And he got to be almost like a ninja in Vietnam!
Nate Powell’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel Any Empire has continually defied attempts to synopsise the text as a whole, however, there are a few main themes that can be extracted. At its most basic level, Any Empire is about disaffected youth in small town America growing up and living out their lives against a backdrop of international wars and economic downturn. But it’s also a lot more than that. Any Empire also explores the history and consequences of American imperialism, the way patriotism can lead impressionable people astray, and the myriad of reasons people have for acting the way they do.
Lee is a kid who acts out elaborate fantasies about military life and war with his action figures, and a handful of pretty shitty friends who like to kill animals while he isn’t around. Purdy is from a poor household who trips on power and self-aggrandizment. Whenever Purdy can, he’s bullying Lee (his only friend) and boldly claiming that his father was a Green Beret and a Navy SEAL to anybody who will listen (you can’t be both). Sarah is the older sister of one of Purdy’s friends and spends her time investigating a series of mysterious turtle mutilations that have been occurring on the outskirts of town with Lee.
They then diverge to pursue different paths in life, to only come together again. Lee and Sarah bump into each other as adults and fall in love, and Purdy gets his arm blown off by a landmine while serving in Iraq and winds up leading a military exercise in their hometown, where the three unite in symbolic defiance of the systems that have governed their lives.
As the novel progresses, it becomes more and more like a fever-dream. Military helicopters appear over Lee’s treehouse (flying in formation à la Apocalypse Now) and tanks race through the school gym. The scenarios they act out start to parody the failings of an idealistic American foreign policy, with action figures shouting ‘I hope this really is the final battle’ and ‘We’ve got to save the world!’, all while running headlong into enemy fire. Lee and Purdy buy fragmentation grenades that look eerily like the slaughtered turtles, and in the novel’s hallucinogenic final scene, run into their past selves while swimming at the quarry.
There are beautiful moments woven through this nightmare of killing machines and bad decisions. The sequence where Lee and Sarah fall in love during a job interview plays out in a series of images sans text, though rendered in black and white, have an incredible emotional warmth to them. Similarly, watching Lee grow from awkward kid, beholden to the demands of his friends, into a man with his own identity and desires gives the story an optimistic bent – especially
when contrasted with the fate of Purdy, who finds himself an unwitting pawn of the military following his injuries overseas.
Still, the scary parts of Any Empire are what makes it a story for our time. Sarah’s quest to find the “turtle-torturers” evolves out of a desire to help the animals and into an obsessive need to Biblically punish the people involved, mimicking America’s changing role in the world from a benevolent policeman in WW2 to the vengeful executioner seen in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Purdy’s missing limb is replaced with a mechanical claw. Tanks rumble along American streets in an exercise meant to prepare the men inside them for urban warfare. Action figures that the children play with begin to bleed and die during their light-hearted games.
Powell’s art is stunningly dark and a beautiful style that contributes to the novel’s dreamy feel. He employs a minimalist black and white scheme that creates haunting images of small town America. The overseas wars that its inhabitants wind up fighting get stark full-page spreads, that give this otherwise microcosmic story a cinematic, wide-screen feel.
Any Empire differs from its contemporaries (books like the previously reviewed DMZ) in that it’s primarily about the emotional and cerebral aspects of war. Where DMZ used a journalistic viewpoint to transmit its message about the horrors of conflict at home and abroad, Any Empire opts for an examination of dreams, feelings, and images to create the atmosphere of distrust and uncertainty now associated with America’s involvement in current conflicts.
At its heart, Any Empire is about growing up and taking responsibility for things that might not necessarily be your fault, or accepting the consequences for the things that were. And the ending – though it might be a dream – suggests that when you do, the world will be a better place. Sound like somebody we know?