Nate Powell’s Any Empire weaves together past and future with the imaginations and realities of three elementary school classmates who encounter each other again as young adults. The paranoid culture they grow up in seeps into their childhood play and fantasies, which in turn affect their later lives. Powell depicts this with admirable restraint, focusing on minute details and seemingly random moments to piece together an engaging and provocative story that invites multiple readings.
Lee is a solitary kid with an active imagination, who fills the space around him with visions of daring raids and adventures plucked out of the G.I. Joe comics he loves to read. He winds up on the outskirts of a group of boys who play war games, led by the bossy, short-tempered bully Purdy. Meanwhile, animal-loving, Nancy Drew-obsessed Sarah has her eye on Purdy’s gang; someone has been torturing turtles and those boys are her prime suspects. Her bitterness against those who would hurt the innocent continues into adulthood, when she works as a child services agent. Circumstances bring her back together with Lee, whose fascination with war has subsided in favor of other pursuits, and Purdy, who wound up joining the army and is sent back to drive over his hometown in a tank as part of an Operation Metropolis exercise.
The story unfolds with minimal exposition, which creates a feeling of intimacy; it is necessary to read closely and pay attention to details in order to understand what is happening. Powell conveys a good deal about his characters through body language, facial expressions and the objects in their homes. At the same time, there is much that is never revealed. For example, Sarah’s conflicted relationship with her brother as they grow older is hinted at, but never fully explored. In providing so many intimate details while only hinting at others, the story feels real and immersive. I cared about the characters and wanted to know what would happen to them.
The storytelling borders on surreal at times, which can make some sequences confusing. Powell uses visual clues to differentiate different elements of the story such as feathery panel borders for sequences in the past and solid borders for present scenes. However, these details aren’t immediately apparent and take a bit of studying to figure out. Some scenes blend fantasy and reality together, such as when Purdy imagines an alternate version of his life or when he encounters his younger self. These scenes all work in unique ways to tell the story, but can lead to confusion. Because the real and imaginary are sometimes shown together, it is easy to misread much of what happens to Purdy as imaginary. This misreading can rob some scenes of their power, especially those intended to show the real consequences of Purdy’s actions.
Despite the fact that one of its central themes is violence, there is not a lot of graphic violence in this book, at least not when compared with many mainstream comics. There are some upsetting images however, particularly those of the mutilated turtles, as well as characters drinking, smoking and swearing, so it is probably best for teens and older.
Some readers may be frustrated by unfamiliar storytelling conventions, but others will welcome the unique experience this books provides. I highly recommend it to any devoted fans of the comic medium, as it displays unique qualities of composition and narrative while telling a thought-provoking, resonant story.
by Nate Powell
Top Shelf, 2011