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Nathan Lee (Nate) Powell (1978–)

Nathan Lee (Nate) Powell, winner of a National Book Award and an Eisner Award, is a New York Times bestselling graphic novelist. He is best known for his graphic novels Swallow Me Whole and Any Empire, which he wrote and illustrated, as well as the March series of graphic novels, co-written by Congressman John Lewis, for which he provided the art.

Nate Powell was born in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on July 31, 1978. He grew up as an ardent comics fan in North Little Rock (Pulaski County), reading such titles as The ’Nam, Transformers, X-Men, Daredevil, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Appleseed, and G.I. Joe. In the 1990s, Powell became involved in the DIY (do-it-yourself) punk subculture, self-publishing a zine called The Schwa Sound and performing as singer, percussionist, and puppeteer in the punk band Soophie Nun Squad. Their first performance, in April 1993, was on the back lawn of the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion as one of ten bands that played in a birthday party concert for Governor Jim Guy Tucker’s daughter, Anna. Soophie Nun Squad was popular in the Little Rock punk scene, and the band went on tour each year from 1997 to 2006, including three European tours. Their initial recordings were on a boom box, but they eventually recorded three full-length albums and three EP’s professionally. The group’s final performance was in Braunschweig, Germany, in 2006. Powell collaborated with various Soophie Nun Squad members, bringing the group’s playful energy to a number of short-lived bands, including WAIT, Divorce Chord, and Universe.

Most of Soophie Nun Squad’s releases, as well as those of Powell’s subsequent groups, were issued by Harlan Records, founded as Food Chain Records in 1994 by Powell and fellow band member Eli Milholland. Powell did most of the label’s early artwork. By 1996, funding the zero-profit record label out of his own teenage pocket was untenable for young Powell, but a small influx of cash from friend Noah Young revived the enterprise, which was renamed Harlan Records in memory of Young’s late father.

A watershed moment came for Powell when, for Christmas in 1991, his parents gave him the coffee table book Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics. He learned about the division of labor and step-by-step process used to create a mainstream comic book. In 1992, Powell and friend Mike Lierly began self-publishing the comic book D.O.A., covertly using copy machines at church or at their parents’ offices. Powell’s efforts at cartooning were encouraged by Jeffrey Rex Huddleston, a high school English teacher who occasionally drew cartoons for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Powell graduated from North Little Rock High School in 1996. He briefly attended George Washington University and completed a BFA in cartooning from the School of the Visual Arts (SVA) in New York in 2000. At SVA, Powell received an Outstanding Cartooning Student award and a self-publishing grant from Shakespeare & Company Books. He used that grant money to publish the first issue of his series Walkie Talkie (2000–2002). Much of that series, inspired by his experiences with the complications and disappointments of young adulthood, was reprinted in the collections Tiny Giants (2003) and Sounds of Your Name (2006).

Powell’s early comics had autobiographical elements and were suffused with the music subculture. While still at SVA, Powell had established a relationship with Top Shelf Productions founders and editors Chris Staros and Brett Warnock, sending them copies of all the comics he produced at SVA. In 2006, Top Shelf published Please Release, a collection of four autobiographical stories created during a difficult stretch of Powell’s life before he settled into a more geographically and emotionally grounded life in Bloomington, Indiana.

Two years later, Top Shelf published Swallow Me Whole. Unlike the lightly fictionalized memoir of Powell’s earlier short stories, this graphic novel is a fully imagined fictional world. At least subconsciously, however, it was influenced by factors such as his decade of employment assisting adults with developmental disabilities, his older brother’s autism, and his childhood in a Southern culture that could often suppress abnormality in the interest of maintaining a socially acceptable façade. Swallow Me Whole earned him Ignatz Awards for Outstanding Debut and Outstanding Artist. The book also garnered the comics industry’s highest honor, the Eisner Award for Best Original Graphic Novel.

His next major work, Any Empire (2011), is set in Wormwood, the same fictional Southern town used in Swallow Me Whole, and follows a group of adolescents, who engage in the fantasy violence that is so much a part of childhood in America, to their adulthood, where violence has real consequences. The same year, Powell joined bestselling authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and R. L. Stine as a contributor to the fundraising project What You Wish for: A Book for Darfur. He was the only author to contribute a short story in comics form.

In 2011, Powell began a fruitful period of collaborations. He worked with Mark Long and Jim Demonakos to create The Silence of Our Friends (2012), Long’s semiautobiographical story of how two families, one black and one white, were affected by a violent incident in Houston, Texas, in 1968. Powell collaborated with Cecil Castellucci on a novel, The Year of the Beasts (2012), which alternates chapters of prose and comics. He partnered with writer Robert Venditti on the graphic novel adaptation of Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero (2014), one of the books from Rick Riordan’s popular fantasy series.

Congressman John Lewis and his aide, Andrew Aydin, wrote a script for a graphic novel memoir of Lewis’s involvement in the civil rights movement. Once they had contracted with Top Shelf Productions to publish the work, Lewis and Aydin began reviewing applications from artists. Top Shelf editor Chris Staros suggested Powell submit samples of his work. In 2012, Powell began collaborating with Lewis and Aydin on March: Book One (2013). March: Book Two was released in 2015, and March: Book Three was released in 2016.

March: Book One was used in scores of high school classes and was selected as the freshman class Common Book at a number of universities. It debuted at the number-one spot on the New York Times graphic novel bestseller list. Even while working on books two and three in the March series, Lewis, Aydin, and Powell crisscrossed the nation giving media interviews and speaking at literary festivals and on college campuses. In November 2016, Powell won a National Book Award for March: Book Three. It was the first graphic novel to win a National Book Award.

Powell is working with writer Van Jensen, a former Democrat-Gazette reporter, on the ten-issue comic book series Two Dead, about the events leading up to the January 1, 1947, incident in which Little Rock Chief of Detectives O. N. Martin apparently murdered his second-in-command, Lieutenant Oscar Fred “Jack” Deubler, and then committed suicide. He is also writing and drawing a graphic novel titled Cover.

Powell has done illustration work for a number of clients, including Slate, the Oxford American, the Arkansas Times, New York Yankees Magazine, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Wall Street Journal.

Powell lives in Bloomington with his wife, Rachel, and their two daughters.

For additional information:
Nate Powell. http://www.seemybrotherdance.org/ (accessed November 22, 2016).

Harlan Records. http://harlanrecords.bandcamp.com/ (accessed November 22, 2016).

Koon, David. “The Incredible Adventures of Nate Powell.” Arkansas Times, January 5, 2016, pp. 12–17. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/the-incredible-adventures-of-nate-powell/Content?oid=4773470 (accessed January 5, 2017).

Taylor, Michael Ray. “Drawing March: A Conversation with Nate Powell.” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies 47 (April 2016): 3–14.

Wolfe, Ron. “Visual Medium.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 7, 2011, pp. 1E, 6E.

Randy Duncan
Henderson State University

Last Updated 1/5/2017

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