I stood slack-jawed as Nate Powell’s legendary band, Soophie Nun Squad, whooped and cinderblocked through a set at More Than Music Festival in 1998. His earnestness and zeal were a refreshing break from the increasingly common “we don’t put our band name on our record cover” genre of pretentious fashion punk that was increasingly bumming me out. I wrote Nate a fan letter in 1999 and Microcosm started to distribute his comics shortly thereafter. Nate and I shared the heart-on-sleeve DIY transparency of artistic youthful expression and in 2002 he booked Soophie to perform at my wedding. So Naturally, in 2006, when Nate expressed frustration that Soft Skull had again delayed the release of his third book, Sounds of Your Name, I agreed that Microcosm could publish it.
What I didn’t know about at the time is what Providence artist Mike Taylor refers to as “The Nate Powell Curse.” Taylor mentioned this to me casually when I was on tour in Providence later that year like the curse’s legend was as widespread as detergent samples and cereal box mascot lore. When we received the first 4,200 copies back from the printer, they were all were misprinted with the wrong line screen applied to each page and the cover, making every image appear grainy.
It was incredibly frustrating, costing Microcosm over $18,000 and drying up ten years of savings. It was also the physically largest book we had published and the boxes created a wall in the basement next to our office. But never fear, Nate Powell came to the rescue, creating an elaborate coupon scheme to sell off the first printing at half price with a redemption offer to purchase a corrected printing for $10. We joked that it would become the biggest punk scam of all time with bootleg coupons appearing in Kinko’s next to illicit free ice cream and Odwalla coupons. In reality fewer than 100 people ever took us up on it.
In a 2009 interview with me, Nate describes the situation thusly:
Nearly every comic I’ve had published in the last five years has been dead in the water—that is—it has some printing or distribution flaw or it’s overlooked by the publisher and immediately pulled out of print. Please Release by Top Shelf was the only exception. It came out perfectly. Sounds of Your Name took the curse to a whole new level—all 4,200 copies were horribly pixelated and non-returnable. They were sold at discount with an explanation and stuff, but the damage was done.
Slowly, new problems emerged. What is now called “metadata” became our newest, greatest foe as databases began warning buyers to avoid buying the book due to the misprint even after we had issued a new printing and a new edition with a new cover and ISBN. We had listed everything correctly but yet the data propagated incorrectly all over the Internet. It felt like banging my head against a brick wall once per month for about five years.
Again, from Nate’s 2009 interview with me:
I grew up believing I would never be able to make a living as a cartoonist, then fumbled a few chances to get on “the train” doing books for Vertigo or Dark Horse, and now I’m almost positive I’ll never be able to just draw for a living.
By the end of 2009, Nate had won the Eisner Award for “Best Graphic Novel” for his follow-up Swallow Me Whole. He was nominated for the LA Times Book Award as the first graphic novel since Maus. He had become a household name in comic stores.
None of us easily deterred, I met with Brett Warnock of Top Shelf who had since become Nate’s publisher. Brett suggested printing a postcard, offering a discount, and including a signed print to remind people about the book and get stores to stock it. Nate happily complied with creating a limited, full-color print and signing and numbering 200 of them. We launched the campaign and most buyers responded, asking if they could buy the book from Diamond Comics, the wholesalers who distributes to most comic stores.
I had to mail copies to Diamond three separate times before they were convinced that theSounds of Your Name books were properly printed. But by that point a year had passed and Diamond now took up the argument that fans weren’t interested in Nate’s early work.
Still, the availability for Sounds increased when Microcosm signed distribution deals with Independent Publisher’s Group and Turnaround UK in 2011. And Nate was making so many conference appearances that fans were clamoring for his “lost book.”
But even three years later when Nate was signed on as the artist for Freedom Rider and Congressman John Lewis’ March, we still could not convince stores to stock Sounds. Finally, in 2014 as Nate was featured in virtually every mainstream publication, was doing interviews on CNN, and became a New York Times bestselling author, Barnes & Noble bought several hundred copies of Sounds. Naturally, they ended up returning most of them over the following year.
So we’ve all clearly given the book our best effort but still excited fans of Nate’s are just discovering that it even exists every day. This story isn’t new or unique to this book by any means, but it’s been incredibly frustrating to witness it so closely and firsthand.
At long last, after ten years, we are finally letting the book go out of print for good, with the hopes of a new publisher repackaging parts of it with other odds and ends from Nate’s past sometime in 2018 or later.
It’s really been an honor to be a small part of Nate Powell’s story as his talent and work reach awe-inspiring levels, that he now rightfully earns his living from drawing comics, and as he receives more and more opportunities and achieves greater success than he even aspired to in 2009.