Save it for Later. by Nate Powell. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2021. 160pp. $24.99
Nate Powell provides a series of what I call “visual essays” for his latest book, Save it for Later. Powell, whether he intended to or not, is working in the tradition of essays going back to Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Montaigne was a philosopher who, in spite of or because of his erudition, knew how to write plainly and memorably. The sign of any good writing is that it sticks with you, akin to an absorbing conversation with an intimate friend. Essays are not meant to be perfect, although they do best if they ultimately have something meaningful to say, and achieve a clarity of purpose. Powell’s book is not perfect–and I’m glad it’s not. Powell manages to retain a certain level of rawness that adds authenticity. This is a real person who is just trying to figure things out, what’s best for him, his family, and his community.
It’s a messy and complicated world–sometimes ugly (maybe more now than in recent memory). We live for only a pocket of time: perhaps we’re more aware of the ever-shifting present than ever before and mindful of the relatively recent past and future. In the big picture, we’re all here just for a blink of an eye’s time. And then we’re gone. Dust. No more. You’d think that would humble us. We’re too ready to pass judgement and condescend–somehow oblivious to the fact than none of us are going to leave this earth alive. Pretty heavy stuff. And then you throw in the role a parent plays in guiding a child, navigating a child through all the grown-up stuff going on. Let’s not forget there is plenty of joy to go around. You don’t have to be “privileged” to enjoy so much that life has to offer. But sometimes a parent feels a heavy burden to get it all right. One thing is clear in this book, Powell feels the burden and he takes it almost to the breaking point.
We cartoonists are born explainers. There’s something about us that compels us to jump upon the stage of life. We’re part artist, writer, journalist, and actor. This need to perform, act out, and explain is genuine and natural. I can clearly see that Powell is driven to make his time count: make the most of his talents, make a difference. That heart-felt desire is undeniable. It is that kind of energy that fueled what he was able to accomplish with March, the trilogy exploring the civil rights movement with Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin. In fact, March figures prominently in Powell’s new book. It is ever-present, not only guiding Powell but influencing the lives of his two children. How does the cartoonist who was a part of such a consequential work address questions of race? How do we feel confident that he’s conveying an honest picture of himself? It’s not easy! I think what really helps, and to Powell’s credit, is the use of what I call “the counter-narrative.” Right alongside Powell’s main narrative, he has moments that depict another viewpoint like when his older daughter, at age seven, admits she sometimes goes to protest rallies because she thinks that is what her father wants her to do.
Let me share with you how the issue of race was addressed in my family when I was child. Basically, in the 1970s, in my household, it was never explicitly and formally addressed the way it is now in vogue to do. Certainly, race came up as a subject to talk about but it happened very organically: randomly and without pretense. That had something to do, maybe everything to do, with my coming from a biracial background: my mom was Mexican; my dad was Anglo. Both are now deceased. And, if they were both alive and cognizant, I imagine they’d have a well-earned laugh over some of what they’d find to be an excess of sensitivity on display today. Where were all the well-wishers when we needed them? It’s an interesting question. For Powell, he is focusing on his being white and the burden he believes he has. Powell believes that white children should not be afforded an extended time of innocence since non-white children never had such a privilege. There’s plenty to unpack there and fodder for much needed discussion.
As a child, I also know for a fact that I became political all on my own, and after a relatively extended time of relative innocence (kids are less innocent than adults generally care to admit). I know that I was certainly curious about the news by age ten and picked it up in earnest by age thirteen. Looking back on it, I see no harm, no foul on that count. I don’t blame my parents for any apathy or neutrality over issues of the day. I think my mother suffered enough, as I did by extension and in my own right, from countless forms of racism. And I don’t think I would have benefited from any critical race theory workshop. That said, we need to be willing to talk it all out and think it all out as much as possible. We often seem to forget how important it is to make our actions count. After all, we’re only here for a small pocket of time.
So, how does the cartoonist who was a part of such a consequential work as March address questions of race? It’s one step at time! How does one move in the shadow of such a giant as John Lewis? With purpose! Nate Powell, without a doubt, has created a work of honesty and bravery with his latest book. Yes, bravery because amid all the coded language and distraction, there remains that veiled, and not-so-veiled, threat of violence. It’s like you are being dared to be true to yourself and stand up to the current batch of hate crime bullies. These are bullies that John Lewis understood very well in his time. Sadly, his pocket of time is now over. The baton has been passed on to another generation. We may collectively stumble along the way but, as John Lewis would say when you see something that is not fair: “Find a way to get in the way.” Powell has learned from the best.
Save it for Later is available as of April 6, 2021. For more information, visit Abrams ComicArts.