Reviewed: Any Empire by Nate Powell
(Top Shelf Productions, 2011)
Arkansas native Nate Powell is a jack of all trades. Having achieved some success in a number of punk bands, Powell also manages a small record company, Harlan Records. For ten years he did this while working fulltime as a caregiver for adults with developmental disabilities. Powell has also been self-publishing comics since the age of fourteen. Now, with so much experience and his unique point of view, Powell is producing complex and elegant visual narratives. His 2008 graphic novel Swallow Me Whole, a compelling tale of adolescents struggling with mental illness, won an Eisner award for Best Graphic Novel, as well as two Ignatz awards and a nomination for the LA Times Book Prize.
In his follow-up graphic novel, Any Empire, Powell brings us a story of children coming of age in a culture saturated with violence. Like Swallow Me Whole, this story is set in a fictionalized version of Powell’s hometown of Little Rock. Any Empire explores how children grow up perceiving war and brutality. His young characters are raised to embrace a myth of glory and moral justification that becomes harder to swallow with age and experience, and Powell illustrates how that relationship to violence ends up shaping their lives as adults.
The narrative follows three characters from childhood into young adulthood: Lee and Purdy, two boys who enjoy G.I. Joe comic books and movies like Platoon, and Sarah, a more sensitive girl from their neighborhood. Lee is a stand-in for Powell himself, indicated by the last name “Powell” stitched onto the breast of Lee’s father’s military uniform.
Lee’s elaborate fantasies of war and combat are weaved into the story alongside reality, allowing the reader to experience these daydreams with the same childlike wonder that Lee does. Powell’s loose, fluid lines and meticulous hatching breathe life into his characters and environments and give a rich dynamism to these more fantastical elements of the story. In the sequence below, Lee and his friend Purdy play on a construction site; Lee sits at the wheel of a bulldozer, imagining it is a fighter jet. While the first two panels appear without distinct borders, the fighter jet is closed off from the rest of the narrative—the image is contained within the panel borders just as it is a contained experience within Lee’s imagination.
The boys use these aggressive make-believe games in an attempt to display bravery, and to prove themselves as men. The narrative of Any Empire oscillates between these fantasies and reality, as well as between past and present. This complex narrative structure can be a bit disorienting at times. The jumps in time are often brief, there to illustrate a parallel between the adult characters and the events of their childhood. The page below, for instance, depicts Lee as a child reading comic books in a tree house, and then again as an adult reading magazines at the grocery store. These two moments in time are blended together to create one image, highlighting that some things never change.
Just as quickly as we skip ahead in time, we are propelled back again in the page that follows, where Sarah is trying to solve a neighborhood mystery just like the heroine in her Nancy Drew novels. Like the boys in the story, Sarah also sees herself as the hero in a narrative of violence. Rather than casting herself in the role of fearless leader, however, she sees herself as more of a caretaker, rescuing injured animals and bringing them home for her mother, a nurse, to repair.
Like the boys, Sarah must accept the realities of violence as she grows up. Despite her best intentions, she cannot save every injured creature she finds, even with the aid of her mother. Powell’s unique layout design adds a solitary quietness to the sequence below, in which Sarah and her mother bury one of these less fortunate creatures. The white space is utilized to add pause as we read. The bottom image reaches up on either side, unhindered by panel borders, as to suggest this moment encompasses the other two.
Both Lee and Sarah move into different homes in the story, an experience familiar to Powell, who comes from a military family. Moving can be a traumatic experience for a child – a different kind of violence. These shifts in proximity force the children apart. As adults, however, they are thrust back into each other’s lives, somewhat serendipitously. The climax of the graphic novel combines their adult storylines with flashbacks, fantasies, and subjective reality.
Any Empire is a book that is at once a social commentary and a coming of age story about life in small-town America. Powell explores the perception of violence in our culture while he follows the lives of these children, their development into adults, and the impact of the choices they make in the process. In the end, their adult lives collide with childhood fantasies, forcing these characters to decide between taking control of their own reality or succumbing to the hostility of the status quo.