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Friday, March 1, 2024

Nate Powell interviewed about Fall Through, his punk rock graphic novel (UPDATED)

Interviewed by CT Lim

 The March trilogy, written by the late civil rights leader and U.S. Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrated and lettered by Nate Powell, was one of the most acclaimed series in recent years. It is the first comics work to ever win the National Book Award and there is even a sequel now called Run. But most readers of that series will not know the artist of the books used to be in a punk band, ran his own punk label, and drew comics about the life. 

When I had the opportunity to review his new book, Fall Through and to interview him via email, I knew this is what I wanted to focus on. Reading Fall Through is like reading issues of Maximum Rock 'n' Roll and thinking about 'what is punk?', 'what is authentic?', and 'how does one carry on in your 40s and 50s after a lifetime of listening to rock 'n' roll, subscribing to its ethics and ideals when you have been working a 9 to 5  job for the last 20 years?' You realized there is a cap to what you can achieve in the rat race, in climbing the corporate leader. There are some things you just won't do and don't believe in. You can only be 'good' for so long, then you just got to throw a spanner in the works. Because it makes life more interesting. Some of these dilemmas are discussed in Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture by Stephen Duncombe. 

I thank Nate Powell for his illuminating and generous answers to my questions. I learn that his punk characters are connected in his own story universe. I look forward to reading his new books.

How does one go from being a punk rocker to being an award-winning comic artist?

I began my active involvement with both communities simultaneously; In September, 1992, my band Soophie Nun Squad started writing songs as my bandmate and I published our very first comic book, D.O.A. #1. My comics pursuits were initially separate from my more personal fanzine creations, slowly merging as I realized that comics could be used to express whatever I wanted. Soophie Nun Squad’s first tour in 1997 doubled as the first time my comics were sold outside my hometown, and more importantly, read by any audience who didn’t already know me. These creative and social networks in punk and comics are both parallel and interconnected, and I’ve simply continued doing what’s been so meaningful for the past 32 years.

What are the lessons that you have learned from punk rock in general, and those that you have applied to being a comic artist?

Punk can be understood as a lens through which to navigate one’s surroundings and to better understand one’s relationship to the world. It can also be a means of problem-solving, figuring out ways to make things real on one’s own terms, and often with limited resources. It’s a test of faith in strangers and their intentions. It’s a crucial exercise in the value of critical thinking skills.

What we call punk is also a double-edged sword: it’s eternally defined and redefined by young people, and the older one gets, the more important it is to reevaluate those self-imposed values and structures we set in place as teenagers. The most enduring of these values in my middle-aged life are a strong do-it-yourself ethic, the necessity of community engagement and faith, and the unique strengths of comics’ democratized accessibility as an expressive medium. 

What I like about Fall Through is that it is not a straight narrative of a band on the run. It attempts to capture what it is to be on tour, the constant gigging, to be skint all the time and you feel you just can't get off the road. It's like reading an issue of Cometbus, more akin to George Hurchalla's Going Underground than Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could be Your Life. The latter is more structured while the former is more shambolic and a bit all over the place. 

Or am I reading it all wrong?

That’s definitely a big part of it. On the surface level of the plot, that disorientation and closed perspective is a powerful force when touring with the kind of band-family we see with Diamond Mine. But the tour aspect of the book is really just the scaffolding that holds deeper themes and feelings in relation to each other. A deeply personal creative collaboration like a punk band often carries a dynamic tension between band members’ perceived unity of purpose and the individual visions and motivations of its members. We sometimes lie to each other about these intentions, just as we lie to ourselves.

How much of the magic realism was there when you first outlined the story? Was it something that you had in mind or something that came along the way? (I thought it was a good way to make tangible the lure of the road, to keep on going and going and to put aside reality and the real world)

All of my solo fiction is magical or supernaturally-tinged, and it all takes place as isolated tales within a shared universe, allowing me to explore different aspects of my beloved hometown, its unique culture and people. So for Fall Through, magic was a given possibility during the early problem-solving stage of writing. Diamond Mine first appeared as a band in my 2018 book Come Again, performing in a weird mountain town in 1979. As I was developing these characters and their stories for Fall Through, which takes place in 1994, I embraced the fact that they simply don’t make sense in either era, and realized that this was a central mystery to help unlock the larger story. Finding a way to reconcile this without overexplaining it required reverse-engineering the band’s appearance in 1979, piecing together details which directly revealed the central plot issue, and allowed me to build around that mystery.

Are you still in a band? Will you form another one? 

I have been a parent for the last 12 years, and that takes up every second of my life. I’m also geographically separated from the people with whom I’ve been involved in all of my bands—when I say “band-family,” I really mean that. It’s proven to be very difficult to play music outside of that family, but has made any reunions very welcome. From 1992 to 2010 I was in the bands Soophie Nun Squad, Gioteens, Boomfancy, Wait, Divorce Chord, and Universe, all with overlapping membership. In 2023, I reunited with three other members of Soophie Nun Squad to play a tribute set to a beloved hometown punk band, Trusty, doubling as a memorial to their drummer Bircho, who passed away at the beginning of the pandemic.

What music are you listening to these days? What would you recommend? What would be a playlist to accompany the reading of Fall Through?

When I draw, I often listen to ambient electronic and minimalist albums on repeat—a lot of Harold Budd, Brian Eno, OK Ikumi, Oneohtrix Point Never, Philip Glass. I certainly spend a lot of time listening to emotionally vulnerable hardcore of the mid-80s to mid-90s—that’s my home planet. Lately, I’m constantly listening to Cocteau Twins, Prince, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Hugo Largo, and The Cure, as well as stellar new albums by Hammered Hulls and Scream.

I actually made a soundtrack accompaniment to Fall Through, which is here:

Some friends of mine (old punks) in Singapore are talking about planning for punk lives after 50, 60. Those who are not married or have kids, is there a retirement home for them so they can take care of each other. A punk house but with the old people safety features. This could be a real concern as people expect punks to 'grow up', settle down, have a proper 9 to 5 job, establish their careers. (one became a lecturer in an arts school and doing her PhD now on punk culture in Singapore, mining her own past) But some don't and there is some talk about punk old folks' home. 

Are there similar issues in USA? 

This is a good example of the importance of reevaluating how we apply these lifelong ideals crystallized as, and by, young people. There is not a serious issue with settling down and growing in different directions as we age. It’s simply what people do, and denying that requires an increasing denial of our relationships with the world—which is precisely how Diana has painted herself into an ideological corner with her own misapplied, self-serving idealism.

Punk is a way of approaching what we do, how we do it, and how to best look out for each other. There is no dichotomy-crisis outside of young adults who don’t yet understand this—and older people who refuse to acknowledge it. Punk is very real, and also a fabricated misnomer.

What's next after Fall Through?

In April, my next nonfiction book will be released. It’s a full comics adaptation of James Loewen’s influential Lies My Teacher Told Me, which is essentially a history book about intergenerational misunderstanding of US history through our history textbooks. The original version of this book was very influential on me as a young adult, and it has only become more significant as the power-hungry, reality-averse far right in the US have pursued organized campaigns to ban books and control information and diverse voices within the American experience. As for what’s on my drawing table right now? I’m finishing pencils on the prequel to Fall Through, which is both a stand-alone character study centered around Diana and the connective tissue fusing Come Again to Fall Through. It’s been a blast to dive so deeply into these characters’ lives and psyches, and will be heartbreaking to reach the end of the journey again.

Fall Through
Abrams Books, 2024
ISBN: 9781419760822
(Updated 3/2/24 with introduction)

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