Any Empire, by Nate Powell

Title: Any Empire
Author: Nate Powell
Publisher:  Top Shelf Productions (2011)
Bought this copy: from Nate @ The Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF)
More Info: Top Shelf’s synopsis, ordering info, and more reviews

What It’s About:  The story follows the life, in several parts, of rural American Lee Powell against the influential backdrop of militarism in America. Jumping around to different points of the boy’s life in a complex (and somewhat transparently autobiographical) way, Powell is confronted at different times in his life with the purpose and meaning of violence in society—from childhood social groups to the maintenance of modern nation states.

Lee begins to hang out with a group of neighborhood boys who have a “gang”. In order to get in the club, Lee is told, he has to do some bad things. He and the other boys are challenged with the acceptance of their peers or the pull of their conscience. For some, their decision leads to love and happiness—for others, anger and despair. But the road is longer for some than others.  Sorry, I just realized how much of a spoiler this review could be.

Thoughts:   This book comes across as a touching small-town story that observes as much as it tells of the impact militarism on American society. On a technical level, ‘Any Empire’ is a testament to author and illustrator Nate Powell’s capacity for narration. He frequently allows a series of panels to pass in the middle of the story without a single text bubble. I love this—it makes me think that the story, instead of being told by someone, is telling itself. Suitably, the subject matter Nate often chooses is fitting for this layout, whether it’s in the socially awkward interactions of his work Swallow Me Whole, or racism and its effect on children, like in The Silence of Our Friends (this story, illustrated by Powell, was co-written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos).  Silent images truthfully convey that these social idiosyncrasies rarely interact with words when we are in those situations, which makes the comic narration all the more touchingly real.
What’s more to appreciate, the dialogue–when it comes around, that is–is so believable, lending one to be sure that at least part of this comic came from real conversations in Powell’s personal history.

The boy, ‘Lee’ Powell is such a typical American boy. Raised by a veteran, he reads G.I. Joe comic books, plays with toy soldiers with a deadly seriousness, and dreams of fantastic combat.  Even his “anti-social behavior” seems normal to me as someone who also grew up in the Midwestern U.S.—despite the comic showing his parents worrying over the matter.

Contrast this with the depiction of Purdy—who, on the outside, appears to be no different than Lee. But then the layers begin to unfold. Purdy has a rough family upbringing; raised on fast food and poor parenting, picked on by an asshole brother, his pull towards the fantasy of militarism is stronger and more distorted than Lee’s. He truly believes that being a soldier will bring to him honor and dignity where he has only felt shame and embarrassment his whole life. This ultimately affects his most crucial decisions. The two boys go down very different paths as young men, only to meet up at the crossroads.

CRITIQUES (Spoiler Alert):

Some things in this story aren’t clear to me. I often give a book or movie the benefit of the doubt on this point, and just chalk it up to me not being observant enough. But now that I’m doing reviews, I guess I should be honest when I read something and just don’t get it.
Most importantly, I didn’t understand how this comic ended.  How did Purdy decide to go AWOL so easily, after so little contemplation? He had so much wrapped up in being a soldier, and arguably, no reasonable cause was offered/depicted in the story to make him think otherwise. Do the twins go AWOL as well? In one scene, they are shown diving off a cliff with Purdy, absent without leave. In another, later on, they have guns pointed at Purdy, Lee, and Sara. This conflict doesn’t seem to reach a conclusion.
Is the story really set up to be 99.9% realistic—only to have 3 people (who didn’t used to get along) team up and flip a tank with their bare hands at the very end?
Lastly, what’s in the damn Turtle Killers box? It drove me crazy. Seriously, it doesn’t matter?

Favorite Spreads:

There is so much social commentary in each of these pages… from Sara as a young girl doing her best to save the turtles just as the boys carelessly destroy them; Sara’s mom coming home from work and, exhausted, trying to offer her daughter the best advice she can. Nate took on a lot of different ideas to put this comic together, but that’s how we should be looking at the issue–with multiple adjoining parts.
An excellent scene is when Purdy meets up with his younger self and tells him that he’s an AWOL soldier. I only wish that this conversation was elaborated upon a bit further—meeting up with a younger version of yourself is something that so many of us recognize as a powerfully meaningful vision. What would be the most important thing you could say? Would the younger you listen? I wish this had lasted a little longer.
My most favorite layout, however,  is relatively early on when Lee and his sketchy new friends go to an army surplus store to buy old defective grenades. As Lee is handed his very own almost-ish-explosive, he takes note of his surroundings: above his head hang a variety of flags. There is the standard U.S. stars and stripes, but also the Confederate Stars and Bars; and also a Swastika of the Third Reich. It brings the name of the title home—all violence, weapons, and war… are vehicles, vessels, and empty shells. There is nothing inherently patriotic (or revolutionary) about a weapon. Their content and purpose is the property of the intent—any intent, any empire—that they serve.

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