In this fourth and final part of our interview with Swallow Me Whole writer, Nate Powell, we turn momentarily from all of that heady talk about childhood schizophrenia to discuss the author’s use of language—both textually and visually—in his latest book. It’s a particularly interesting topic both in light of the fact that much of the author’s past work has often been largely silent, as well as the ways in which Powell’s years spent working with developmentally disabled adults has affected his own speech in life.
We also briefly touch upon some religious themes broached over the course of work, and how the religious culture of the South influenced Powell’s work.
I was speaking with Dash Shaw and he howh your time spent working with people with developmental disorders has affected your use of language. I thought the comment was interesting on a number of levels. First, you’ve done a lot of work without any text at all. And second, I think, more than a lot of working in the medium, you have a very visual way of illustrating text, especially in the case of music or whispered speech. Has Your time working in that field impacted your use of language?
Absolutely. On a couple of levels. For a long time, I was more interested in using a shear economy of words—just only using the words that are necessary. I was really afraid to say anything, whether it’s in words or not. From the time I was in Providence, I basically programmed myself that I was stupid and invalid.
Not just on the page?
In general. In life and the way it affected my comics. In life, I basically lost a lot of self-respect. In the book It Disappears, it can be very special sometimes when I read it, but other times, all I see is me trying to have a very, very raw, personal conversation over the course of the book, but it just comes across as this theory-heavy garbage to me. I think, once I got to this uncomfortable spot—and a lot of this has to do with the particular director jobs that I’ve been working with, since moving to Bloomington. I’ve been working with the city and people for five years now, and I’ve developed a really close and special relationship with some of these people, and not only have they affected my use of language in everyday life, but I’d say, I got comfortable enough with the way that real people use real language, and also trying to communicate things in a way so that literally anyone can understand it. Basically, I finally got to a point where I was unafraid to have people talk like people in books.
And, as far as the visual language in comics, I think a lot of that is I just relaxed a little bit. When I was in Providence, I just forgot how to have fun with art. It took me a couple of years, during Swallow Me Whole—not even Please Release, that was kind of me breaking out of my shell—I finally started to ease up and have fun and bring more iconic and cartoony and expressionistic elements. The expressionistic elements within language and wording and lettering started to come in again. Most of the people I work with have autism—I’d say, like 80-percent do. It’s not intentional, but my older brother has autism. I’m basically the autism guy. I really truly get it. For what it’s worth, I feel like I’ve gotten to a very special place in understanding the framework for getting along with autism. I can see a more level playing field, as far the as the way that people communicate and do the things they need to do in their lives—the ways that people use language to communicate the things that they want. It’s played a big part in making me unafraid of language.
You mentioned religion a little before—growing up a Southern Baptist. There’s some symbolism in the book that’s hard to ignore: the use of cicadas, which seem to be a direct reference to the locusts from the biblical plagues.
Of course. But I will say that my dad’s side of the family grew up Southern Baptist, but I grew up Prespiterian, which is basically the equivalent of having the excuse not to believe anything, whatsoever. My dad, who’s basically one of the coolest people on earth, was my Sunday School teacher. In the seven or so years that he was my Sunday School teacher, he probably said the word “Jesus” five times. He talked about the JFK assassination and curfews and censorship, and we’d use that as a pathway to ethic and moral issues, but he would never explicitly talk about God, and I’m very thankful for that.
When the cicadas found their way into the story, it was definitely unavoidable that there was vast religious implications there. Just for the record, I’m an atheist, but in the last two to three years, I’ve developed a very different relationship to religion. The things I used to hate about religion—the ritualistic aspects, the consecration of sacred space, the dualist aspects, even the social aspects (people were really just going to church to hang out with their friends. They didn’t really give a shit about Jesus or church or anything).
When I stopped going, my mom go so mad. But a couple of years later, she just stopped going, and is much happier about it. She’s navigated back and forth in that world, and now she’s in a more comfortable spot, but I don’t think my mom believes in anything. But the things I hated most about religion, when I was 21 or 22, are my very favorite things about it. I love the idea that you can consecrate a sacred space—we’re going to use our energy to turn this into a holy space. I love that shit. It’s a wonderful, magical act, and even the social aspects. I don’t like that people feel they need that to have a moral structure, but I personally appreciate the fact that my was my Sunday School teacher and I learned things about ethics and morals that I’m still using.
Actually, a couple of years ago, reading up on different religions, it was through a search about Wicca that I actually got to appreciate Christianity, ironically. Wicca’s formal mission, that there is no magic happening with these spells and sacred spaces, it’s almost a very intense visualization process, mixed with some archetypes, and a lot of focus and learning to visualize the change that you want to happen. And by getting a crystal clear vision of that and focusing on a religious exercise or a spell, you are able to change your life and the world around you. And I realized that that’s what happens when people visualize on any sort of religious space. I still don’t believe in God, but I have a much more respectful view of religion.
It also almost validates Ruth’s impressions that she is some kind of a chosen being.
It’s important to note that the original title of this book was Wormwood. I changed the title after I discovered Wormwood Gentleman Corpse. Basically I did a lot of reading on neurology and physical disorders. I read this really excellent book called The Midnight Disease written by a neurologist with impulsive writing disorder, and it compared the neurological roots of many, many disorders, and then asked questions about the source of creativity and how it played into disorder, neurologically and culturally. And it turns out that there’s the same exact abnormalities in the chemicals of the brain which play a part in particular kinds of temporal lobe epilepsy, certain kinds of bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, certain obsessive compulsive behavior, and even a certain kind of autism.
Those abnormalities activate the same part of the brain as when people have feelings of religious mania or when they have abenthenia, And the wormwood in absinthe, activates that specific spot. Coincidentally, I had decided to call the book Wormwood before I discovered that, and all the sudden it was like, “wow! There’s a reason!”