NATE POWELL: WORKING IN BLACK AND WHITE

MARCH IS A NEW GRAPHIC NOVEL ABOUT JOHN LEWIS, who went from poor sharecropper’s son in southeastern Alabama to key organizer in the larger civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties to one of the most respected congressmen in the nation.  Early on in the book, his parents sit in the shadow of the front porch of their humble farmhouse at the end of a day.  Their young son is aspirational, but his father tells him, “Stay out of trouble.”  His mother adds, “Don’t get in white people’s way.” 

Nate Powell, John Lewis, and Andrew Aydin on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, the site where state police once violently beat Lewis and other protesters in 1965. (Courtesy of Top Shelf Productions) 

These words are printed in all lowercase letters, floating in isolated white space within their word balloons.  For those unfamiliar with comics and their visual shorthand, this is how the spoken voice is indicated to be at lower volume, either because it is in the middle distance or fighting across a gulf of time and consciousness.  

The book is based on a script that Congressman Lewis and an aide, Andrew Aydin, wrote, but Nate Powell is the artist who penciled, inked, and lettered the entire book.  He is the one who put those words in the middle distance, possibly having heard the same sentiment in a different context as he grew up white and middle-class in the early eighties in Little Rock, Arkansas and Montgomery, Alabama.  It was a time when southern politeness spread thick over feelings that were rarely talked about in public.  There was a high incentive for white parents to teach their children good behavior, but not recent history.  

The generational gap between the eras that engendered warnings on both sides to be modestly respectful and avoid entanglements was one of the most transformational in the United States’ history.  Unfortunately, history has a half-life, and its decay into commodified imagery and talking points is accelerated in the United States.  In speaking with Powell about March, it became apparent he shares in the responsibility to give all the layers of the story distinct tones.

“I feel like we’ve crossed a threshold, it’s come to our collective attention that this has gone from a generational experience moving quickly into the realm of our cultural and national history.  And that definitely puts a little fire under it.”

Powell’s expressive realism style is unique.  He shares a high acumen for capturing the right slant of an eye, pull of a mouth, or gesture of a hand that expresses as much to do with shaping the tone as the captions and word balloons do.  He has always worked in black and white, but the added dimension of gray washes elaborate the artwork almost unconsciously.  In books he has written like the Eisner-award winner Swallow Me Whole,  there is a little more flamboyance.  The worlds he creates almost seem to have a low gravity environment where words and characters toss and float.  

Immediately before signing on to March, however, Powell had just wrapped up work on another book that also dealt with a personal civil rights story, The Silence of Our Friends, and his art style became a little more documentary in feel.  He reigned in the wildness while still holding true to his methodology of flow, movement, and an always varied point of view.  It got him attuned to the themes of March and ready to take on the larger narrative that spans decades and locations across the South.

While Congressman Lewis is a born storyteller and Andrew Aydin is a comic book enthusiast with a keen understanding of how they should work, they underestimated how large of a book the script they had produced would turn out to be.  Early on in breaking down the script, Powell recognized that it needed to be separated into volumes or else it would top out at over 500 pages.

Part of the issue was that Congressman Lewis lives with the memories of icons and uncelebrated protesters constantly.  There are moments so important to him and those who facilitate his work that it’s taken for granted that everyone must know about them.  In reality, far from the halls of Congress and the constant requests for speaking engagements, there are millions for whom the long, arduous journey of the civil rights movement is viewed as a seamless, airtight progression of simple events, if it is even considered at all.

“Certainly, there’s one big wake up call from a creative standpoint when all of us are working through the script and I’m the last stop in the chain when I’m transferring it visually,” Powell said.  “The question for me is always: what information is present, what isn’t, and what’s my responsibility?  And that’s one of the big ones: seeing what we’re assuming everyone already knows.”

Powell knew that some things needed more detail, like why and how the Montgomery Bus boycott crippled the city and the intense preparation Lewis’ Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) undertook to build up emotional strength in the face of almost certain harassment on buses and at lunch counters where sit-ins were planned.  

“I can very clearly see what is required in each panel or page, but you have to keep an eye out for things that are not addressed or described in the script at all, and a lot of that is relative to internal landscapes, to emotional states, and also the flow of time.”

For instance, when I spoke with him Powell was still at work on the pencils for Book Two, which will focus on the Freedom Rides, the organized tests of federally mandated integration of interstate buses that were met with violent mobs all across the deep South.  Action scenes provide a spectacle in almost any storytelling format, even purely documentary ones, but for Powell, the converse of physical suffering--mental strain, long periods of waiting, uncertainty, and dread--carries as much weight and importance.  

“When the Freedom Riders are pulling into the Montgomery station, there might be a ten second window between them pulling into the alley and their being mobbed by an enormous group of white supremacists who hospitalized many of them.  From my perspective, it was all about those ten seconds of knowing they were about to be hospitalized, not knowing exactly when, from which direction, or by whom.  And part of their discipline and part of the purpose of their action was to endure these conflicts and hardship without striking back and to allow themselves to be hospitalized.  

“And those ten seconds are not anything you’re going to find anywhere in the script.”

Comics are one of the few mediums where ultraviolence can not only thrive but be seen as a necessary component of telling a story, and since it is a visual medium, there are no quick flashes or edits.  One of the most popular series of the past decade has been Walking Dead, with dismemberment and viscous splatters galore.  It is a book of horror and anxiety just as much as March is, and one read and loved by Powell.  However, there is something different about re-creating the violence perpetrated on real people, even for those who are inured to the punishment a human body can undergo in what he calls “the post-American History X” era.  

In film, directors and actors are a few steps removed from the images they will ultimately convey through the production process.  For a visual artist, the gap is nonexistent when you are bringing something like the waterlogged and beaten corpse of Emmett Till to the surface of the paper line by line.  

“That was my first giant wake up call, depicting [his] corpse.  I had to throw in the towel one panel into my day and just take a break for the rest of the day when I realized the immediacy of what I was depicting. There’s a kind of gravity that’s required there, a change in thought.”

Powell now feels closer now to that time period he grew up in, so shortly removed from the height of protest.  “The fact that these are unconcealed acts of history that our grandparents or parents or neighbors visited upon our other neighbors...it is the kind of thing that makes you want to check out for a day or throw up, and it should.”

The political and cultural landscape had shifted by the time Powell was old enough to start paying attention to his surroundings in detail, but the physical settings of the South morph at a slower pace.  There are sensations that persevere from the plantation days to now, and he drew on his memories often while working on March.  In fact, they helped relieve some of the pressure of being so much younger and from a different background than the protagonists.  He has walked the same ground as they did, knows the special heat and the swelling sounds of church songs.  

“In the sensory element is where I find my fondness for the South.  Despite its shame and ugliness, that’s where it comes through.  I get a joy from drawing these dry, dusty, farmland scenes from southeast Alabama,” he said.  “Remembering to respect the way humidity affects your sight and your hearing is a big part of it.  Using shorthand to imply humidity, dustiness, sweltering heat.  The way the road and the sky vibrate from evaporated water.  [The book] is full of it.”

Part of this shared experience has brought the civil rights story closer to Powell, who always associated it with grainy black and white footage.  Now, for the kids just growing up, there is an alternative deeper history.  Its visuals are still wrought in black and white but they burst through with life, with fear, and, ultimately, accomplishment.  

March: Book One will be released August 13th.  Read our full review .  

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