Saturday, 23 May 2015

You Don't Say by Nate Powell Review

Nate Powell’s best known for being the artist on March, the ongoing autobiographical comic of civil rights activist Congressman John Lewis, though you might also know him as the author of Swallow Me Whole. You Don’t Say is a collection of his short comics from between 2004-2013, some previously published, some not, and I really want to say it’s a great book because it has some comics in here that are excellent, but I found the whole thing very uneven. 

Powell’s a great artist and all of the pages here are beautifully drawn though it’s clear to see his style becoming more streamlined and sophisticated from 2004 to the end of the book in 2013. The early strips have far too much writing crammed in between the art and gives the whole thing a messy look. 

But the stories themselves… for the most part, I wasn’t really feeling it. It has something to do with their brevity as most are just a couple pages long but also because they’re more like illustrated thoughts than stories so they’re quite light, unimpressive, and easy to forget. One story is about Powell and a friend having dinner on his birthday then going to a party where he stands around quietly and then leaves. One story is about Powell moving around a lot in his 20s. One story is Powell illustrating Derek Fudesco’s lyrics to the Pretty Girls Make Graves song, The Get Away. There are some unused pages from Swallow Me Whole thrown in. Eh… 

It’s clear right from the start that Powell has a strong social conscience as the opening story is of his time working as a carer for adults with developmental disabilities (Powell credits his childhood love of the X-Men for this by the way!), so it’s no surprise that years later John Lewis would pick him to draw his inspiring life story. 

It’s also towards the end of the book that Powell starts to move away from the wishy-washy stories and latch onto more substantial subjects such as in “Like Hell I Will”. This comic tells the horrifying true story of Dick Rowland, a black shoe-shiner, who tripped entering an elevator, grabbed the arm of the white female operator to steady himself, and was accused of sexual assault! This being America in 1921, that was all the provocation needed for the white folk of Tulsa to massacre between 300 - 3000 black people - even the police and the national guard joined in, with planes sent in to actually drop bombs on black peoples’ homes! In the aftermath, nobody was arrested. 

Conjurers is the other story I liked, about a woman trying to recall the time when, as a kid, her grandmother told her her great-grandmother’s recipe for chicken. Powell effortlessly weaves in the two narratives from different eras into a coherent single thread that connects the women across the years. Beautiful! 

The Villa at the End of the Road was an interesting work of fiction that had the menacing tones of some of Hitchcock’s best stories as a woman visits her family’s destroyed cliffside home and meets her odd neighbour. 

Though a handful of stories stand out and Powell’s art is wonderful throughout, there are too many average and less-than-average short comics here to recommend You Don’t Say as a great book. That said, there’s bound to be a story or two that’ll stick with you so it might be worth a look.

You Don't Say

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