If you’ve followed the quality and depth of graphic novels over the past 20 years, you’ll know how odd it is to say that Little Rock native Nate Powell is the first cartoonist ever to win the National Book Award. That’s no knock against Powell, by the way. As a longtime fan of the format, Powell admits it’s surprising to him, too.
At the National Book Award ceremony in November 2016, Powell shared the prize with writer Andrew Aydin and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) for the “March” trilogy. Part memoir, part history, part handbook for a new generation of nonviolent social activists to which the books are dedicated, the series employs Powell’s black-and-white imagery and a moving script by Aydin and Lewis to powerfully chronicle Lewis’ Alabama youth, his awakening to the injustices of Jim Crow, and his trial-by-fire young adulthood, when, as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the future congressman helped spearhead the effort to break the back of institutionalized segregation in the South through nonviolent protest.
The award was a bright way station on a still-winding road for Powell, who has been playing in punk bands and writing and drawing underground comics and graphic novels of his own since he was a teenager growing up in North Little Rock. While the National Book Award is a silver feather in the cap of the 38-year-old artist, Powell sees the bigger accomplishment of the “March” trilogy — with its account of how patriotic Americans once met hate, police batons and fire hoses with love and open hands and somehow won the day — in what it may mean to readers-turned-leaders in the next four years. With President-elect Donald Trump ascendant and progressives warning that nonviolent protests of a size and vigor unseen since the 1960s are necessary if we are to preserve not only the nation’s social progress but perhaps the American experiment in representative democracy itself, Powell hopes “March” may someday be seen not just as a piece of history, but as one of the principal texts in the coming fight for the soul of the nation.
Lewis, repeatedly jailed, fined and beaten as a young man in his quest for equality, has called that kind of protest “good trouble.” Powell has been getting up to that kind of trouble for years, and shows no signs of stopping any time soon.
Born in Little Rock in 1978, Powell grew up all over America. His father was career Air Force, and Powell’s boyhood included stints living near bases in Montana and Alabama. When he was 10, his dad retired from the military, and the family returned to Arkansas and settled in North Little Rock.
By then, Powell said, he’d been into comics for years, thanks mostly to 1980s TV shows featuring the Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man. He’s been drawing since he was a small child, and began to take seriously the idea of writing and drawing his own comics in the sixth grade.
Very much a part of the 1980s generation obsessed with toy-centric kids’ shows like “G.I. Joe” and “Transformers,” Powell soon started buying the comics associated with those brands, along with the early “independent, gravelly, black-and-white” incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before the series hit the big time and became lunchbox worthy. Looking around in the local comic book store for another series in the same vein of “G.I. Joe,” Powell came upon “The ‘Nam” by writer Doug Murray, a series that ran between 1986 and 1993.
“It was fiction, but it was more or less a realistic, unflinching account of drafted teenagers who were forced to serve in the Vietnam War,” Powell said. “Growing up in a military family, being a G.I. Joe kid in the Reagan era, this comic, ‘The ‘Nam,’ really opened a lot of doors to me to begin having real conversations with my dad, to understand stuff like cognitive dissonance, and to understand the moral and ethical quandaries of war and political structure.”
Powell said the comic book and the conversations it spawned with his father also opened his eyes to the idea that a lot of what he had read about war in “G.I. Joe” comics had nothing to do with the reality of war. Those realizations were soon buttressed by other, gritty titles in the more realistic comics of the late Reagan era. Soon, Powell was reading edgier underground comics by artists like Chester Brown, Geof Darrow and Frank Miller while expanding his artistic horizons through the well-stocked Japanese anime section of a neighborhood video store.
“That kind of changed my path in life,” he said. Powell, along with his friends Mike Lierly and Nate Wilson, would go on to write and self-publish a comic book series called “D.O.A.,” with the first issue appearing in September 1992.
The same year, Lierly, Powell and other friends at North Little Rock High founded the pioneering and beloved local punk band Soophie Nun Squad, which didn’t formally call it quits until 2006. Part band, part arts collective, part performance art troupe, Soophie’s shows were an explosion of expression and creativity, with most songs driven by a chorus of voices. The band recorded almost incessantly, and after Powell graduated from North Little Rock High in 1996 — after which he attended George Washington University in D.C. before transferring to the cartooning program at the School of Visual Arts in New York — Soophie toured annually between 1997 and 2006, including three tours of Europe in 2002, 2003 and 2006. In all, the band played over 400 gigs in the U.S. and 14 countries.
Powell remembers his time with Soophie fondly. During the latter half of the 1990s, he would work six months out of the year in different places throughout the country, then rendezvous with bandmates in Central Arkansas to record and plan the next tour.
Even as he was living the punk band dream with his friends, the urge to be a comic book artist never left him. Powell said that as high school came to a close, he took his cartooning to the next level by dedicating himself to art as a career. Powell remembered that his parents, while always supportive of his art, weren’t immediately on board.
“You’ve got to remember this was 1996,” he said. “This is peak Clinton era, middle-of-the-road, middle-class prosperity. There was definitely a comfort zone that I was in danger of violating by saying, ‘Well, I’m going to throw it all away and go to art school so I can be a comic book artist.’ There were definitely some intergenerational issues and some class issues there between my parents and I. It was a bit of a struggle to actually push my way through and convince them of my argument.” Powell said that struggle would continue to some extent until 2003, when his first commercially produced book, “Tiny Giants,” a collection of his previously self-produced comics, was published by Soft Skull Press.
“From my parents’ perspective, it was the first time they could have a tangible example of something they could be proud of,” Powell said. “I think once they got over that hump, by seeing a physical product that someone else had lent some approval by publishing, then they were like, ‘OK, this really is something that’s serious.’ ” From then on, Powell said, his parents were “staunch allies” of his cartooning career.
Maralie Armstrong-Rial became a member of Soophie Nun Squad in 1997, soon after starting at North Little Rock High in the ninth grade. Powell, she said, was one of the first people she met after moving to North Little Rock. She remembers Powell and the circle of friends who formed the core of Soophie as friendly and welcoming. “They were hilarious,” she said. “I didn’t like going to school, but I liked going because it meant I could see them and hang out.”
Soophie was like an extended family, Armstrong-Rial said. While every member had his or her own level of influence over what she called “the project” that was Soophie Nun Squad, she said, Powell was the one who pushed for action over talk.
“He helped organize all the energy people had,” Armstrong-Rial said. “We’d talk about a tour, about this, about that, and he would say, ‘Let’s get it done.’ He handled some of the nitty-gritty things people didn’t jump to so much.”
Armstrong-Rial said she was first exposed to Powell’s cartoons through his work as an illustrator with the North Little Rock High School newspaper. “I’d keep those,” she said. “They were very much in line with what he cared about in the world.”
Eli Milholland, an early member of Soophie who has been married to Armstrong-Rial for 15 years, said that Powell became a source of creative inspiration soon after he met the young Nate in elementary school. “He drew every day, every chance he could find, during school and at home,” Milholland said. “In the following summers, he and his other comic book friends started to flesh out what would become his first self-published comics. Throughout the next six years, he produced comic books, poetic and emotional zines, social and political cartoons for school newspapers, and self-published cassettes and records of local bands.”
Milholland said the bonds of his Soophie family are still as strong as his blood family, even though they’re scattered across the country. That includes Powell, who now lives with his wife, Rachel, and two children in Bloomington, Ind. Like Powell, Milholland remembers the Soophie tours as a time of exuberant creativity.
“I recall being on what I imagine was our third European tour with Soophie and I looked over at Nate, gazing out of the window of the van at some mountains as we were driving across whatever country,” Milholland said, “and I saw him as the 12-year-old that I had met many years prior. I started to wonder how we got all the way across the globe in a van full of kids, performing music to strangers based on the desire alone. It was because of Nate. He had the drive and courage to contact strangers and set up those tours, the practical and the philosophical abilities to make them all run so smoothly. We all had the desire to see them happen, but it was Nate that made sure that they did.”
While Powell wouldn’t trade his time in Soophie for a different past, he said he can’t help but wonder how his present might have been different had he farmed all his creative energy into cartooning and building his comic book career, as did many of his classmates at the School for Visual Arts. Almost every decision of his early life, he said, was structured around recording or touring with Soophie Nun Squad.
“One reason I think my comic career didn’t really take off until about 2008 was this structure built around Soophie Nun Squad,” he said. “Once we stopped being an active band in 2006, all of a sudden it became very clear to me that I was now free to structure my time any way I wanted. … There is a part of me that wonders about that alternative timeline where I would have put everything in the comic basket, but Soophie Nun Squad is a very special entity. It’s one that — especially in hindsight — is so centered around this familial bond that we all shared. The level of love and dedication and friendship among band members of Soophie is so strong.”
‘The Nine Word Problem’
Powell graduated from SVA in New York in 2000 after winning awards and grants for his work as a student cartoonist. Having started work as a caregiver for the developmentally disabled the previous year, Powell would work in the field as his day job for most of the next decade, taking jobs all over the country for several months a year before regrouping with his bandmates for what he called “Soophie time.” Meanwhile, Powell continued self-publishing comics through his Food Chain imprint in the early years. While at SVA, Powell had made contacts that would be crucial to his future career in the arts, including befriending Chris Staros and Brett Warnock, who would go on to become the founders of the small graphic novel publisher Top Shelf Productions, based in Marietta, Ga. Top Shelf would eventually publish Powell’s award-winning graphic story collections “Swallow Me Whole” in 2008 and “Any Empire” in 2011.
Powell quit his career as a caregiver in early 2009 and started working as a cartoonist full-time. It’s a job that requires him to constantly work on at least two projects to stay above water financially. Unbeknownst to Powell, by the time he dived into life as a full-time illustrator, the project that would eventually win him the National Book Award had been in the works for years.
Andrew Aydin is the digital director and policy adviser for Lewis, who represents Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. An avid comic book reader and collector since he was a youngster, Aydin was already working for Lewis when he came across a historical oddity that melded his interests in comics and the history of civil rights struggle, a title called “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.”
Long out of print, the short 1957 comic book played a crucial role in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s by telling the story of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56. Published on pulp paper by the hundreds of thousands, the comic was used as a teaching tool in the early days of the civil rights movement, handed out to young people who wished to join the struggle against segregation. Aydin would go on to write about the importance of the comic book to the movement in his graduate thesis at Georgetown University.
Spurred by the idea of teaching nonviolence through comic books, Aydin spoke to Lewis about doing a similar project: a graphic novel version of his story to help a new generation of activists. With some badgering, Aydin eventually convinced Lewis of the value of the project, and would later conduct over 30 hours of interviews with the congressman. He turned those interviews into the 300-page script for what would become the first book of the “March” trilogy.
With a draft of the script in hand, Lewis and Aydin signed with Top Shelf Comics in late 2010, and the search was on for an illustrator who could strike just the right tone. Presented with the work of several artists who had previously worked with Top Shelf, Aydin and Lewis eventually settled on the art of Powell. Working in Powell’s favor was that he was then finishing up work on another graphic novel, “The Silence of Our Friends,” a fictional story of the civil rights movement set in Texas.
“We got the final versions back, and we were like, OK, that’s it,” Aydin said. “Maybe two or three of the pages that Nate did to try out for ‘March’ actually ended up in the final version of book one.” Powell formally signed on with the project in November 2011.
Like a lot of Americans, Powell said he had a bare outline of the history of the civil rights struggle but was light on specifics. It’s an issue that is so prevalent, Powell said, that the Southern Poverty Law Center calls it “The Nine Word Problem.”
“It’s the idea that most kids graduate from high school knowing nine words about the civil rights movement: ‘Rosa Parks,’ ‘Martin Luther King,’ ‘I have a dream.’ That’s absolutely true, if your history class even gets to the movement, which mine never did.”
Armed with Aydin’s script, an original copy of the “Montgomery Story” comic Aydin had bought him on eBay, and a copy of Lewis’ best-selling 1998 autobiography, “Walking with the Wind,” Powell set about educating himself. Having spent part of his childhood in Montgomery, just 40 miles from the little farm in Troy, Ala., where Lewis grew up, Powell said many of the locations in the script and memoir were immediately familiar.
“The landscapes that he was describing from his childhood were things that I literally knew like the back of my hand,” he said. “A lot of the locations in the ‘March’ trilogy, I’d spent time there. I’d grown up down the street from them. I was able to explore them in my own memory as much as I was able to explore them through the archives.”
Focusing mainly on Lewis’ Alabama childhood and coming of age in an era of unrest, the first book of “March” helped Aydin and Powell learn the collaborative process. “I was able to learn a lot about how Nate functions,” Aydin said. “What his skills are, where he likes to put a splash page or things like that. I tried to write it best I could to fit with Nate’s talents.”
Aydin and Powell said that from the beginning, one of the main challenges of the trilogy was humanizing figures that have long since been enshrined as legends, including Lewis. “What we were trying very hard to show and to show fairly was, who were the real people in ’63, in ’64, in ’65?” Aydin said. “Not how they’re seen today, but who were they then based on their actions and words? Who were they when they were on the front lines? They’re different people.”
Powell agreed. “We wanted to actively reject this urge to make the civil rights movement a story, in hindsight, of gods and kings,” Powell said. “We wanted to try and illuminate the people who had been swept under the rug, like the Bayard Rustins and the entire female makeup of the movement.”
“Part of what helps people gravitate toward ‘March’ and feel a deep connection to it,” Aydin said, “was that we showed human beings before they’d been turned into gods. We need that. When we put them on a pedestal, we remove our own responsibility to be able to do something with hard work in the same way.”
“March” was initially conceived as a single, massive book, but a decision was made to split the project into a trilogy. Both Aydin and Powell agreed that worked to the benefit of the project as a whole. The first book of “March” was published in August 2013 to almost immediate critical acclaim. While Powell said graphic novels are a “small pond” where it’s hard to find either lasting success or failure, something was clearly different about the appeal of “March,” especially in the way it quickly made the jump outside normal audiences of the medium.
“Once that book came out,” Powell said, “the real game-changer was when we realized what it meant that teachers and librarians were incorporating the book into schools and institutional settings. English teachers were using “March,” but it was kind of a shock that history teachers were using “March” as history. It is history, that’s true. But it meant we had to give ourselves a crash course in what it meant to follow historical guidelines to make sure it stayed in history classes.”
That realization led to what Powell called “a radical shift” in the amount of research they did for books two and three. While book one, which mostly dealt with Lewis’ childhood and coming of age, could rely largely on Lewis’ accounts, as the focus of the trilogy pivoted toward well-known historical events, including the 1963 March on Washington and the Freedom Rides that challenged segregated interstate public transportation, Powell said he, Aydin and their editor at Top Shelf were forced to take on what he called the “second full-time job” of researching every aspect of the period and the events they were describing.
“It was this increasing shift by which the books were being taken more seriously as history, and as memoir, and as fine art, but then the responsibilities on the creative and editorial end were increasing radically. By the end of ‘March: Book Two,’ and during all of ‘March: Book Three,’ we were spending so much time digging into the rabbit hole of history and uncovering things [that it] was kind of like pushing along this giant snowball that was ‘March’ as an entity.”
That quest for historical accuracy included not just reading every published book they could find about the movement, but digging into primary source documents as well. Doing so allowed ‘March’ to actually move the ball on the documented history of the time. In one case, Powell said, the minutes of a SNCC meeting held just before the first Freedom Ride in 1961 revealed that every other historical text available had erroneously named the wrong person as one of the original 13 participants. In another instance, a deep dive into FBI documents obtained by Top Shelf editors through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that Rosa Parks, whose simple act of defiance had sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, was a keynote speaker during an event on the steps of the Alabama Capitol after the bloody 1965 Selma to Montgomery march that spurred President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act.
“If Rosa Parks decided to bookend the civil rights movement by speaking at this event on the Alabama state Capitol steps,” Powell said, “one would think history would have that well-documented. … That’s a perfect example of how history is a living creature. We were actually able to find some photo stills that may have been FBI shots from observers in the crowd that actually showed what Rosa Parks was wearing. So ‘March: Book Three’ is the first book that actually transcribes and gets into Rosa Parks’ speech on the steps. It’s transcribed from FBI surveillance documents, but it just got lost in the shuffle.”
Time and time again
The second volume of “March” was released in January 2015 to huge critical acclaim, and went on to win the Eisner Award for the year’s best reality-based graphic novel. When the third book appeared on Aug. 2 last year, it immediately shot to the top of the New York Times’ best sellers list, where it and the other two books in the series stayed for six weeks. Nominated for the National Book Award for Young Peoples’ Literature, Book Three — which ends with images of Lewis attending the 2008 inauguration of Barack Obama — won the prize Nov. 16, a week and a day after the surprise election of Donald Trump as president. Aydin sees that as the culmination of a trend that had dogged the publication of the three books, and which reveals their necessity.
“When Book One came out, the Supreme Court had struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act,” Aydin said. “When Book Two came out, Ferguson happened. And when book three came out, Donald Trump happened,” Aydin said. “I think what’s happening in our nation has been this steady progression toward a necessity for ‘March’ … . There is immediacy to it that we didn’t expect. We always pitched ‘March’ as being a handbook. That was the idea. But we’re lucky we had the idea when we did so it’s available and it’s out there. If we were just starting it now, it wouldn’t be there to help, or at least be a founding document in whatever this new struggle will be.”
“I felt increasingly, especially while we were making Book Three, that we felt like we were watching something unavoidable unfold, and we had to get in and push back against it,” Powell said. “We had to push with a particular side of history to make a future that wasn’t as dark as maybe it appears to be right now. It’s been very intense.”
Powell, who is working on a new graphic novel of his own called “Come Again,” along with a project with writer Van Jensen called “Two Dead,” agreed that the “March” trilogy has a new power and relevance since the election. America just made a collective choice to wind back the clock on social reform several decades, he said, but the books can serve as a guide to turn the nation away from the dark future he fears.
“It shows the successes and failures of a massive social movement to make the world more balanced and more just for everyone,” he said. “But particularly, it shows a roadmap by which people can learn from those mistakes, can adapt, with a lot of the successes, and push them in new creative ways. … We’re living in such an urgent, grave time. This is not a drill. That’s where I kind of return to the recognition that ‘March’ is a tool. It’s personal, it’s political, it applies to all of us, but at the same time it’s the document of a group of young people and their experiences changing the world, as young people have done time and time again.”