Review time! with ‘Come Again’

“Another night is falling and now my heart is calling you back to me”

Nate Powell is one of the best comics creator of our time, and while it’s very cool that he got to draw the story of John Lewis and probably got a lot of press and ducats out of that assignment, his solo stuff is excellent, and he has a new book out, Come Again, which is in that vein. It’s a beautiful book, naturally, published by Top Shelf and costing $24.99, although you can get it for cheaper if you know where to look!

Powell returns to Arkansas, where he grew up, in Come Again, even though it’s not auto-biographical (for one, some of it takes place in 1971, and he was born in 1978). He sets things in Arkansas, I imagine, because he knows the landscape and the kind of people who live there, so it adds verisimilitude to his stories. So we go to a hippie commune on a mountain in Arkansas, where a group of people set up shop in 1971 and now, in 1979, are still living there. The main character, a woman named Haluska, lives there with her son Jake, while her ex-husband lives in the town down the mountain. She’s friends with Adrian and Whitney, whose son Shane is friends with Jake. So that’s the group of people we’re most concerned with.

Powell evokes the idea of a hipper commune very well, as everyone seems to be working together and the kids have a freedom that even suburban kids of the time would envy (as a suburban kid of the time, I know whatof I speak). Jake and Shane wander through the forests around the community, doing kid stuff, while the adults discuss the way they live and who’s going down into the town to sell and barter stuff. Very early on, we learn some things, most notably that Haluska and Adrian are having an affair. They go to a small door in the side of a hill, behind which is a large cave system, and where they’ve set up a little sex nest. Later, Jake and Shane find the door, and go into the caves. Shane gets lost, and things start to get a bit weird. The people searching for Shane can’t find the door to the caves, because Haluska and Adrian covered it up when they were returning from the town, as they decided to end their affair. But they can find no trace of it at all, which is odd. Then everyone except Haluska begins to forget that Shane even existed, and Haluska can feel it happening to her, too. So she has to do something drastic to get Shane back before no one even knows he was alive. What she does forms the climax of the book, but I don’t want to say too much about that.

Powell adds a supernatural element to the book – there’s something in the caves that seems to feed on secrets – but while it’s creepy, it doesn’t really add too much to the story. Mainly because it’s window dressing; Powell’s story, unfortunately, is a bit threadbare, so he comes up with something malevolent to add some drama. Really, this story is about some interesting themes, but Powell is too interested in Haluska and Adrian’s affair, which is the worst part of the book. It’s just an affair, and despite it occurring in a place where everyone is supposed to be free and jealousy supposedly doesn’t exist (the irony is present but not overbearing), it’s just people acting badly for no reason except they’re selfish. Shane’s disappearance and why people begin to forget him is tied into the affair, but Powell doesn’t seem to want to get into the malevolent entity enough for us to understand if it’s really there or if it’s in Haluska’s imagination. There’s also the idea of these people separating themselves from society deliberately and how the outside world views them. This is the South in the 1970s, so people living on a commune would be suspicious, and Powell hints around at this without being too obvious about it. He uses a rock band that shows up at a farmers’ market to make this point, as they are reviled by the conservative crowd, and he links the two groups together fairly well. But those things are secondary to Haluska trying to hide her affair and then figuring out how to find Shane, which is tied into the affair, and unfortunately, the affair just isn’t that interesting. There’s no indication that she and Adrian have much of a relationship, so why are they cheating on spouses? Haluska isn’t with Jake’s father anymore, but she was when the affair started, and Adrian is still with the mother of his kid. As the protagonist, Haluska is naturally going to be the focal point, but why does she pay so much more for the affair when Adrian is more actively hurting someone – Gene, Haluska’s ex, learns about the affair halfway through the book, but he doesn’t seem too bothered by it, and it’s clear he and Haluska split up for reasons that went beyond her cheating on him. Adrian gets away with his douchiness, but Haluska is made to suffer. Yes, Adrian loses his son, but he quickly forgets that Shane ever existed. So why is Haluska punished so harshly?

Ultimately, it’s hard to write a story about an affair, because it’s been done so much and there’s only so much you can do. By not focusing solely on the affair, Powell fails to add much-needed nuance to it, so Haluska and Adrian come off as jerks who care only for their own carnal desires rather than the damage they might be inflicting on others. Powell doesn’t come right out and say that living in a commune is supposed to make you transcend human emotions, but it’s implied, and that ironic situation has been done before, so it’s not that interesting. The supernatural element, which Powell likes to add to his stories, could become something, but it’s simply a more concrete metaphor for what happens when we keep secrets. Powell is too good a writer for the book to be bad, and he writes some amazing scenes and keeps us intensely interested because he knows how to create good characters whose fates we care about, but the overall plot is just either lacking or too banal. On the fringes, there are interesting things going on. At its heart, not so much.

Powell’s art is as stunning as it always is, which is nice. He gives us several double-page spreads showing the community and the forest around it, both suggesting its beauty (which is why people want to live there) and its isolation (which is why bad things might happen there). He also uses the pages well, often creating “borderless panels” that crowd out the actual panels, again suggesting the wide open spaces of the Arkansas backwoods. The cave, of course, is pitch-black, and Powell uses just enough light to suggest the creepy things in there and Haluska and Adrian’s love nest, which confuses Jake and Shane when they stumble upon it. Down in the village, he uses more traditional panels to suggest a slightly more cramped environment (it’s still rural Arkansas, so it’s not exactly crowded, but it’s more “civilized”), which is a nice contrast to the way Powell draws the commune. It’s interesting, too, how he uses smaller panels and more on each page as the book moves along, and we go from the freedom of the early part of the book to the secretive affair (Powell makes it appear that Haluska and Adrian are trapped in their secret) to the fear of Shane’s disappearance, as Haluska appears to recede from the rest of the commune’s denizens because she’s talking about something they know nothing about. It’s a clever device. Powell also does amazing things with the lettering – when Haluska goes into the cave at the end, he uses capital letters to suggest echoes, which is a neat trick. When Haluska begins to come clean about her affair to prove to Whitney that she knows the cave exists, Powell obscures the letters with splotches of color and then begins to jumble the letters, as Whitney can’t quite hear Haluska clearly. He also does nice work with louder dialogue, including the song that the rock band performs, which comes at us in bands of lettering that form panel borders, intruding on everything that’s happening at the farmers’ market. The lettering is part of the way the art works, and it’s really well done.

I like Come Again, despite the fact that the plot is fairly pedestrian. Fiction isn’t all about plot, and Powell does nice character work, especially with Jake and Haluska. The supernatural element makes parts of the book creepier than they probably should be, but it’s still neat to see some creepiness, and of course the art is amazing. Powell is a fascinating creator, so even something that’s a bit too banal for me is still a comic that has a lot to recommend about it. This doesn’t make me dislike Powell’s work, but it does kind of put my enjoyment of his work in a holding pattern. It’s interesting, but not great. Such is life.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

10 Comments

  1. fit2print

    As much as I respect your views as a comics critic, I’m curious to know on what basis you judge Powell “one of the best comics creators of our time.”

    While there’s no disputing that “March” is a masterpiece — credit for which is, of course, shared two or three ways — what little of Powell’s solo work I’ve seen suffers (in my not-so-humble view) from the same shortcomings that you identify here: threadbare plots, only mildly interesting themes, a sense of weirdness that is more window-dressing than essential thematic element, and (admittedly) intriguing characters who for whatever reason don’t develop enough to make telling their stories seem worthwhile.

    I’ll grant you that Powell’s art and lettering are stunning but, if “Swallow Me Whole” and “Any Empire” are any indication, I’d be hard-pressed to describe his solo work (writing-wise, anyway) as “satisfactory,” never mind “excellent.” (And, yes, it’s a very small sample size but it’s all I’ve got to go on…).

    You may well be heaping praise on Powell based mainly on his art, in which case I suppose it’s not quite so hyperbolic a statement as it seems at first glance, but I’m still curious as to which of his works you think has earned him that level of approbation.

    Frankly, if it meant we’d be treated to more artistic tours de force like “March” (and, to a much lesser extent, “The Silence of Our Friends”) I’d just as soon see Powell set aside his ambitions as a writer and stick to masterfully illustrating the scripts of others. (On a side note, I wish the opposite of Matt Kindt, whose work as a writer I can’t get enough of but whose skills as an artist leave me, to put it mildly, less than enthralled — hmm… Kindt-Powell collaboration?)

    None of this is to suggest I think Powell is undeserving of his share of the acclaim for “March” or that I don’t think he’s a top-tier comics artist — in fact, I’m impatiently awaiting the chance to feast my eyes on “Two Dead,” his much-anticipated team-up with Van Jensen — it’s just that I haven’t seen anything in his solo work so far that would motivate me to read “Come Again” or to search out any other titles he might have produced on his own.

    1. Greg Burgas

      fit2print: I probably should have worded that a bit differently … 🙂

      I think Powell’s artwork makes up for some of his storytelling deficiencies, even though I don’t think they’re as dire as you might. I don’t care as much about plots, so the fact that his plots are the weakest part of his comics doesn’t bother me. I think the way he integrates so much into his artwork to create a gestalt is astonishing, and his characters are brilliant, and while I don’t think he always quite pulls off what he’s trying to do, just the fact that he tells stories in such fascinating ways makes me appreciate what he’s doing. Maybe I went a bit too far with hyperbole, but I think Powell’s ambition, while not perfect, makes him far more accomplished than better writers who stay in their comfort zone, and the fact that he’s always pushing himself with his artwork is very much a part of my statement.

      As an aside, the weird thing about Kindt is that, although I don’t adore his art (I like it more than you do, I suspect), I think he does his absolute best writing when he’s drawing it himself. So I’ll take the brilliant writer with decent art rather than the decent writer with a different artist!

          1. One of the things that impressed me about Steranko’s SHIELD run is that even when the plot is a mess (the final It Was All A Dream issue, for instance), the visuals kept me hooked. That’s not typical for me.

  2. fit2print

    We probably see eye to eye on Kindt’s merits as a writer and, to be fair, I thought his drawing style was ideally suited to his pulpy and offbeat early indie books like “3 Story” and “Pistol-whip.”

    That said, since then he’s gone far more mainstream with series like “Mind Mgmt” and “Dept H,” a pair of high-concept works in genres (spy thriller and SF) where — whether the creator likes it or not — he or she is, in a sense, in competition with both past works in the same genre and the reader’s expectations as to the proper “look” and “feel” of such works. Judged in those terms (whether they’re fair is a separate debate), I really don’t think Kindt’s art style fits the material.

    Your results may, of course, vary (and very likely do) but as much as I love the storylines of both of those titles, seeing the artwork just makes me cringe a little and think of what could’ve been had, say, (off the top of my head) someone like Sean Murphy, Lee Bermejo, Mitch Gerads or Kindt’s own “Divinity” collaborator Trevor Hairsine — artists with a sense of both the scope and wonder typical of SF and the street-level intrigue of spy comics — tackled the art chores.

    To me, one look at “Grass Kings” is all that’s needed to confirm that the combination of Kindt’s remarkable versatility as a writer and the skills of an artist (in this case, Tyler Jenkins) whose style is seemingly custom-made for the material, can produce work that is truly a feast for both the eyes and the brain…. and worthy of its publisher’s stubborn insistence on packaging it (exclusively?) in prestige (read: “over-priced”) hardcovers.

  3. Simon

    Nice to know it’s worth investing some time into reading this mousetrap, even from torrents and other libraries.

    – “The supernatural element [is a] metaphor for what happens when we keep secrets.”

    Isn’t it more like a metaphor for what happens when people have kids without thinking of them?

    In DKR, the new Robin’s parents are so self-absorbed they eventually wonder, “Hey, didn’t we have a kid?” Here, it looks like parents so absorbed into their affair, their child evaporate. (Not unlike Berkeley’s unminded objects, or maybe how Marty starts vanishing in BACK TO THE FUTURE?)

    – “There’s no indication that she and Adrian have much of a relationship, so why are they cheating on spouses?”

    People seem to cheat like that when they feel trapped or bored, not unlike teens “cheating” on their parents to feel empowered. The thrill of illicit sex comes more from the intrigues, without the need for “much of a relationship”. (Even Alice Munro has stories dissecting such common cases.)

    – “Nate Powell is one of the best comics creator of our time”

    Yes, and maybe you could clarify your claim by listing those you peg him with?

    (Of “our time” with a body of work, Powell has to contend with such as Matt Kindt, Dash Shaw, Tillie Walden, Jonathan Hickman, Brandon Graham, Gabrielle Bell, Neil Gibson, Ezra Claytan Daniels, Michael Deforge, and thankfully more…)

    1. Greg Burgas

      Simon: Perhaps. That’s not a bad way to look at it.

      Having never cheated, I suppose that’s true. I’m pretty boring myself, though, so maybe I should keep an eye on my wife! 🙂

      That’s a really long post. Kindt would definitely be on the list, among others, but it would be a tough list to put together. Not a bad idea, though …

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