Power Out, Nathan Schreiber’s Xeric award winning story of a boy’s journey to self discovery after – you guessed it – a power outage is back, on MTV Geek. And this time, the book won’t just be completed, Schreiber has taken the opportunity to go back to the original and make tweaks and changes. To find out more about the complex process – as well as why these changes make him want to puke – read on:
MTV Geek: You’ve been working on this book for a long time, how’d it first get started?
Nathan Schreiber: For three years I designed prints for women's underwear at fashion companies in Manhattan. While this was a comfortable (if somewhat bizarre) living it never satisfied me in any substantial way. When I got laid off in the beginning of 2008, it just seemed like the perfect opportunity to work on this story that had been kicking around in my head.
Geek: Just reading through your Blog, it seems like you’ve had some great kicks in the pants for keeping it going, from the Xeric, to Angeloume, to now MTV Geek… Since I know a lot of writers struggle with keeping the inspiration going, how important have these moments been, and have there been any others?
NS: These have been absolutely crucial! I think if you didn't know anything about me and you saw that I won a Xeric, got nominated for an Eisner, got a residency in France, etc, you might think I've lived a pretty charmed life as a creator. And I have been very blessed, there is no doubt. But while making Power Out I've had some extraordinary lows as well - I lived illegally in an art studio (without a shower) for over two years, smashed my left arm to the point where I now have seventeen permanent screws holding it together, and have been generally living pretty desperately ever since I decided to devote my full attention to comics, which pays next to nothing! It's been tough so I'm quite grateful for any help I can find.
But more than any award or prize, I owe a tremendous debt to my family and friends, particularly the Brooklyn comics community.
Geek: Okay: what’s the book about?
NS: A mysterious power out grips the entire east coast, isolating a brother and sister from their parents and each other. As the siblings explore and learn to survive in an atmospheric, de-powered landscape, the clinically anxious brother and buoyant yet flighty sister begin to learn all they've taken for granted in a contemporary, apocalyptic take on Hansel and Gretel.
That's my two sentence elevator pitch and I'm sticking to it!
Geek: What can you tell us about Justin?
NS: In a lot of ways, Justin is like a fourteen year old drug addict. In this instance you might have to replace "crack" with "Resident Evil 4". When you're an addict, it's not really about getting high - it's about escaping your life. And Justin has a lot of reasons to want to escape - he has tremendous problems interacting with people, he's cursed by the low expectations of his family, and he has the overwhelming urges of a fourteen-year old with no real outlet. Who would want to engage with this reality? It's difficult because even though the world is hard and unfair, you're going to have to deal with these kinds of problems if you want any sort of positive change. He's jealous of his sister's "normal" teenage existence but really has no clue how to get there.
So to spoil the plot somewhat, a power out happens, things get weird, and Justin gets a choice to either engage his reality or withdraw from it. And as with any choice, he's going to have to deal with the consequences of his decision.
Geek: How about Carrie?
NS: Carrie is the type of buoyant, impetuous, socially engaged teenager constantly looking for the "new": new experiences, new people (particularly boys), and new ways to get into trouble. But while she flies by the seat of her pants there's a genuine desire to please others and be liked. She loves her brother and even though her clumsy attempts to "fix" him aren't terribly productive they are motivated by a desire to ease his obviously unhappy existence. The power out forces Carrie to look at her own life with different eyes; her introspective "letters" are some of my favorite moments in the book.
Geek: What about the setting? Did you have a particularly epiphany-filled black-out one time or something?
NS: No lie - I came up with the idea for Power Out listening to the Arcade Fire song of the same name. I moved to New York a year after the big blackout in 2003 and was surprised when people described it as an overwhelmingly positive experience. So that stuck in my head. And one time I was just listening to Funeral and the story just wrote itself.
And then rewrote itself again about twenty times after that.
Geek: When you’ve been working on this, have you had any ridiculous power-out experiences that helped contribute to the book?
NS: Absolutely! I’ve been in way more power outs after starting this book then I ever did before. I had to help my brother pack his entire house during a three day power out. That was without plumbing as well. And I was without power in Massachusetts for three days in the winter. Not fun. It always rearranges your head a little bit though, and you remember things you take for granted.
Geek: Now, with the book coming to MTV Geek, you’ve made some changes… Why was this important?
NS: There was a point where I was working on Power Out and I thought I had a clear vision for the book, but I just looked at some dialogue I wrote and realized something major had gotten away from me. Not the best feeling when you've already sunk two years into a project! The smart thing to do would probably just be to finish what I had there, minimize the damage and finish everything up promptly and move on. But I'm a stubborn idiot and wanted to get this right - I wanted a proper bridge to the ending I envisioned, and this required some serious tinkering with the architecture. I think it's a better story now, and it's much more cohesive.
Geek: What can previous readers expect to be different?
NS: I'd say it more clearly articulates my vision of who the characters are and what they are specifically dealing with. I originally wrote Justin as a kind of cypher, but he's a little too much of a weirdo to be a cypher. So I've kind of embraced his weirdness full-on, really fleshing it out. There's a scene I love where his sister has tried to set him up with a girl and it's just...excruciating. Funny, but painful in a touching way.
And the relationship between the siblings gets stronger. I have tinkered with Power Out a good deal - I'm probably way too sensitive to how other people respond to my work - but one thing I've noticed with every go is that Carrie's role tends to grow each time, until with this (final!) version it has evolved into the core of the book.
And the witch/neighbor changes dramatically. I won't say much about it here because this will really feel "new" to anyone who's already read Power Out, but there really are some great scenes here.
Basically, it's more cohesive, has more suspense, it's funnier, and has better plotting and characterization.
And I think it looks better.
Geek: You brought in an Editor to help you… Other than a sounding board, why was it important to bring one on board?
NS: Working on a comic - particularly an independent comic which you're doing all by yourself - is a pretty solitary experience, and there's only so much light you can find up your own ass.
And I didn't just get "an editor" - I got Tucker Stone, who's probably the guy who's opinion on comics I trust more than anyone else. Tucker really understood what I was trying to do - I can think of one scene in particular that would have been totally contrived and stupid and Tucker pushed back and now it's one of my favorite scenes in the book.
Geek: I’d imagine that beyond the text, you’ve grown artistically in the past few years – how has that changed your process with the book?
NS: Oh crap, just reading this question makes me want to shoot myself in the face. MY WHOLE DAMN process has changed. I mean I'm working on larger paper, have a completely different method for backgrounds, and have just generally gotten much better at conveying the subtle emotions Power Out was created as a vehicle for in the beginning. That all sounds good but when I see older pages and panels...ugh. And the changes from newer stuff to older stuff? I mean I can only hope it's not as glaring to readers as it is to me. I can't redo the whole book because...well I'm just not THAT stupid, but sometimes I want to. Seriously I think I just puked in my mouth. Next.
Geek: Moving on then… This started with Act-i-vate, which has been a pretty amazing incubator for talent. What was your experience like with the site?
NS: Act-I-Vate was, and still is, a great experience. Easily the best part was interacting with such talented creators. I owe a great deal of my professional development to those guys. Tim Hamilton, Dean Haspiel, Simon Fraser, Mike Cavallaro, Michel Fiffe, Leland Purvis - I couldn't imagine what kind of cartoonist I would have been if I had never met those guys.
Geek: Okay, for those who never read Power Out before, tease us: why read this story?
NS: If you're still reading this interview and can't decide whether you should read this story, one of us, or possibly both, is hopeless.
I can promise you this: you have not read anything like Power Out. There's no crack team of assassins making snappy jokes to their bumbling fish-out-of-water scientist pal as they kill their way to turning the power back on. This is a disaster film where the disaster is incidental; a quiet, believable apocalypse with an unlikely protagonist who tries to get away with completely rejecting society. It's a haunting, vivid dream that explodes like a bomb in a silent movie.
Geek: And for those who have, why come back?
NS: Everything you liked is better, and everything you didn't like is fixed.
Besides, don't you want to see how this ends?
Geek: Lastly, anything else you want to plug?
NS: Since you mention it...
I just finished illustrating a book called Health Care Reform with MIT economist Jon Gruber that explains the new health care law. Definitely a different project than Power Out! That just came out. And this fall I'll be doing a comic for indy-publisher supreme Retrofit, probably some kind of weird genre mashup experiment. I have carte blanche, which is exciting, but maybe I'll start off with an editor this time.
You can read the first part of Power Out by clicking the image below!