Nate Powell jumped into the comics business at the ripe old age of 14, when he began self-publishing his work in the early ’90s. A decade and a half later, Powell continues to be an innovator in the field, as well as a punk musician and the owner of an independent punk music label.
He’s just recently released a career-defining work, Swallow Me Whole (Top Shelf), a dark, eerie, and vividly compelling examination of the deteriorating mental states of two teenage stepsiblings. Hallucinations and bizarre fantasies run in the family, and as the kids—particularly Ruth—witness the final days of her grandmother, they begin to see themselves as part of a larger whole. What makes them special and unique sets them apart in a way that few can understand and turns them into outsiders—and gives readers the thrilling chance to join in the vision. The entire work is deep, filled with double meanings, and impossible to ignore.
Nate Powell recently talked to GraphicNovelReporter about bringing Swallow Me Whole to vivid life, as well as his history in the field.
How would you describe Swallow Me Whole?
It’s about two stepsiblings growing up in the South, both of whom start to develop symptoms of various disorders. The bulk of the story is about the internal and external forces pulling them in separate directions, as well as the gender and social stigma surrounding us. It’s about trying to find dignity and meaning as a misfit in a world quick to quantify everything. At its core, I’d say it’s most focused on love, particularly on learning how best to love someone while respecting someone else’s path. It’s about how the refusal to acknowledge someone else’s sovereignty will slowly devour you and everyone you love.
How difficult was it to show schizophrenia and psychological disorders within a graphic format? Did anything about the format lend itself to this subject matter better than prose would? Did anything make it more difficult?
First off, I’m a comic book artist because comics have a special narrative power that is satisfying and engaging to me in a way unlike anything else. I’m not a prose writer and am not interested in being one. Representing these disorders wasn’t any more difficult than trying to represent any situational or emotional nuance; they all just require stepping into a character’s perspective—breathe and look around a bit. For something as subjective and foreign as some disorders, it took a willingness to write and draw more intuitively, with less initial forethought or semiotic consideration. Otherwise, those subjective states risk becoming cheap narrative devices.
How long did you spend working on this book?
The story had its roots in a dream I had in October 2001. I spent the next two and a half years working it up as a narrative, but didn’t spend too much time on it (during this period I was still doing Walkie Talkie and It Disappears). From autumn 2004 to autumn 2005, I focused on shaping it into a solid story, only doing a little bit of artwork. Finally, I sat down and did the pencils, lettering, and some story editing until early 2007, before inking the whole thing in about eight months. In total, about two and a half years of the steady work.
You’ve had experience working with people with developmental challenges. Have you dealt with people going through similar problems? How did that inform your work here?
I have worked with folks with obsessive-compulsive disorder as well as a variety of delusions or hallucinations, and also have close friends and family members, living and dead, with various disorders and disabilities. Most people do—the slippery nature of stigmatization is that you don’t notice disorders in someone you consider a normally functional person. A sizeable percentage of Americans live with some kind of disorder or disability. For those who are diagnosed, I’ve certainly seen how medication, treatment, and support can help, and I’ve also seen the medications multiply and quickly contribute to a person’s loss of full function. Personally, I fight with some acute anxiety issues and inherited depressive tendencies, though these conditions have never taken away my ability to function.
What kind of research did you do? How did you ensure accuracy in a work that deals so much with the inner workings of the mind?
I don’t think it’s possible or necessary to ensure accuracy in depiction of such subjective experiences. Much of the “research” came about from working in the mental health field for the last 10 years, and I have decent knowledge of medications, treatment, diagnosis, programs, and support systems. I also read regularly about certain disorders and disabilities; a few really good books include The Midnight Disease by Alice Flaherty, Thinking in Pictures (among others) by Temple Grandin, The Loss of Sadness by Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield, and The Mind Tree by Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay. Most importantly, my brother Peyton has autism, and his experience powerfully shapes all my other experiences and perspectives.
I don’t consider this to be a book about disorders or disabilities, and there’s certainly a blurry line separating visibility and exploitation at times. This book is as much about disorders as it’s about love, death, adolescence, idealism, alienation, or delusion.
How did you develop the characters of Ruth and Perry? How did you get into their heads and show what they were going through?
Most of the characters are physically modeled after people close to me. Perry’s demeanor is still just as it was in my dream years ago. Ruth was originally part of another book I started at the same time; these two books eventually molded into Swallow Me Whole. It’s unavoidable that both main characters have a lot of me in them. A lot of their thought processes, priorities, ethics, reactions, etc., are influenced either by my own or those of people I love—it wasn’t a very studied development. I tried to open up and keep emotions intuitive, raw, and with their own internal logic.
This is a very long and ambitious work. Did it take shape the way you had imagined it would when you started, or were you surprised to find it running off in a different direction?
The story began as a dream, and the bulk of that dream became an extended fantasy/allegorical scene that happens when Ruth floats out of her bedroom window. When the book was almost finished, I realized (with the help of my best friend) that the sequence was no longer necessary. The book had grown and found different ways to communicate and breathe. A few changes like that grew out of the book’s life. The message was always the same, but some of the themes and representation changed as my life changed. Some elements disappeared altogether, while others became charged with relevance. That was one of the best rewards to working on the story for so long—it became its own creature that grew and changed as I did.
The design of the book is wonderful—including the paper used for the cover, which gives a very distinct feel, one that’s a bit unusual for a graphic novel. Were you involved in the aspects of that design? What kind of look were you going for in the feel of Swallow Me Whole?
Brett Warnock at Top Shelf is to thank for the sweet packaging. I couldn’t possibly have been happier about the end product!
You’ve done several graphic works before, beginning when you were 14. How did you get started back then? How did you find an audience?
Like lots of kids, I started drawing before I could read. When I was 11, my two best friends and I began drawing comics together, which eventually resulted in a bunch of self-published comics from 1992–1994. We were also getting into punk around 1991, and the self-publishing venture definitely coincided with an awareness of punk’s “do-it-yourself” ethic, but we saw the two as separate things; at the same time, punk contributed greatly to our knowledge and awareness of how to scan copies, lay out and assemble publications, flyers, promote, and distribute.
I also started publishing zines around 1994, and that’s when the worlds began to merge. Comics were initially sold at Little Rock–area stores (most notably Collector’s Edition), and there was an occasional book drop in Conway or Memphis. I started a record label that same year and sold comics and zines along with tapes and records at punk shows. Because Little Rock had a pretty good underground zine distributor, I found a lot of zines, like MaximumRockAndRoll, HeartattaCk, and Punk Planet, which accepted comics and zines for review and advertising.
What advice would you give to anyone else thinking of self-publishing or independent work in the graphic-novel field?
There are tons of resources, and thankfully the self-publishing world has developed more options and printing/distributing possibilities than ever before. It’s a wonderful time for it. Be willing to trade and write letters. Get excited about contributing to other projects and anthologies—be a part of a comics community! Most importantly, self-publishing IS publishing, not necessarily a stepping stone.
What are you working on next?
I’m doing a book called Any Empire for Top Shelf and simultaneously drawing a book called The Silence of Our Friends, written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos. I’m also working on a series of shorter comics written by Rachel Bormann, the next of which is called “The Uncomfortable Gaze of Carlos Santana.”
I’m also illustrating a book called Edible Secrets by Michael Hoerger and Mia Partlow for Microcosm Publishing, doing illustrations for a documentary by Arwen Curry about Ursula K. LeGuin, and working up an otherworldly adventure graphic novel with cowriter Nathan Wilson. Whew!-- John Hogan