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Nate Powell on Swallow Me Whole, Mental Illness & the Magic of Siblings

Swallow Me Whole Nate PowellNate Powell’s dreamlike, complex Swallow Me Whole captivated comics fans on its release, winning the 2009 Ignatz Awards for Outstanding Debut and Outstanding Artist and the 2009 Eisner Award for Best Original Graphic Novel. Focusing on a blended family in the South, it deals with aging, mental illness, the bonds of siblings, and much more.

As part of Top Shelf Month, we got to ask questions of artist/writer/musician Nate Powell–his thoughtful, passionate responses are below:

TFAW.com: How did you get involved with comics in the first place?

Nate Powell: Like lots of other kids in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was the Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman TV shows as well as Spider-Man’s role on The Electric Company that got me into comics. I started reading them at age three or four, and moved into reading G.I. Joe, Transformers, and The Nam in elementary school. I had also been drawing since I was a toddler, but didn’t put the two interests together until I was 11. I had just started reading the Mirage Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Den, and was immersed in X-Men when my best friend Mike Lierly suggested we draw a comic together. We cranked out hundreds of pages before focusing on a series called D.O.A., which we self-published from 1992-94. I had gotten into the DIY punk subculture at the same time and began writing a zine called The Schwa Sound in 1994, but it took several years before I saw my comics and zine work as being connected endeavors.

TFAW.com: Are there any artists who especially speak to you?

Swallow Me Whole Preview PageNP: Arthur Adams and Michael Golden were the two artists who made me want to draw comics in the first place. I got more serious about making comics in the mid-late ’90s, thanks to Al Burian’s The Long Walk Nowhere, Chester Brown’s I Never Liked You, J.M. DeMatteis and Glen Barr’s Brooklyn Dreams, Eric Drooker’s The Flood, Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl series, and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Domu: A Child’s Dream. Also of great importance to me are Gabriella Giandelli, Dash Shaw, Erin Tobey, Dylan Horrocks, Anders Nilsen, Lilli Carre, John Porcellino, Ken Dahl, Lynda Barry, and Farel Dalrymple.

TFAW.com: How did the idea for Swallow Me Whole start out?

NP: The story’s core emerged as a powerful dream I had in October 2001, while living in western Massachusetts. Over the next couple of years I slowly shaped it into something that vaguely made sense, as the narrative merged with another book I was writing.

TFAW.com: You worked with adults with developmental disabilities for a decade–was this your inspiration for the book?

NP: No, I try to keep a little fence between those two parts of my life, though it’s unavoidable to be influenced deeply by that line of work. My older brother Peyton has some developmental disabilities, and I feel that my perspective on life is much more powerfully influenced by him–I mean, he’s the reason I wanted to work supporting folks with disabilities in the first place. I remain wary of singular external focus on the “mental disorder” aspect of Swallow Me Whole. I feel like it’s just as much about aging, death, dignity of choice, relationships, and a repressive cultural climate as it is about disorders.

Swallow Me Whole Preview PageTFAW.com: Swallow Me Whole is so dense, with a vague, dreamlike quality to it. How did you come up with the overall structure?

NP: Besides the story’s birth in a dream itself, it was structured the same way all my other stories are. Once I have a sense of the “big idea” behind the story, I begin organizing my sketchbook collection of scenes, vignettes, snippets of conversation, and imagery into a master list, and look for connections and repetitions in theme or aesthetic. Once a character or two emerge that I really start to care about, I pretty much arbitrarily plug those characters into each of the scenes/situations, and try to experience how any character might navigate those scenes. For me, the narrative is generally subservient to the themes and concepts, so once the scene structure and narrative flow are shuffled around into something that makes sense, it’s already following rules of intuition instead of narrative logic, which I save until I’m smoothing out bumps in the narrative itself. I’ve always been attracted to more intuitive narrative flows, and I enjoy the deliberation it takes to truly dwell inside the story as a reader or viewer.

TFAW.com: It’s interesting that the two main characters, Ruth and Perry, are step-siblings, but they both struggle with aspects of schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. What was the purpose of that?

NP: In one sense, I think it’s magical that most siblings have a shared subjective experience within their childhood time together, sometimes resulting in what seems like a sibling cult with its own mythology, language, ritual, and way of navigating the world. As kids hit their teenage years, they naturally drift apart into their own lives, more or less, and watch that magical state begin to close.

Swallow Me Whole Preview PageRuth and Perry are step-siblings that have been together since age six or seven, I think, but they get along quite well. I think it’s interesting that, as their magical sibling-realm begins to fade away, they separately struggle with the emergence of highly subjective experiential states, except adolescence has delivered them into a self-consciousness that makes them hesitant to share those experiences with each other. Also, I should note that in the dream origin of the story, Perry had his little wizard and the same kind of relationship with it and his family, but there was no rational grounding for his situation. I figured that, if this wizard were hanging around, it was certainly a delusion of his, and I let the story flow from there.

TFAW.com: Although both of them try to appear normal, they both clearly exhibit unusual behavior. However, their families don’t appear to notice, except for Memaw, who treats it as a matter of course and seems to have dealt with these issues herself. Do you think it’s typical that close family members overlook this sort of thing?

NP: I think it’s absolutely normal for a family to sweep stuff like this under the rug as long as it can be. I grew up in the South, and the Not Dealing With Real Shit method is very common for Southern middle-class Protestants. It’s different from denial–it’s more of a class-driven desire to fill out the corners of a family’s expected role in one’s culture.

Communication and intimacy were never strong suits in my family growing up, but we certainly worked through some very tough times as my brother tried to find living, working, and educational environments that worked for him in a time when autism was still practically unknown (keep in mind that in 1987, doctors’ official diagnosis of my brother’s condition was that “his brain was wired wrong.” Public exposure to autism is an extremely recent move forward.).

Swallow Me Whole Preview PageMemaw has certainly experienced some similar states, but I think of hers as religious-flavored delusions peppered by bipolar depression and, more recently, neurochemical rewiring from intense cancer treatment. Her adherence to Christian mythology, however, provides for a socially acceptable pocket in which to deposit her delusions and powerful experiences–neurochemically, there are few differences between brain activity in states of religious zeal and powerful bipolar states or certain epileptic storm activity.

TFAW.com: Ruth is eventually diagnosed after having a breakdown at school. Percy looks as if he might get treatment after a visit to the family doctor, but is dismissed. Is this pointing to the differences in the way boys and girls with mental disorders are treated?

NP: That section’s just about gender expectations in general, but it’s especially magnified when you have a male character who’s showing a gender-norm approved interest in something active, and a female character who’s also showing creative and constructive interest in something active, but that’s compounded by both scientific and artistic focus on her creatures.

TFAW.com: Why does Ruth have such an intense focus on insects and other creatures?

NP: I have fond memories of growing up in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama, spending entire seasons with cicadae saturating the trees, playing in ditches, surrounded by their little chants. I was aware of what these little things were, but only saw their husks as a kid, and didn’t actually see a live cicada until I was a teenager–they seemed a little mystical to me in childhood for surrounding everything invisibly. That’s made even better in adulthood, seeing how slow and uncoordinated and relatively cute they are–they’re like the Curly [of The Three Stooges] of the insect world. So that’s my personal attachment.

Swallow Me Whole Preview PageRuth personally believes that she is, or can become, a conduit for their communication, and this is parallel to her emerging awareness of sentient life forms and their sovereignty. I think Ruth likes insects’ extremely non-Western modes of organization, their collectivist but decentralized structure, and their (apparent) absence of ego. She’s also attracted to the nature of the food chain itself, with insects as rabid devourers/consumers of their environment, but essentially remaining simple fodder for dominant creatures.

TFAW.com: At one point, Ruth denies that her schizophrenia is a disability and sees it as a gift, like a second sight. How do you feel about that?

NP: That’s not really my business, but it’s certainly not an uncommon perspective on mental disorders or developmental disabilities. There is certainly value in the relative extremes of the anti-medication movement, though I feel the value is largely in keeping the dialogue itself alive. Disorders and disabilities are naturally double-edged swords, and where a disorder falls on that spectrum is relative to a person’s support system and her ability to function in daily life. Ruth’s character seemed inevitably attracted to that perspective as she moved through adolescence, particularly when countered with Perry’s increasing control over his own disorder. To clarify, Ruth’s primary issue is her obsessive-compulsive disorder, through which she perceives the existence of a grand unifying structure underneath all life forms. This emerging belief system is religious in nature when coupled with her ritualistic explorations, and it is largely considered schizophrenic because she’s the only member of her congregation.

Swallow Me Whole Preview PageTFAW.com: How well do you think our current system treats those with mental illness? Is the stigma going away?

NP: Stigma has certainly not changed in the last 30 years (and it won’t change in another 30) except for the commodification of marketable disorders like chronic depression, but the fact that mental illness is a relatively normal part of our cultural dialogue is very promising. Keep in mind that before 1978, most Americans with developmental disabilities and moderate to severe mental disorders were literally invisible, locked away for life in public and private institutions shockingly similar to the images of “asylum” we collectively maintain. I mean, people with Down’s Syndrome were often locked away for life.

My brother first began seeing medical professionals at age four, in 1976, because he hadn’t really begun to speak yet and was showing classic symptoms of autistic development. Most doctors suggested to our parents that Peyton [Powell’s brother] was screwed for life, and that the best thing for him was to be put away in an institution (fortunately, this didn’t happen). Our concept of a “moderate” approach to normalization and inclusion is very recent. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, most institutions in the U.S. were closed down, and thanks to Reagan’s shitty America, lots of these places literally just opened their doors with no social or transitional support for folks with mental illness or disabilities, which is the other main reason (after our complete lack of dealing with vets suffering from PTSD) for such a spike in homeless folks with mental illness.

Our reality is that a large, invisible underclass (folks living with disabilities) relies on public assistance and support networks to remain alive. As the Christian Right swings its illiterate paws around, this invisible class of people is in extreme danger, and as history shows, if this right-wing authoritarian trend organizes into fascism, folks with disabilities will be the first people exterminated. That’s why I remain serious about the importance of advocacy and support in light of our recent social progress on this issue, and why I identify most closely with a pragmatic socialism, though my heart dreams of anarcho-democracy.

Swallow Me Whole Preview PageTFAW.com: In addition to being a cartoonist, you’re a musician–how does one affect the other for you?

NP: I started being in bands when I was 14, at the same time I started publishing comics. The two are certainly intertwined, but largely their relationship is complementary. I really value the collectivist creations in a band–the production of something that requires equal, unselfish creative contributions from everyone involved. That contrasts pretty sharply with the time I spend alone in my cave, drawing comics out of my head. The existence of both, when I’m that fortunate, feels really healthy. As my comics become more concrete, linear, and politically specific narratives, the subjects I write music about tend to be more vague, broad, and internalized.

TFAW.com: What can you tell us about Any Empire, your upcoming book with Top Shelf?

NP: Any Empire is about violence. Specifically, it follows three people who grow up in a Southern town (Wormwood, the same town in which Swallow Me Whole occurs) during the Reagan era, awash in a specific privileged American fantasy surrounding violence– G.I. Joe kids whose parents were delivered into the boom of post-WWII cultural privilege. Each kid has a different relationship to violence in their personal lives, in their developing concepts of the world, and also experiences fantasy in a different way. The story follows these three people into adulthood, as their relationships to violence and fantasy change, and they work to reconcile their individual shifts in worldview, looking for answers to questions of power, choice, whether or not a better world is even possible, and how best to fight for it when opposition is deadly and crushing.

Swallow Me Whole Preview PageTFAW.com: What other types of projects do you want to work on?

NP: Well, also in the works are a graphic novel I’m drawing called The Silence of Our Friends, written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos, and published by First Second. It follows two families in late-’60s Houston amidst civil rights struggles, hate crimes, cultural shifts, and relationships of opportunity. That book’ll be out in February 2012. I’m drawing a half-novel, half-graphic novel for young adults called Year of the Beasts, written by Cecil Castellucci and to be published by Roaring Brook Press in 2012. It’s a mythology-wrapped story about dealing with the inevitability of sorrow and tragedy in people’s lives. After these, I’m working on a book called Cover, co-written with one of my long-time friends, Nathan Wilson. It follows the lives of people living in a city that rearranges itself every night, haunted by a mysterious controlling entity. That’s all I can say about that one at present–it’s still several years off.

TFAW.com: Thanks for talking with us, Nate!

Browse our exclusive eight-page preview of Swallow Me Whole! Make sure to order by the end of August, when it–and our entire stock of Top Shelf books–are 20% off!

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Written by Elisabeth@TFAW

Elisabeth has been reading comics since we was a wee girl. She's obsessed with John Byrne, Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, and making the perfect scrambled eggs. Follow her on @Twitter to get bonus conversations with her cat!