In the foreword to this brief, almost ephemeral graphic novella, Nate Powell writes that It disappears was never intended to be published. Comparing it to the folklore trope of the susceptibility of one’s true name to the power of magick, Powell declares the extremely personal nature of this work, a work he resisted releasing for fear of reifying it into something that others could perhaps take power over through their reading.
The personal nature of Powell’s work certainly comes through in spades. In fact, one might say the work is overly personal. Not that it gives us sordid details about the author’s life; rather, like the work of writers such as William Blake, It disappears is constructed around an obscure personal symbology that is nearly impenetrable. Even repeated readings do little to clear up the confusion and mystery.
Two narratives mix: in one, a young man camps in the woods and encounters two anthropomorphic, talking animals, a salamander and a doe. In the other, another young man, perhaps the same one from the first storyline, chats with a U.S. Army Vet in a barn outside of Flint, MI. The former storyline by far takes up the majority of the book, but Powell rapidly shifts back and forth between the two, with dialogue from the two flowing together. At times, it becomes difficult to tell whether some of the text originates from the depicted panel, or if it is from the other storyline, juxtaposed to provide a kind of outside commentary on what we see. Powell’s art adds to the sense of flow between storylines. The sketchbook style lines and simple black and white color scheme gives the work a uniformity, and the panels blend into each other, rather than being strictly separated by lines.
The main storyline seems concerned primarily with the nature of lived experience. As the scruffy-haired man builds his campfire in the woods, the very stars themselves tell him “You made it. You’re here.” He tries to explain this in literally mathematical terms, but the equation he posits is confounded by the talking animals he meets. Much of their dialogue consists of rather vague philosophizing, but it mostly boils down to the essence that Now’s The Time. The animals attempt to put the protagonist in touch with the reality surrounding him, that is, that experience is transitory, and that past and future are not so much realities as constructs. The only reality is the web of interconnected lives that exists in the present. There is even a slightly political tinge to some of the dialogue, as the animals suggest that the choice to act or not to act is the exclusive privilege of those in certain cultures where one does not have to struggle for survival.
The political elements of the book become much stronger in the second storyline. The former soldier recalls his path into and out of the military, which has led him to his solitary home out in the Michigan countryside. For him, it is a form of protest against the things he has seen and done, a way of rejecting the system of violence and aggression. His young friend questions him, however, pointing out the selfishness of the veteran’s resistance. What truly does ignoring such problems solve for the oppressed, the violated, and the tortured?
What exactly it might accomplish is left unanswered, but Powell does not come down necessarily on the side of action versus inaction (or, “non-action” perhaps). Whether the young man enjoined to take advantage of the right time in the here-and-now or the older man living a slower, more spiritual existence are right or wrong is not answered. What is more important is that a choice is made, a course of action (or lack there of) is chosen deliberately, rather than merely stumbled upon. While not as memorable as Powell’s longer debut work, Tiny Giants, It disappears has a certain charm of its own. Despite its somewhat impenetrable nature, the brevity and humor of the book will ensure that it is never too far from one’s stack of reading material. Perhaps not a truly “deep” work in the traditional sense, this short meditation on existence has enough thought and inspiration in it to make it one of those well-liked texts that every now and again one will read just for the experience and brief moment of existential questioning.