Thursday, February 5, 2009

Comics Review: Nate Powell, Please Release

Nate Powell's cartooning has a lovely improvisational feel. He is a highly skilled draftsman, with rendering and design skills to match, but one never catchs him exercising those skills for their own sake. One never stops to look at Powell's panels and pages as works of art in themselves; they're completely in service to his narratives, and the exuberance of his visuals carries one along in the manner of a good jazz solo. One never knows quite where he's going, and one suspects he doesn't know, either; all that can be done is to ride the notes and rhythms out to wherever they end up.

The style is beautifully suited to Powell's subject matter. The four stories in Please Release are confessional pieces, and the jazzy visual treatment reinforces the exploring, reflective tone. Powell depicts himself as a nomadic artist and musician who supports himself working as a direct care provider for the developmentally disabled. One sees him grappling with loneliness and dissatisfaction with where life has taken him--he's heading into his late twenties, and he still has yet to settle down in any conventional way--but for all the self-pity of statements like "I'm terrified of existing ... and even more afraid of being forgotten," he remains intensely engaged with life as he lives it, whether it's playing and listening to music, or tackling the challenges involved in the care of the group-home clients with whom he works. The stories shift from melancholy to moments of active engagement to epiphanies of satisfaction in times of extreme doubt, and they're remarkably fluid and all of a piece. One might even call them lyrical.

However, as impressed as I am by Powell's work here, I can't shake certain reservations about it. The best confessional work in comics--Harvey Pekar's various strips with Robert Crumb and Chester Brown's I Never Liked You are what immediately come to mind--play the ostensibly autobiographical protagonist against the outside world with all its various personalities, mores, and challenges. The drama in Powell's stories comes from within himself. The outside world provides a setting for Powell, but it doesn't create his conflicts. It simply complements the self-portrait he presents. Confessional work can quickly become tiresomely narcissistic, and part of me wonders how patient I'd be with Powell's self-absorption if his wonderfully loose cartooning wasn't sweeping me along. I'm not going to claim that Please Release is a triumph of style over substance, but the suspicion is definitely there.

Other reviews of work by Nate Powell: