centre of one of the four branches of the Klan. There are a lot of intentionally all white counties and towns, which is really scary.

Where the Gossip are from, Searcy, Arkansas, is just on the southern tip of that little region. It’s this really shitty town. I can totally understand why they make the music they make and why they wanted to get the hell out of there. I’ve lived in other places in the South like Alabama but I have very little bad to say about Arkansas that I do have bad to say about the USA in general, or about humankind in general.

the-deaftistLH: Your brother has learning difficulties, is that how you got involved in working, and writing comics about it?
Nate: Pretty much. My brother, Peyton, who is six years older than me, has autism, on a pretty high-level, and a couple of other additional disabilities like dyslexia. An old high-school friend of his came back to visit my parents when I was back in town and he was like, ‘Oh, yeah I started working with people with disabilities at this fine art centre in town. A lot of the reasons I became involved was because of being friends with Peyton, and this really shaped how I see the world and what I value about how I spend my energy’.

I thought, ‘Wait a minute! Why don’t I do that? I’m working in an ice-cream joint’. So I quit my job and got the job as the fine art program director at this very old fine art centre in my home town. From there I started working in different situations, going to individual people’s houses or in group situations. It’s something that at this point in my life I consider with as much weight as I consider making comics. I definitely take it very seriously.

LH: When you went to art college in NYC did you do that part-time?
Nate: Actually I studied full-time and had a scholarship to help me. My parents helped me a little, and I worked a lot during the summers. So I was able to scrape by without working through the school years. During the summers at the end of that time, that was when I started working with people with disabilities. It’s interesting because in a lot of places, and also in Bloomington, there are a lot of punk kids who work in the mental health services, or helping people with learning difficulties. They’re really awesome people who I believe in very much.

LH: It seems the New York school of visual Arts had a whole load of creativity about it. You guys started Meathaus, and you were there with Becky Cloonan [Demo, American Virgin etc.]…
Nate: And all the others, yeah.
LH: How did that all happen?
Nate: Well, I’d say it was two different classes. There was the class that was a year older than mine, which was Mike Lierly, and also Farel Dalrymple [Popgun war] and James Jean [Fables cover-art] and some other people. James and Farel were actually in a slightly different programme, they were doing illustration majors so they would take a lot of graphics classes with us but were also really focused on their painting and artwork.

I was one year younger than them. It happened around the autumn of 2000, and I moved away just at that time so I was quite peripheral to all of this. I remember the first two issues of Meathaus came out, and they sent them my way.

I remember thinking, ‘Wait! I’d really like to put some stuff in here’, and they asked me at the same time. But as far as I know Chris McDonnell, Dash Shaw [The Mother's Mouth], and Farel were all really involved in getting it together. They remain really closely knit but I think they’re more spread out across the country now.

“When I did Conditions for example I made around 1,400 copies just by scamming photocopiers. This full-size 44-page comic, and at the end of it, I was just like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this anymore’.”

LH: How come you decided on Soft Skull and people to publish your comics rather than taking a completely DIY approach and putting it out through Harlem [Nate's record label]? Why did you decide to ask these people, your friends, to help you out publishing the books?
Nate: Well basically as it happened, to back up a little bit, I’ve been making comics since 1992 or so. By 1999 I was just scamming and photocopying comics. When I did Conditions for example I made around 1,400 copies just by scamming photocopiers. This full-size 44-page comic, and at the end of it, I was just like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this anymore’. Then I was able to get a grant from school, which was to do the first issue of Walkie Talkie, to offset print it. I was able to make exactly enough money, and save money at my job so that I could offset all the copies all in one go. I learnt a lot of the ropes of mainstream comic publishing, Diamond distribution and things.

A page from Sounds of Your Name published by Microcosm in 2006A lot of the old stuff, like Conditions, I was looking to reprint a lot of those in a slightly thicker comic and I was just like, ‘Oh, how am I going to save up $3,000 to do that?’ I was just moving to Providence, and I was at an underground comic conference, about four years ago, and my friend Tennessee Jones was hanging out with one of Beehive collective. He said, ‘Oh yeah I’ve been looking for you because I’ve started working for Soft Skull Press and we really want to put out a book by you’. It was really just lucky because we were both looking for each other.

Ever since Conditions came out I’d been sending every single thing that I do to people at Top Shelf comics saying things like, ‘Hi, I really respect what you do, if you can please read this and really let me know what you think’ and surprisingly most of them have been so honest and supportive and critical. They’ll say, ‘I really like this, but I still don’t understand why you insist on doing this because it doesn’t work for you’. So some of their insistence and criticism has been a really positive thing as far as working with Top Shelf.

LH: Is there a comic book scene like there is with the punk scene, or perhaps like zine culture I guess, whereby you support each other?
Nate: Surprisingly, well not necessarily surprisingly, but yes. I say surprisingly because I didn’t know it existed until two or three years ago until I decided that I would go to a lot of comic book conventions and decide that I would try and sell as much stuff as I could. It was to try and become as involved in it as possible.

Especially having grown up in DIY punk and coming into a certain ethical standpoint on how human beings should behave commercially and emotionally with each other. So I was at a distance from the comic world and I gave them a lot of really a lot of unfair but understandable pre-judgements on what these people must be and what their ideals and goals must be from making comics.

“There’s an entire scene which is just very well produced, photocopied interior, silk-screened cover comics. And that’s not a stepping stone until they get enough money to offset print it, it is the end product.”

But then I started going to these things and realised, ‘Wow, this is just like going to a classic DIY punk fest from the 90s’ where people are really coming there with their three days of vacation time and a backpack full of comics and people are legitimately interested in reading, and being read, and creating dialogues, hanging out and partying afterwards and working and following through with projects together. And I had no idea that this could exist.

And it was really interesting as far as the economics of independent comics goes just the same idea of legitimacy of publishing itself as far as zine culture goes. And that expands into comics and mini-comics as well. Just the fact that if you go to the Small Press Expo of Washington, DC, which is one of my favourite comic conventions.

There’s an entire scene which is just very well produced, photocopied interior, silk-screened cover comics. And that’s not a stepping stone until they get enough money to offset print it, it is the end product. As Born Against would say, ‘The medium is the message’. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that this is a legitimate route of publishing. To me that is the most exciting thing. I’ve done a couple of talks for libraries and universities. And one of the big things that I try to talk about is challenging the idea of what makes a legitimate publication, or what makes you published.

And people get really pissed off if for example you say, ‘Take this piece of paper here, run it through a copy machine. Now if you fold it: you’re a publisher’. People get really pissed off at that, but I think thats some of the greatest power in that scene.

“Some people were really awesome and gave me a lot more chances than they should have officially allowed me. As far as how many copies I didn’t sell but they’d say, ‘Look we really like your book, so don’t tell anybody and we’re just going to sign you up for your next issue, and they probably won’t sell either, but whatever lets give it a go’.”

LH: Going back though to you talking about Diamond [distribution]. With Last Hours I have a limited experience about dealing with commercial publishers and I’ve always found it really hard to talk to them because of their marketing angle and lack of understanding about what we’re trying to do; I was wondering whether you had similar experiences dealing with commercial comic distributors?
Nate: Oh yeah, that was definitely one of my biggest personal battles. It opened up a whole new world to me. I had started self-publishing at the age of 14, and that was when I started the record label; I had really become way too comfortable with DIY publishing. I started working with Diamond and realised that actually they had no idea who I was and wouldn’t necessarily remember me from phone call to phone call.

Some people were really awesome and gave me a lot more chances than they should have officially allowed me. As far as how many copies I didn’t sell but they’d say, ‘Look we really like your book, so don’t tell anybody and we’re just going to sign you up for your next issue, and they probably won’t sell either, but whatever lets give it a go’.

At the same time it’s really funny dealing with a lot of the independent comic companies, and especially the independent comic distros. They’ve grown up with a business ethic that is not particularly rooted in the DIY punk subculture. It’s funny because I could tell that some of the people’s comic distribution or their comics company is still coming out of their bedroom, but without that alternative, though not necessarily radical, economic model and it’s understandable because it wouldn’t really hit you that, ‘Oh there’s another way to deal with people that doesn’t involve dealing with a false sense of bureaucracy’. That could be very frustrating. It’s not even being reactionary with a ‘no compromise’ sensibility when dealing with people and business. It just makes sense to me that you shouldn’t have to have all these layers between you and this other person.

LH: I was wondering if you’re able to draw whilst out on tour with Soophie Nun Squad or whether they’re separated out?
Nate: Well I’ve been doing Soophie and comics for pretty much the same amount of time, around fourteen years. Emotionally I definitely swing through my ups and downs. I get really manic about some things and I’ll really slack off about others. My energies are very plainly divided between comic time and music or theatrical time, or whatever.

I do a lot of drawing and writing of ideas while on tour with Soophie, or having Soophie time, or Soophie Summits as we call them. I would say that in any case that 80% of the stuff I do is daily, or a couple of times a week, drawing or writing and spending a good amount of time in my journal just working out like little vignettes. Then a month later, or whenever, I’ll mash all of those together, which can then work themselves into a comic.

“I don’t want my whole life surrounded by punkness. I think its lame to be able to only scrabble and exist and perform and communicate within punk circles. I mean I know.”

LH: I was reading an old interview of yours and you were talking about how punk shows kind of stop dialogue sometimes because the emphasis is more on rocking out. I was wondering how you think it’s possible to break that down; if you think it’s necessary or even desirable? Or do you think there should be other avenues for punks and people to meet and communicate with each other outside of the gig setting?
Nate: I would say I think three parts to that would be; number one; at least in the specific subculture of punk that I live in I genuinely feel like there are some pretty well established and equal alternatives to the show as social spaces. But, I’d say that… well I anticipate that I would have said that around 2000 or 2001 [since] 2000 to mid-2002 was the peak of this very particular, very idealistic idea of punk as lifestyle…

LH: For you or for the scene?
Nate: For the scene, but also for me, because I was 22 or 23 years old, and I was really convinced that not only was it possible, and it is possible, to live within the avenues of punk, but that that was desirable. You know to be punk for life. I’m 28 and I think one of the best things that happened was moving back to a traditionally idealistic punk haven such as Bloomington, but it’s also being in a period where I don’t want my whole life surrounded by punkness. I think its lame to be able to only scrabble and exist and perform and communicate within punk circles. I mean I know. I’ve put out comics which only punks read. But I would never want that now. And in that same way, as far as shows and rocking out, distracts from the dialogue and community that you have within a space like them.

But conversely now I almost feel like there’s something so special about music, and this almost borders on hippy shit. But as opposed to five years ago where I always wanted to talk between every song and be very explicit about what I thought, and being like, ‘This is fucked up. And this is right on and we should all support this.’ But there’s something that is really just not giving people the credit to be smart enough to read into what you are communicating whether it’s explicit or not.

I think there’s a power in music, that should not be watered down by thinking that it has to have specific contents and values. So, I think there is a lot of value to rocking out which I’ve re-discovered in the last year and a half. And a lot of this I credit to a person who I have fallen madly in love with, who has nothing to do with punk but is just a wonderful, wonderful human being.

I realised that I grew up in a place where music, politics, communication, art and community could not be separated at the time but they’ve expanded to such a point that not only can they thrive in their own little web, but sometimes it feels wonderful to be able to seperate it and just rock out, or just have a pot-luck, or just have a meeting about something, or just have an art show. That feels great.

Sounds Of Your Name, which collects Tiny Giants, and It Disappears plus other earlier works is available from early October through Microcosm Publishing. Please Release is released by Top Shelf Comix in November. Soophie Nun Squad records are available through Plan-It-X records ( Nate can be contacted at PO Box 3382, Bloomington IN 47402, USA.

Since this interview Nate has also released the highly acclaimed Swallow me whole.

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