INTERVIEW: Nate Powell on SAVE IT FOR LATER

Comics
Save It For Later, available on April 6th, 2021.

In Save It For Later: Promises, Parenthood, and the Urgency of Protest, available from Abrams Comics Arts on April 6th, 2021, cartoonist Nate Powell reflects on his life in the United States between 2016 and 2020. From the rising tide of white supremacy to the consequences of dealing with COVID-19, Save It For Later explores the space where political life intersects with the personal.

The Beat caught up with Powell over Zoom to learn more about the genesis of the comics essay anthology, find out why directly quoting certain political figures was necessary, and discuss where the United States goes from here. 

Save It For Later

AVERY KAPLAN: What was the genesis of Save It For Later?

NATE POWELL: Save It For Later really developed as emerging of two separate comics projects that I was working on. Starting in late 2017, I started making notes to myself in a sketchbook or maybe on my phone about, these more subjective personal emotional responses or private family experiences and interactions from the previous year and half or two years. And the real impetus was simply the fact that with the acceleration of so many social and political shifts to the far right, there was so many fires burning at once for so many of us that I quietly began noticing the fact that everyone I knew (myself included) seemed like they were operating with this implicit conclusion that there wasn’t enough bandwidth to be able to air more subjective reactions and experiences to what’s going on.

For a lot of us, our work is busy, trying to cooperate and work with each other and do what we can to turn this ship around… But I felt we were doing a disservice, by automatically kind of assuming that there wasn’t enough bandwidth to start dealing with, or even just airing, the more internal ways in which our lives, our thoughts, and our fears has shifted under this authoritarian putsch.

Initially, I got an idea for what was going to be a very slim, kind of 96-page volume. It was going to be super personal: the more first-person, memoir sections of the book. I was so fired up about it that I was like, “I’m going to get this done in this months. This is why I make comics! Being able to sit down, and go from start to finish, and really capture the moment for myself.”

I was in New York City for an art show when I realized it was time to work on the project now. So I talked to my agent, went straight back to my hotel room, and I wrote and thumb nailed the first two chapters in one day. And I said, “Oh! I really can do this in six months!”

At the same time, what became the comic “About Face” – which is featured as one of the chapters within Save It For Later – started to emerge independently, sort of as an essay that combined a lot of observations I had seen in pop culture and in my community, but also unpacked a lot of unanswered questions and lingering thoughts and observations I had going all the way back to when I was working on a book called Any Empire, that came out ten years ago.

I spent a good six months doing “About Face,” and by the end of it, I realized that the memoir work and the essay work were one thing. It then became a structural issue, in terms of readability and clarity, and appropriateness – how to merge these subjective and objective accounts.

Save It For Later

KAPLAN: Why is it so important – both in the book & in one’s life – to note and analyze the symbols of nationalism & white supremacy? 

POWELL: I think on one hand, a lot of it is kind of reckoning with my own upbringing as a G.I. Joe kid in a military family in the Reagan era, and the ways that 1980s pop culture shaped me. But also the ways that, as I grew into the 90s, my involvement in underground creative communities and punk and the social and political aspects of that involvement was one part of a reckoning with my childhood.

But sort of seeing how what we are living through is a continuation of the symbology and the pop culture consumption that made me and made a lot of my generation 35 and 40 years ago. So there’s sort of a personal kind of unpacking of baggage there, there’s also a lot that I feel like I had to say in Any Empire and I chose to shift my narrative approach on that book from a nonfiction sort of political rant and turn it into a really weird, very Nate Powell-y work of fiction. So I had to drop a lot of narrative threads that were much more worldly.

I’m from Arkansas, and I moved here to Southern Indiana seventeen years ago. So it was around 2007, 2008 when I really started to recognize a lot more dimensions of racism in America than the version that I, as a Southern Boy, had sort of been taught to accept. Like, the American South was the racist, backwards part of America, and it sort of serves the function to blind a lot of America – particularly white America – from seeing the endless permutations or the endless embodiments of racism in different parts of the county.

So once I really started seeing my community and seeing the lower Midwest in a new light, these were kind of like alarms going off in my head very, very early on – in one way, those alarms kind of never turned off.

The aesthetic shift that occurred, especially in 2016 and 2017, was so noticeable, and so glaring to me, but I guess what really compelled me to organize these ideas and trying to present them and trying to make sense of them, was the utter casualness and calm by which they appeared to be accepted in pop culture, almost across the political spectrum – and I mean pretty far on the left spectrum.

I really didn’t notice a lot of people talking about what I considered to be the apolitical pop culture implied manifestations of stuff like the Blue Lives Matter flag as an evolution of the Thin Blue Line and the Punisher skull, the ways that these are beginning to inbreed with each other.

So because no one else was doing it, I wanted to read that piece – so I was like, “I think I’ve got it.” So over the course of doing “About Face,” regularly, I’m asking, “Does this sound paranoid?” It’s interesting how that level of casualness, and that general sense of the quiet to the air about something that seems so glaringly obvious to one’s self, sort of makes you immediately – at least for me – it makes me cast immediate doubt on my own observations and perceptions.

So a lot of it was like, “Keep doing the work, keep being self-critical, and you’ll come back around to a point where, yes, this is a real thing, and this idea has to be expressed.”

KAPLAN: Why is it important to highlight the underlying philosophies of military/paramilitary aesthetic? 

POWELL: To me, it is specifically because of the way, throughout the twenty-first century, in terms of our military being an all-volunteer force – you know, eliminating the draft in the early 70s – throughout the Forever War, seeing new generations of soldiers and service people my age and younger get funneled into an entirely different and new approach to presenting their personal experience and involvement in military service.

A lot of soldiers did multiple tours in the Middle East in the 2000s and 2010s, consecutively, but what was also common was moving from active duty to private mercenary and security forces, to moving back domestically to private security and law enforcement, and then taking any one of those military/paramilitary or law enforcement roles and moving back into civilian life with it…

I think it points towards an acceleration the increasing pressure to not only boil down our political alignment, our personal convictions to an often wordlessly consumable – the absolute pervasive quality of expanding the idea of an avatar to represent you online to every aspect of our lives.

I didn’t say it in so many words in “About Face,” but I really feel like the bumper sticker has become an avatar. It functions as an avatar, it functions as a bit on your Twitter bio that shows where you fit, neatly, in terms of culture war. For civilians, it’s also a way to buy into political alignment, or buy one’s way into adjacently with military and paramilitary might.

In terms of the last five years, I think that really accelerated. Not only is there a heavy grift quality – obviously, with the far-right authoritarian nationalist putsch – in and out of government, because it’s such a normal thing to sort of filter everything through this easily consumable avatar-style visual, it’s the kind of thing that’s accepted without a moment’s thought. So it’s easy to take explicitly fascist and authoritarian ideas and sort of put them in a blender that seems to diffuse some of the more explicit political meanings. But it basically serves to normalize the presence of those symbols in the first place, and the real function (in my opinion) is to normalize the presence of those symbols.

That’s not the motivation of Under Armor or Nine Line Apparel or whatever – their motivation is money. But that’s irrelevant: the effect is the absolute successful normalization of fascist iconography – which already happened. It’s done.

AVERY: When did you complete work on Save It For Later? Did it feel like a good end point (in August 2020)?

POWELL: The ultimate ongoing challenge of this book! The last chapter I did – which is the next-to-last chapter published in the book – that was only thing that I did after January 2020. So I had the whole book basically wrapped up by the beginning of February… I knew – I was already making these early preparations for dealing with what was going to happen between November 2020 and January 2021.

So on a creative editorial level, a lot of conversations with my editor about whether or not I was going to work on an afterword, whether that was in comics form or text; floating the idea of two afterwords or epilogues, depending on the outcome of the election. Because we had about three weeks after Election Day before this book had to be sent to the printer.

And I could see the appeal of that… but to me I thought it would undercut the entire point of the urgency of what I was saying if the entire book hinged on the electoral outcome. In fact, I thought that was I was saying needed to be said because, if I did my job correctly, almost everything would still be as relevant and as true regardless of who won in November 2020.

By the time April or May kicked around, I was like, “I really need to do a chapter, I don’t know where it’s going to fit or how it’s going to work, but I need to be able to sew together all of these dumpster fires and a way through them, past them, into the 2020s in a way that relevant regardless of what happens between November and January.”

And I think I did it successfully, but it’s going to be interesting to see how that is received, especially by readership outside of indie comics, or outside of work focused on the active political contingent. I feel like a lot of people are grappling with the anxiety that we’re going to find ourselves in another 2009-2011 “is America post-racial” moment, where people are ready to take it easy and have the good times, let their guards down.

Thankfully I don’t think that that’s happening. I think we’re at this reflection point where people are staying really focused on getting through these multiple crises.

KAPLAN: Why is it important to begin looking back at both 2016-2020 and particularly 2020?

POWELL: I’d say at its core is the fact that we’re still living it. In order to deal with now, and in order to deal with the next decade – and I stand by that, we are going to be living in hell – the organized, far-right, anti-democracy forces. We’re going to be dealing with who knows what kind of techno-fascism happening in terms of these billionaires and their spaceships and their media companies… we’re in for quite a ride.

So I kind of was doubling down on this idea of, from 2015 to now, there kind of is no part of it that’s past. It’s all happened so quickly, so relentlessly, that we haven’t had an ability to make it past because – I live a fairly comfortable existence; my community is fairly safe, there’s an element of privilege here – but to be able to move forward together, to be able to put defenses up, in order to actually turn the wheels of our society to prevent this from happening in a much worse way…

In the future (and that future basically also being now, the whole machine’s still rolling) it requires being able to open up space for people to finally be able to talk about the trauma on whatever relative level. And that’s why I mentioned the privilege – the tiered trauma and stress and anxiety of living through this. I think you have to provide space for the smaller components if we’re going to be able to deal with trusting strangers again, trusting neighbors, working together in the ways we did this summer, working together as we’ve done for so much of this decade.

But I don’t see it happening if we’re remaining fight or flight all the time, or if we’re kind of pushing down our own personal responses to what has happened. Sort of rationalizing that it’s not a rational thing that can be fought against, or fought for.

KAPLAN: Was it important for you to include specific quotes from Steve Bannon?

POWELL: The main Bannon quote… Well, there’s “flood the zone with shit.” I couldn’t not use “flood the zone with shit” because – in terms of being a phrase crafted by the architect of flooding the zone with shit – I think I’d be doing a disservice by not reminding people that this fascist was in the administration.

And his 2016 utterance about “them being blind to who we are and what we’re doing.” It was something that I had read several times, and it haunted me. But the more time went by and I realized people were misconstruing who “they” or “them” was. It became even worse. To put it in 2020 blunt terms – it’s a coup and a grift! It’s P.T. Barnum and Mussolini!

Bannon was one of the only people who I directly quoted, also, because we have so many dumpster fires we have burning in the United States, I’m not sure how many people are aware that Bannon never stopped doing his thing, and started an Italian international fascist training force in Europe at some monastery – this guy’s building mercenary armies, fascist armies. Keep this guy on the radar!

There’s this idea that it’s been said so much that it doesn’t have the same power anymore. But truly, this is one of those American exceptionalist moments: you’re still grappling with the unreality that these are the kind of things that “can’t happen here.” And people’s natural reaction is to watch how other people are reacting to statements like that, and if there’s not enough alarm being raised on the edges, then people are like, “I’ll just keep doing my thing.”

Is there anything else you’d like me to be sure to include? 

On a formal and conceptual level, when I was trying to split the subjective and objective sides of being able to turn this experience into comics, I was trying to push the subjective parts as far as I could to allow them to be – not only as weepy or as dreamy or as sleepy or as sappy as possible, but also recognizing that we’re dealing with some really raw emotions, and if I’m really telling a story about my life, especially when the rest of my family is involved in the pages of the book…

In parts of the book, it became important for me to present myself as the fool whenever possible. So there are layers of sarcasm and irony that are peppered in there, and sometimes it’s a little more explicit – like whenever we’re sitting our four-year-old down to talk about “you know who,” which is what we refer to him as in this house – when we decide we can’t shield her from “you know who” anymore and she gets really worried, like, “Is he gonna win?” And the sheer callousness by which I’m like, “HA! No chance!” There’s over-the-top moments like that where it’s obvious that I’m making myself into an utter fool, because so many of us were fools – that’s how this happened!

But there are these other components that really rely on the strength of comics storytelling, and I’m interested to see how much (or how little) people who are not regular comics readers pick up on that. Like, just in the first chapter of the book, simply the fact that when I’m coming back from dropping my kids off at school and I get stuck behind these middle schoolers getting dropped off at school by their shitty mom, and we have this wordless taunting… and not only am I being like, I’m blatantly doing the wrong thing, I’m doing an inappropriate thing – but then that’s made so much worse, and it reveals so much more, about what’s done back, and what’s encouraged by the other parent…

But also the fact that in a non-verbal way, I’m indistinguishable here from the wrap-around Oakleys bearded guy in trucks that I’m spending so much of the book talking about. And a lot of it is having that shield against shame and trauma, having that sort of reactionary position makes me – in one highly specific way – it does in fact make me no different than the A-holes that I’m talking about throughout the book.

These are like the strengths of comics that I’m really curious and a little anxious to see how those carry across once you leave the realm of regular comics readers, so, we shall see!

When the Congressman [John Lewis] was still with us and we were doing a lot of talks, I would try and sort of highlight what my own journey with a parent was, addressing the history of the Civil Rights movement with my 4-, 5-, 6-year old.

People need to know that if you’re the guide to help a really young person dig through some of this stuff, you don’t need to lay the whole thing out at once. It really does involve a mindfulness and seeing where they are and what their world looks like, and then trying to make it meet wherever you can. And there are always more opportunities, because there are always questions with smaller kids. Just trust the questions, and it gives you a chance to go deeper the next time.

And I felt like it was truly imperative – I’m not really expressing the experience of tying in civic engagement and activism and parenthood if I’m not talking about how my own previous work was a big part of getting my kids to kind of see the world in a more complete way.

Especially coming from a generation of white southern kids taught by southern baby boomers – really, my personal quest when I started drawing March was in a lot of ways reckoning with the very segmented perception of time and progress that my baby boomer parents established even as they taught me pretty well about all that regional Civil Rights history in Alabama and Mississippi that confused me as a small kid. You know, I didn’t have the vocabulary for it at the time, but a lot of it was like a Jedi Mind Trick – like, these are not the droids you are looking for! Like that is not this – these are two different worlds. But then, I’m 42 now, and I think, they’re telling me about history that was 15 moments prior to that moment or 20 years, and it’s like, I can reach back and touch 20 years in the past, that’s nothing. And when I realized, “Whoa, I’ve got my own baggage, even on a history book level as a thirty-something” when I was getting started on March. I was like, “This is finally my chance to make a mark to counteract the way that so much of my generation sort of was mis-taught and misapplied history to the Civil Rights movement.”

KAPLAN: Was it important to you to avoid using “you know who’s” name and flag?

POWELL: Yes, and some of this is directly topical and some of it has to do with the process of making a long-form comic. On one level, as I think a significant majority of people have felt, there’s this – the name, the face, and the identity and the persona, it seeped into every single corner of our lives.

So when approaching this, on one hand, from the very beginning I was aware that I was going to have to address the centrality of the individual to the last five years of our collective lives… But on a most basic level, just not needing to clog up the sewers with the name and the likeness anymore.

On the other hand, as work on the book progressed – and it’s important to note, I worked on it for about 2 ½ years straight. I drew another book in the meantime, did some short stories. But this one of the challenges of doing a graphic novel, or doing long-form comics work, is watching either your own approach change, or watching the world change when you’re making a book about the world around you.

And so that became more relevant as the 2020 election approached, where I was increasingly concerned that as a creator, in terms of expressing myself and crafting a statement in comics that would hold itself up regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election, but also, yeah like, at it’s most basic, anyone who’s reading Save It For Later is living in the same world as the rest of us, and so, it’s part of the contract: you have to have faith in the reader to be able to make connections themselves in the likelihood of them being tired of the same things that you are, of them being hungry for the same things you are, and having a little bit of trust in people to be able to process that on their own level.

KAPLAN: Here in 2021, do you think Americans are once again becoming complacent, thanks at least in part to the myth of inevitable progress? 

POWELL: I don’t! And granted, we’ve dodged some major bullets. We’ve not dodged many bullets… But being a month and a half into something that approaches a normal administration… it’s amazing how it almost became difficult to accept that, for its faults and shortcomings, that an administration could do its job.

So there is a component where I think people recognize that, and I think people are successfully using the anger, the organization, the outrage, they’re using their voices. Pushing back on things that need to be pushed back on now, in the Biden Administration, while still recognizing how narrowly we escaped the actual overthrow of democracy. So no, I don’t think this is one of those moments when people are becoming complacent.

I entered 9th grade during the 1992 election, and I’m from Arkansas, so it was a very different, huge deal that our boy down the street – that Bill Clinton wound up going to the White House. I’ve been thinking about it so much over these past five or six years, how skewed our perceptions were in Arkansas of the political landscape, but also, what that meant for culture at large.

When I look back on it now, I tend to look back on it through the lens of underground hardcore punk. And I think about it more in terms of shifts in song structure and lyrical content, in 1993, and then from 93 to the late 90s, and how there was this space to experiment with ideas, to get rid of ideas completely, to expand aesthetic and everything. But yes, the more I look back the more I realize, there was this utter letting go of certain kinds of anger, dissent, and outrage, and I don’t see that happening right now. As long as we can keep this fresh and recognize that this is still this moment that we’ve been in for years, I don’t think that’s going to happen… but that’s up to us!

Nate Powell. Photo credit: Ben Raines

Save It For Later will be available at your local bookstore or public library beginning on Tuesday, April 6th, 2021.

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