By Nate Powell
304 pages, black and white
Published by Top Shelf Productions
Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole in 2008 was a disturbing book in the best possible way, one that racked up its share of accolades (including an Eisner Award, two Ignatz Awards, and a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize). At long last, his major-length follow-up is here, Any Empire. And while in many regards it’s a quite-different book than Swallow Me Whole, it does share some slight similarities. Like its predecessor, Any Empire plunges the reader into the minds of three teenagers, and you might not like what you find there.
Any Empire shifts back and forth between the teenage and adult years of its three main characters; Lee, Sarah, and Purdy. As kids, they’re worried about fitting in with their classmates, moving across town, and figuring out who keeps mutilating box turtles. They’re problems that they try to solve in a manner that only children do, inspired by Nancy Drew or perhaps trying to wiggle into a personality hole that you don’t truly fit into. In many ways it’s this half of the book that spoke to me more; the problems are big in part because they are big to the kids, but also because in many ways they’re precursors for what’s to come in their lives. You feel for them because all three of them are trying to find their own place in a world that seems so much bigger and nastier than what any one of them is ready for, and the idea of them out in it and alone is a worrisome one.
If all we’d had in Any Empire was that half of the book, it would have been a success. But Powell takes Any Empire a step further; instead of making us wonder how these events will shape them for what’s to come, we get it as well. In some ways it’s this adult half of the book (interspersed among the childhood pages) that is more heartbreaking. Purdy, who always seemed the most lost out of the three of them, has chosen a path that promises him that he’ll belong, but if anything he comes across as the most out-of-place in the world of adults. It’s an uncomfortable, sad path that he’s gone down, and one that rapidly shifts from bad to worse. Lee and Sarah at least feel a bit more in touch with the world around them, each trying to still move forward. Seeing Sarah—who during the school years was the most proactive in trying to make the world a better place—on a career path that has her still trying to help others is probably the most refreshing part of the entire graphic novel. Her job may suck and it is soul-crushing in parts, but she’s still out there giving it her all and it’s a pleasant moment to realize that life hasn’t managed to entire slap her down.
The ending of Any Empire is an odd one, and it’s hard to discuss the book without giving away what initially feels like a huge incursion of surreality into the book. But without talking about too much on what happens, a quick note to future readers: it’s actually based heavily on what really did happen in our past. Powell takes a little talked-about, hard-to-believe project of the armed forces and applies it to Any Empire. It’s bizarre and initially took me off-guard, but after a little research (and realizing that no, Powell hadn’t made this up) I was that much more impressed that Powell was able to integrate it into the book in the manner that he does. If anything, the surreal nature comes about in part because of the townspeople’s reaction; you feel just as off-kilter and confused as they do.
Of course, Powell’s art is as attractive as ever. His thin, delicate lines swirl and wisp around the page, and his characters all wear their hearts on their sleeves. From their relatively innocent faces early on, to the more weary and beaten down expressions on the later pages, I find myself impressed at how well Powell has aged them to make the different eras immediately distinct while still making them look like the same people. The pages are well laid out, too; progression from one panel to the next is smooth and fluid, and something as simple as some shading in just the right places can help establish the weather, from bright and sunny to dark and cold.
Any Empire is, like Powell’s previous book, a story that delves into the inner psyches of its young characters as they shift from childhood to adults. It doesn’t give any easy answers, but the journey from start to finish grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. Any Empire might not have that immediate hook that all readers are looking for, but I think those who start it will be pleasantly surprised with the journey.