Thursday, January 19, 2012

Any Empire

by Nate Powell

There are some stories that can only be told in comics, and Nate Powell's Any Empire is a perfect example of that.  His story, about childhood in the outer fringe of suburbia in the 80s, is about as impressionistic as a story can be.  I feel like I missed out on some of the nuance, but still enjoyed the originality of Powell's vision a great deal.

Lee is a solitary, self-absorbed child with a fascination for GI Joe and warfare.  He fills his days imagining daring assaults on the backyard barbeque or picturing helicopters circling overhead.  Powell shows his imaginings as taking place within the same frame as the real world, so while Lee walks one way through a field of tall grass, we see a patrol of grunts coming the other.  We see his slightly-altered Snakeyes and Lady Jayne going through the motions of attacking Cobra bases all over the backyard. 

In Lee's circle is a kid named Purdy, who is a vicious little guy.  He too shares some of Lee's interest in war, but he also always has to be the alpha male in any group; this leads to problems for him with The Twins, a couple of thugs in his age group who like to torture the box turtles that live throughout the area.

Sarah is a girl who lives around there as well, who is fixated on helping small animals, especially the turtles she keeps finding with cracked shells.  She fancies herself a young Nancy Drew, and so investigates the mutilations, and keeps a slightly disturbing journal.

As with most childhood acquaintances, these three kids circle each other without actually becoming friends.  As people move away, they drift apart, although eventually they all meet up in the book's conclusion, which I'll be honest, I'm not too sure of.  Powell's incorporation of fantastical visions makes his plot a little hard to trust; the reader is left asking if what he's reading is really happening, or is one character's flight of fancy.  Powell used similar techniques in his first graphic novel, Swallow Me Whole, which dealt with issues of mental health.  The two books work well together.

Any Empire is a solid read, even if I am coming away from it with more questions than answers.

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