Created by: Nate Powell
Published by: Top Shelf
ISBN: 1603090770 (Amazon)
In a pretty wild display of my country’s militarism, the US Marine Corps ran some close to full-scale training exercises in actual American cities. Dayton. Birmingham. Boise. In order to simulate for soldiers the difficulties involved in urban warfare, the marines were tasked to carry their training, complete with helicopter drops and in some cases live ammunition, through the civilian streets. At least in some cases, areas were cordoned off in an effort to protect citizens from, well, injury and death. In others, city-dwellers were given the opportunity to play a part in these exercises. Some saw these events in a dim light and really, for the already mistrustful public, what does it say when a nation’s military practices invading its own cities?
That’s probably neither here nor there so far as concerns Any Empire. Probably. But let it be known that until after I finished the book the first time and did some poking around, I had no idea that this sort of thing happened. And that ignorance cost me a perfectly enjoyable experience on my first read-through. I had gotten to this point in the last third of the book and I was just completely baffled, thinking that Powell had without enough warning taken readers into the same surreal territory as he had in Swallow Me Whole. (If you’ve forgotten Swallow Me Whole, the male protagonist talks to a wizard the size of his fist and the female lead becomes the Queen of Insects.)
Oh yes please, let’s!
But see, he hadn’t. I didn’t know it at the time, but Powell’s finale is largely literal. Based-on-true-events kind of stuff. Certainly there’s a bit of subjective magical reality going on, but the stuff that happens there at the end? It happens.
I wish I had known about these maneuvers before I had read the book. That’s why I led off with the stuff. It would have helped a lot and made my first reading more enjoyable. Which would have been great because Any Empire is an incredibly rich book. Heck, it’s an incredible book. And that my first experience of it should have been less than stellar just makes me sad. On the inside.
Any Empire is an exploration of the essentially violent worlds that many of us have grown into. Powell’s male lead, Lee, grows up in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s reading Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe and imagining his town a war zone. Visually, Powell projects these imaginations and visions into real space, showing how strongly they exert their force upon Lee’s interpretation of the world around him.
Worst date ever.
Tip for the kiddies: never ever text on a date.
Similar forces play on the perspective of Lee’s neighbour, Purdy. An insecure child, both bully and bullied, Purdy is at odds with a world that he cannot understand, a world that doesn’t care to be understood by him. He’s not quite a bad guy, but he’s not good enough not to be. He too lives in a militaristic imagination and even during his childhood, the reader sees that he is a bit unhinged from any sort of plausible take on reality.
It’s as Powell follows these two through their lives into young adulthood that we see how their affections for the implements of war have impacted their lives. Powell creates a couple worthwhile lessons here, but even if those are his main point, he doesn’t seem to feel any need to belabour them. Powell says his piece through several moments and leaves the story to unfold itself.
He definitely has things to say both about our culture of violence and the human affection for war, but Powell spends time on the healing side of our nature as well. Any Empire's female lead, Sarah, cares deeply for animal life and goes to great lengths to secure the welfare of any injured creature she discovers. Just as Lee lives in a world propped up by G.I. Joe, the clockworks of Sarah’s world grinds under the direction of Nancy Drew mysteries. And these affections follow her into adulthood. While as a child, she investigated the abuse of the local turtle population by a gang of ruthless children, as an adult she makes investigative housecalls for child services. Both are thankless jobs, but she pursues them because it was in her nature to do so.
It’s Sarah and her mom who drive home the lesson that not all people are such as those described in 1939’s classic animated short, Peace on Earth—a powerful, anti-war piece that Powell uses to good effect in one of the book’s more poignant scenes. In Peace on Earth and its 1955 remake, Good Will to Men, some animated squirrel children (or mice in the remake) ask an older animal what men are, referencing the lyric “Peace on earth, good will to men.” The grandfather figure explains how men were terrible creatures, bent on destruction, and how even when there were only two left, those two still ended up killing each other. It’s a fearsome picture and I recall vividly the first time I saw Peace on Earth as a child. Powell uses this story to lead into a powerful moment between Lee and his father, but it’s seeing Sarah live out a life counter the film’s example that really sells the idea.
Powell retells the film beautifully,
even if they were squirrels in the original, not mice
Powell continues to show himself a creator who is absolutely worth paying attention to and Any Empire may even be better than Swallow Me Whole, which was sublime. The great thing about these books (I mean, beyond the stellar art) is how well they stand up to multiple reads. Powell crafts a rich tapestry of both visual and narratory tricks that serve to inject subsequent investigations with a freshness and interpretive excitement. Any Empire is a good book, a great book.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
3 Stars = Good
2 Stars = Ok
1 Star = Bad
I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
Review copy submission may be facilitated via the Contact page.
Browse Reviews By
- Popular Sections:
- Top 100
- Top 75 by Female Creators
- Kids Recommendations
- What I Read: A Reading Log
- Best Books of the Year:
- Top 75 of 2015
- Top 75 of 2014
- Top 35 of 2013
- Top 25 of 2012
- Top 10 of 2011
- Other Features:
- Why I ❤ Zita the Spacegirl
- 31 Days of Comics
- Bookclub Study Guides
- Publisher Spotlights:
- 31 Days of First Second
- 10 Days of SelfMadeHero
- 20 Days of Vertical