Nate Powell’s second graphic novel, Any Empire, is about youth and war and violence, played out in a small town somewhere in the American South. His art is slicker than his first outing, more constrained and concise, but still very much in the same humid, sticky vein as 2008’s Swallow Me Whole. Our main protagonist is a kid called Lee, a seasoned outsider thanks to the constant uprooting effects of his father’s job in the Air Force, which means he and his family are routinely shifted all over the country for work (just one of the many autobiographical glimmers throughout the book: Powell’s own family moved around a fair bit before settling back in Little Rock, Arkansas, when he was about 10). Regularly presented with new schools and new friends (or enemies) it’s little wonder Lee clings to comic books and fiction, his only reliable constant. In one particular panel you can feel his desperate panic when the most important facet of his small life is threatened: his mother shows him an advertisement for what will soon be his new local comic book store, with the iconic outline of Batman silhouetted against the store’s logo. In a dripping word balloon he cries “They’re more of a DC place! I collect MARVEL! THIS RUINS EVERYTHING. WHAT AM I GONNA DO?!”
Fiction plays a large part not only in the lives of these characters (essentially it’s a book about what affects us most when we are most easily affected) but in the way we identify them and their agendas. There’s Lee with his G.I. Joe comics, living a relatively sheltered tree-house and TV life where – despite a connection to armed forces – war is still essentially a fiction, and Sarah, single-handedly solving the mystery of turtle mutilations with a Nancy Drew book tucked under her arm. Then there’s Purdy with the snarling, punchable face, collecting grenades from the army surplus store and forcing his gang to pulverise the shells of local turtles when not reading Lee’s stolen G.I. Joe comics (he hasn’t the balls the do it himself). He’s the archetypal Sid in Toy Story, mutilating the population of the toybox. They all lead their vaguely intertwined lives as kids do, brought together by schools, by boredom, by interfering mums and simple geography, until the book climaxes in a moment of magical realism when the characters meet again, in adulthood, face to grimy face.
It’s a story told not chronologically, but by flipping back and forth in time, so we see how each character’s experiences with violence (real or not) have seeded their future lives. Does fiction really have that lasting an effect? I think so, and evidently so does Powell. But the strength to which that is exercised in later life (i.e., Do violent video games in youth equal a violent adult?) is more to do with an inherent wrongness from the outset (case in point: Purdy). From the childhood-as-history angle it’s a book not so much about children, but about adults trying to figure out how they ended up they way they did and where it all began: the culmination of things that meant the most in a time when we felt things deepest, the effects of story on malleable minds.
I read this book a month ago in the midst of the London riots, when the sounds of police helicopters could be heard overhead and just streets away kids were tearing the city to pieces or – lest I am accused of hyperbole – at least kicking its windows in fairly violently. The item with the most soaring popularity on Amazon.co.uk that week was the aluminium baseball bat. It was a frightening place to be, and most of us hid in our houses away from the city’s youth, theorizing on the Internet as to why this was happening. I’ve spent the intervening time trying to figure out why Any Empire fell flat. I thought Swallow Me Whole was a stunning debut – there was life in the loose illustration, and a recognizable truth in the story. Much like the new one, it was full of bugs and grime; there was a palpable Southern humidity to the whole thing that took you somewhere else. The elsewhere effect was strengthened even more by its young protagonists, their mental illness portrayed not as something heavy and black, but something that just left them sort of untethered, ungrounded; lost, with nothing to pin them down.
So at the end of Any Empire I felt like I had missed a point, that it was an embarrassing personal failure on my part that this book made me feel nothing at all. Over four weeks the cogs in my head have been deconstructing and reconstructing the whole thing, much like staring out the nightbus window, piecing together a badly told joke told in a pub and rewiring the punchline. But in the end we’re still left with a beautiful book with great ambitious ideas, and I just don’t know what to make of it.