Graphic Novel Review – Any Empire
Any Empire is the last full length graphic novel that Nate Powell worked on where he was both the writer and the artist. Powell has since gone on to become the artist for Top Shelf’s March, which is written by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Lydin. Any Empire was first published by Top Shelf Productions in 2011.
The story is separated into two arcs, one where the leads are children and one where the leads are young adults. Both sections feature their fair share of sequences that are imaginary, and I would dare to reckon that most of the adult section is imaginary. Swallow Me Whole, Nate Powell’s Eisner award winning graphic novel, also featured sections were ambiguous in regards to whether or not they were taking place in reality.
Five characters are focused on: Sarah, a sharp and compassionate girl who is fiercely dedicated to helping wildlife. Gurdy, a child from a family with a toxic environment who takes his aggression out on others. Lee, a sensitive kid who has to endure moving from his home neighborhood and has to put up with the abrasive and insecure Gurdy. And two twins who give into their sadistic sides and murder turtles for fun. All of these characters rendezvous years later in a sequence that is hard to make heads or tails of without asking some important questions about the book’s themes.
Powell’s character artwork takes a slight, but noticeable change for this book. Namely, his characters start to take on a specific look when they furrow their eyebrows. It would be noticeable on its own, because it starts to appear after one character affirms their convictions, but it also stands out because it makes the characters look they phased in and out of Doonesbury for a panel. This specific scowl can be seen on the cover of the novel, being worn on Lee, who is the most emotionally balanced character, oddly enough. The first time it happens in the story, it appears on Sarah’s face, and it also appears on her face for the last time. These moods of hers usually signify an important shift.
The division of time, as well as what is real and what is not, is muddied because Powell goes full on with a concept he introduced in Swallow Me Whole. That concept being the dismissal of strong panel borders, instead using hazy line work around the edges of panels, or just leaving the edge blank when that part of the panel is white. Flashbacks and some imaginary segments are demarcated by having black gutters (the space in between panels). There is one particularly long and strange black gutter section in the second half, which makes me question whether is actually happened or not, and the strangest visuals included in it make their way into the last section with white gutters.
While the storyline of the book was somewhat murky for me on my first read through, the thematic elements aren’t as ambiguous. The glorifying of violence and war to young boys is harshly criticized, and the ramifications of acting out violent fantasies on creatures unequipped to defend themselves are blown out of proportion to a degree that the reader has to take them seriously. I can certainly recall a moment in my youth where I felt that I had to prove my masculinity by murdering a frog, an action which I look back on now with great shame, though it has such a small impact on the world at large.
Losing oneself in fantasy also becomes an action that is criticized by the novel’s subtext. Sarah, the novel’s single significant female voice as well as the single one that isn’t tied down to the trappings of toxic masculinity, serves as the force that shatters the power fantasies of various men by both holding them accountable for their actions (Pay close attention to the last image in the book, a few pages after where the ending is marked as being), and by subverting their expectations. She is, in my eyes, the protagonist of the story, but she isn’t presented that way by the marketing for the book. The fact that Lee is outwardly presented as the main character by being on the cover image may also be a statement on how female protagonists’ stories are undermined by the classic stories of warfare, violence and characteristically masculine traits that we keep getting told sell so well to mass audiences.
I had a hard time trying to place where to put this novel in terms of my rating scale. I bounced between Moderate and Special Recommendation after my first read because I had such a hard time getting through the ambiguity of the story and how it all pieced together as a sequential narrative. A second read and a reflection upon how much I have to say about it has moved it up to the Highly Suggested category for me now.