Nate Powell, 'Save It for Later' (Abrams / 2021)

Nate Powell’s Graphic Non-Fiction ‘Save It for Later’ Urges Readers to Remember the Trump Era

Life during the destructive Trump era spurred a new level of activism. Nate Powell’s collection of comics essays, ‘Save It for Later’, wants to keep that fire going.

Save It for Later
Nate Powell
April 2021

Nate Powell’s Save It for Later collects seven graphic memoir essays that guide readers through events leading up to and after the 2016 US presidential election. His cartoons often appear in undefined panels, occupying a space between dream and memory as Powell’s hand seemingly visualizes the dissociative experience of witnessing the terror and destruction in America in rapidly documented transient sound clips, tweets, and push notifications. He illustrates events including the response to the never-named previous administration’s “Muslim Ban”, which resulted in protests in airports and cities across the United States in January 2017.

But he interrupts his own documentation to ask, “But you remember that, don’t you?” Questions like these lead the reader to pause, a great achievement of his work, to stop, think, and stare longer at our contemporary history. He asks readers not to forget, not to look away, but to remember what we can achieve when we come together. Save It for Later argues for solidarity in family, community, and across the nation now and for the future. 

Powell brings into focus images of those energized to fight for positive social change following the 2016 election’s terrifying results. His essays illustrate his family’s response to violent executive orders, the Women’s March, life during the COVID-19 pandemic, and more, as Save it for Later chronicles the rapid turn to autocracy and the erosion of our democracy that is facilitated by the institutions that we believed would preserve it.

He draws his criticism from his patriotism, which he recognizes has taken a new form in the past decade. Powell reflects on his personal development as he tells the story of seeing a man in a Nazi costume at Comic-Con in 2014, a moment when he was not brave enough to say something. While others did confront the man, he deflected, claiming, “it’s just a costume.” However, we know now that it was more than that. The story offers valuable insight into how the 2016 election changed so much for Powell. But the chapter runs somewhat short and feels rather like a message to comics fandom specifically, not the same audience as that of the remainder of the book.

While Powell depicts many such disturbing images from the last nearly decade, one figure remains undrawn, haunting the work from the proverbial gutter: that of the previous administration’s executive, whose inauguration stimulated many of the protests documented here. Removing this figure from the visual register valuably refocuses our sight on the forces that led to Trump’s election, including the plague of white supremacy. Powell remains hopeful we can fight racism through solidarity. That’s fitting for a book dedicated to the late Congressman, John Lewis, whose image and words urge our march toward progress. 

Looking upon these cartoons of recent history prompts the reader to ask, why might these events, some of which appeared on our screens only months ago, now need new reflection? It’s because Powell’s comic successfully disrupts the practice learned from current news cycles, which record over the immediate past with the newest breaking story overwhelming and overwriting what came before. As narrator, Powell pierces our defenses when he asks, “did you roll your eyes?” as he breaks the fourth wall illustrating moments from the day after the election.

Save it for Later reignites that urgency we felt on 9 November 2016 by populating the story with images of his daughter standing up for others at school or being overcome with anxiety about COVID-19. Witnessing the impact of our political turmoil on a young child, drawn as an anthropomorphic dog, makes her all the more memorable. It disrupts the cycle of reading about this terror through illustrations of push notifications on our phones, which we might have responded to at the time with frustration and outrage — until the next life-altering event happened, leading to exhaustion and political slumber. 

In a reprieve from the doom scroll before bed, in a very moving scene in the graphic memoir, Powell cartoons an essential ritual with his children: the bedtime story. He lovingly depicts reading Lewis’ March series (2013-2016) four times to his daughter. Powell is the illustrator for this story of John Lewis and the Civil Rights movement. He reflects on how she learns from each reading as she looks upon the images of the Civil Rights movement over and over again, every time with fresh eyes and new questions. Almost as if Powell is reading alongside us during our own bedtime story, he interjects with his questions to raise our consciousness.

As the images of his story beckon us to stare at his depictions of America’s recent history, his questions lead readers to reflect, refusing us the luxury of scrolling past what we do not want to see. Save It for Later does not report to forget, but rather documents to remember, locating past, present, and even future on the page all at once with a narrator who leads us by hand through the darkness.