Any Empire by Nate Powell

Any Empire
by Nate Powell
Top Shelf, 2011

A very American example of magic realism, where the military service of the fathers become fables, and wild backyards are darkened with boredom-killing fantasies of death and violence. Lee is continually playing soldier in his mind, but his games are relatively innocent compared to the psychopathic army-obsessed Purdy, who plays with grenades and is cruel to animals. Sarah, far more compassionate and cerebral (she proudly wears an “I Read 100 Books” t-shirt), discovers someone in the neighbourhood is mutilating turtles, and becomes obsessed with bringing them to justice.

They grow up and fulfill their mediocre potential, Lee and Sarah happily reconnecting (Sarah works for Child Services, a thankless job, and Lee has just sort of drifted) while Purdy has joined the army and lost his arm to a landmine, foreshadowed by one of Lee’s broken action figures. Alternative futures and pasts fold in on each other as a newly-cybernetic Purdy leads a training exercise staged in his old hometown. And that’s where things become complicated…

The anti-war message of this book is subtle, shown in the unpleasant progress of Purdy from a nasty control freak bullied by his older brother to a mid-level killing machine, and in the saturation of the characters’ childhoods with military paraphernalia and role models. Lee moves on from reading war comics to reading music magazines, while Purdy is still buying defused fragment grenades and drops out of high school. There’s a double-page spread showing a procession of military history’s Purdys marching into a grave, like an Evolution of Man timeline that never evolves. A younger Lee watches the classic anti-war cartoon short Peace on Earth and immediately identifies with “MEN like them, those big monsters with the masks!” to the dismay of his kind ex-Green Beret father.

The artwork is exceptional, the intricate borderless brushwork rendering high fields of mischief-concealing wheat, expressive dialogue balloons, and the blank, strained faces of the protagonists with equal skill. Powell’s equally-unsettling book Swallow Me Whole is also recommended.

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