Nate Powell says book's relevance, appeal cut across lines

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FARMINGTON — Every cartoonist is frustrated by his or her own work, Nate Powell says, but that’s what keeps them moving and growing. 

Powell said he counters those negative feelings by focusing on developing his skills as a storyteller and maintaining a disciplined approach to his work. That commitment has allowed him to carve out a niche as one of America's more highly regarded graphic artists-writers, one whose work is an integral part of the "MARCH" graphic memoir trilogy, which serves as this year's selection for the annual One Book, One Community program at San Juan College.

Powell will be discussing his five years of work on "MARCH" on Tuesday when he visits the college for a series of events that culminates with an evening presentation in the Little Theater on the college campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington.

"MARCH" was created in three parts by Powell, and co-authors U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin. It chronicles Lewis' history as a civil rights activist, as well as the victories and defeats experienced by the movement over the course of American history. Powell said he worked on the project from 2013 through 2016, and his presentation will offer some behind-the-scenes material and how it related to the social and political events of that era.

More: Re-enactment helps kick off college's One Book One Community activities

Powell became involved in "MARCH" shortly after it was announced in 2010 by his publisher, Top Shelf Productions. Publisher Chris Staros called Powell and suggested he might be uniquely suited for the project, given his previous work on "The Silence of Our Friends," a graphic novel that chronicles the exoneration of five black college students in late-1960s Texas after they unjustly are charged with the murder of a policeman.

Staros put Powell in touch with Lewis and Aydin, and the cartoonist quickly produced some demo pages that were based on working versions of the script. Lewis and Aydin apparently liked what they saw, because it was only a few weeks later that Powell officially became a member of the team, and the project took off.

Powell — who has earned a slew of awards for his work, including becoming the first cartoonist to win the prestigious National Book Award — was happy to have the opportunity to help tell Lewis' story. But he recognized it was only natural that questions about his status as a white man working on such a racially charged subject would arise.

He said he was fortunate to have worked out much of the anxiety surrounding that issue during his work on "The Silence of Our Friends," and he said he came to rely on one basic fact whenever he considered whether his involvement in the project was appropriate.

"Ultimately, I’d return to the knowledge that Rep. Lewis chose me to tell this story — his story — through his eyes and in his words," Powell wrote in an email last week from his home in Bloomington, Indiana. "It really isn’t about me, nor should it be. It’s about revitalizing his voice and perspective on these experiences, so I devoted all my energy to doing just that."

Powell said he was thrilled when he found out San Juan College had chosen "MARCH" for this year's One Book, One Community selection, and he hopes local readers find the book's revisiting of the Jim Crow era enlightening.

"Civil rights movement history is something everyone needs to know, as are the history and evolution of organized, disciplined nonviolence in action," he wrote in his email. "The ongoing, present-day disenfranchisement and oppression of Native and Hispanic people throughout our nation (and beyond) is inherently intertwined with the segregation, disenfranchisement, and oppression of African American communities throughout our land."

Characterizing the obstacles that many Native and Hispanic people face in America as "sister struggles" to those of the African-American community, Powell believes readers will find that the trilogy has a relevance that extends across racial and cultural lines.

" … MARCH was crafted as a roadmap to change — not just highlighting the movement’s successes, but identifying its failures and difficulties from which we may grow and build," he wrote.

More: College hosts One Book, One Community author

Powell will be signing copies of his work from 2 to 3 p.m. Tuesday in the college library. From 3 to 4 p.m. he'll attend a meet-and-greet session in the Student Sun Lounge, and at 7 p.m. he will speak in the Little Theater. Copies of his books will be available for purchase at the book signing.

Admission to all of Tuesday's events is free and open to the public. Call 505-566-3476 for more information.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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