Few comic-book artists understand the power of darkness like Nate Powell. Darkness hides potential horrors, but it can also create intimacy, bringing people together by keeping the rest of the world out of sight. Powell fluctuates between these two facets of darkness in his new graphic novel, Come Again (Top Shelf), often bringing them together to add a sense of foreboding to moments of intense passion between lovers having a secret affair.
Haluska’s romance with Adrian, her married long-time friend, is complicated by the fact that they both live in a small, off-the-grid “intentional community” in the Ozarks, but they’ve found a place where they can disappear to be together, a hidden cavern containing a malevolent presence that thrives on their secrets. The doorway to this cavern is the first image of Come Again, emerging from in a two-page swath of black. This small doorway is surrounded by foliage, with thick chunks of grass creating sharp teeth along the top of the entry to immediately give it a sinister quality. These opening pages are a prime example of how Powell uses darkness to set the tone and scale of the story. Those dark two-page spreads create an ominous emptiness at the top of the story, which is then filled by the lush natural imagery of Haven Station’s surroundings as the perspective zooms in on Haluska’s personal journey.
Coming off of the massive success of the March graphic novel trilogy—winner of multiple Eisner Awards and the first graphic novel to receive the National Book Award—Powell has a higher profile than ever before, which means higher expectations for his work. Come Again is a very different story than March’s autobiographical history of Representative John Lewis’ experience during the civil rights movement, much smaller in scope and untethered from reality, particularly in its final act. There’s an undercurrent of social commentary, but Powell is ultimately looking at one woman’s attempts to make up for the mistakes of her past, taking a mystical shortcut to absolution that dulls the emotional resonance of the story.
Powell explores a shifting cultural climate as he delves into an isolated community born from of the hippie movement. Outside of Haven Station, the ideals of the “love generation” have become passé as the rest of the country deals with the fallout of Watergate and the Vietnam War plus the steadily growing tensions of the Cold War. Powell doesn’t hit this idea too hard; the winds of change are most aggressive during a scene where a punk band plays at a local market, infuriating the locals with the explosion of noise and combative lyrics. Haluska doesn’t have any personal attachments to the punk movement, but she’s visually tied to the group by her unusual hair, which has one side buzzed short because she recklessly trusted her son with clippers.
The relationship between Haluska and Adrian is primarily defined by its secrecy rather than a deeper emotional attachment. There are flashbacks to the start of their flirtation when they were first discovering Haven Station, but these fill in the edges of their romance instead of getting to the core that has sustained an affair for eight years. There’s plenty of passion when they get physical, but there’s much more to be pulled from their complicated relationship. Powell isn’t interested in that, though, and the overtly supernatural turn in the narrative allows him to work around the consequences of their affair and both parties’ accountability for their actions. The impeccable visual craft of Come Again does a lot to make up for this weakness in the narrative, immersing the reader in an environment and society that is more engaging than the central relationships.