The Anxiety of Change
Tiny Giants is a difficult book to read, and a difficult book to classify. This collection, by young, underground artist Nate Powell, relies more on mood and atmosphere than plot and exposition. At first read, many of the stories just sit on the page. Flipping through the book, you may finish and wonder just what it is you’ve been reading. It sometimes seems like nothing has really happened.
But after some time has passed, strange images begin popping into your head. It may be the vision of two kids, decked in Halloween costumes, standing in the middle of a dark road. Or, it may be the image of a young girl objecting to the broken heart hanging over her head, screaming at the reader/writer, “I don’t love him!” while her oldest friend drives down the street. Or it might be the sight of a teenager casting a brick through the window of a dentist’s office.
As these images take hold in your mind, you may find yourself drawn back to Tiny Giants. There is something about the rough, black & white & gray stories that Powell tells that draw the reader back again and again. It isn’t so much what happens in the stories that grabs hold of you. Precious little really seems to happen in most of them. Instead of narratives leading towards a grand climax, Powell strings together small events in a series, loosely linked only by pervasive, subtle emotions.
The emotion captured most often in the stories is the sense of alienation. The characters, mostly young, are stuck in that transition from late adolescence to early adulthood. Struggling to find a sense of meaning, a sense of belonging, a sense of direction, they exist moment to moment, attempting to recapture the sense of innocent happiness lost years before.
Powell’s art is also striking, and perfectly compliments his writing style. For close-ups, he has something of Paul Pope’s expressive and detailed style, although without the often exaggerated features that distinguish Pope. Powell’s scenes range from meticulously composed scenes to chaotic, barely legible sketch work, yet even when there isn’t strong visual continuity from one panel to the next, it is seldom noticeable or jarring, and the figures remain recognizable.
Despite the melancholy tone in many of his stories, Powell does give the reader reason for a sense of hope, if not happiness. He resists the temptation to tie things up neatly or present simple answers. But there’s never a sense that this isn’t it, that there is something beyond the final panel. There isn’t a beginning, nor is there an end. It’s just a series of moments, some good and some bad. Life moves on for the characters in the stories, and for the readers.
If there is a theme for Powell’s work, it is the ordeal that is change. The moments of transition from one phase of existence to the next are marked by trauma, anger, sadness, and suffering. They are also marked by ecstatic joy, nervous energy, fearful optimism, the hope that things will turn out all right, but the curious feeling that sometimes, maybe even most of the time, they don’t. Even the lighter moments are tinged with a kind of jouissance, a near unbearable mix of pleasure and pain.
But if there is a message in Powell’s work, it is that the ordeal is transitory, and like everything, pain passes. It may be relieved, it may merely be dulled, but it isn’t forever. In a world of change, not even change is constant, and tomorrow is another day. It isn’t quite that cheery—no “the sun will come out tomorrow” here—but there’s always the sense that hey, if you screw up things today, try again tomorrow. You may not get it right, but at least you get the chance, and you’ll always have the memories. And you’ll keep coming back to them, again and again.