Nate Powell navigates a world on fire in ‘Save it for Later’

The cartoonist's new graphic novel is out on Tuesday, April 6

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
A panel from "Save it for Later"

Early in the Trump presidency, as cartoonist Nate Powell worked on a pair of books that he would eventually fuse into a singular title with Save it for Later: Promises, Parenthood, and the Urgency of Protest, out tomorrow (Tuesday, April 6), he struggled to keep track of the steady stream of injustices he viewed coming from the administration, which he described as “a million fires burning at once.”

“Throughout 2017, it became increasingly noticeable to me … that there were so many things that we all needed to collectively, concretely work toward. But it seemed there was a [challenge in] really talking about the fear, the anxiety, the dread and all of the ways life under the previous administration had impacted even these quieter corners of our lives,” Powell said by phone in early April from his home in Bloomington, Indiana (the cartoonist has deep ties to Columbus dating back to his previous life playing in a touring punk band, describing the city as “a sort of second home”). “Basically, I felt like we weren’t going to be able to move forward and make a united front to stick up for democracy — and to stick up for each other — unless we had the space to talk about these more private, personal experiences as they related to living through this authoritarian push.”

The desire to create this space is what led Powell to brainstorm a book he initially conceived as a slimmer, more personal, more immediate graphic novel, one he termed “a social development piece, almost like a glue that could hold people together.”

Around the same time, the artist was working on the essay that would become “About Face,” previously published online, in which he reckons with the slow bleed of paramilitary, fascist symbolism into American culture at-large, including the Punisher’s skull logo and the Thin Blue Line U.S. flag, among other images. “Redefining the flag’s color scheme serves an important function for fascists,” Powell writes in the visual essay, “muddying and erasing previous historical context as they offer a parallel alternative.” 

Gradually, though, these two projects started to dovetail, particularly as Powell’s more personal passages started to explore elements of his childhood growing up in a military family, as well as his early fascination with G.I. Joe and a growing recognition that fascist villains were long an inseparable part of pop culture. In one series of panels, for instance, Powell revisits the 1970s TV show “Wonder Woman” with his young daughter, which leads to an unanticipated conversation after he’s jarred by the presence of Nazis in the pilot episode.

“The further I went, and the more this had to do with my life as a dad, the more inescapably it was tied to my work on ‘About Face,’” said Powell, who won Ignatz and Eisner awards for his 2008 graphic novel Swallow Me Whole and later illustrated March, the graphic novel autobiography written by U.S. Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, for which Powell won a 2016 National Book Award, a first for a cartoonist. “And so at a certain point I realized these [projects] were destined to be together. And that’s when the potential for Save it for Later, in terms of making statements, asking questions and really bringing focus to what I was trying to say, that’s when it really started to activate itself.”

The relationship between these two halves is wholly symbiotic, with the more researched, detailed passages bringing depth and historical perspective to the various lessons about social justice Powell attempts to impart on his daughter, and the stories about attending protests hand-in-hand with his child and navigating the COVID-19 pandemic as a family injecting needed humanity into the more academic sections. (A similar bridging of the personal and political takes place in a passage where Powell mourns the July 2020 death of friend John Lewis, placing his own personal grief in the greater context of America’s loss.)

In addition, the more heavily researched passages helped Powell introduce a broader historical context into the text. Rather than focusing solely on the Trump era, the artist traces this slow, almost imperceptible fascist creep back through the decades, giving the book a sense of purpose less immediately tethered to the 2020 presidential election.

“My biggest fear was making a book that … would wind up feeling useless or petty in the event of either electoral outcome,” Powell said. “So one of the central themes of the book is that the problems and conditions that brought us into the previous five years are not going to go away simply because 45 was defeated at the ballot box.”

The generational nature of these issues is present both in how Powell recounts his own experiences with his parents, as well as in the way he interacts with his daughter, trying to walk the line between keeping her informed in the ways that history has shaped current events while also giving her the agency to make her own decisions regarding her level of involvement. At times in Save it for Later, Powell’s daughter leads the charge, pressing her parents to march alone with her in protest down Bloomington streets, while in another scene she relays that she sometimes attends protests with her parents out of a sense of obligation, which serves as a reminder to the cartoonist to pull back and allow her space.

Along those lines, Powell illustrates his daughter not as a human, but rather as a magical pony/unicorn hybrid, the reasons for which are multifold.

“My experiences are very intertwined with the experiences of my entire family, but since they don’t have the agency to determine what role they play in how I represent those experiences, it sat a little better with me to have that one step of remove,” Powel said of the decision to draw his daughter as a mythic creature. “But the other function is on the readership end. If one of my basic concepts behind making this book … is that these are not necessarily unique experiences, but are more broadly shared by a majority of American families, then hopefully when a reader picks up the book they won’t be seeing my children but rather their own children, and their own family, lives and experiences. This is one of the unique strengths of comics. There are so many ways in which you can increase the ability of a reader to project themselves into the text, which fosters empathy in quiet, nonverbal ways that are often more easily accepted by the reader."

A panel from "Save it for Later"