Any Empire is the latest graphic novel from Nate Powell, a cartoonist with an impressive pedigree of work stretching out across the last decade. His previous graphic novel, 2008’s Swallow Me Whole, racked up an impressive list of accolades, most notably an Eisner Award for Best Original Graphic Novel in addition to being shortlisted for the LA Times Book Prize for Young Adult Fiction.
Any Empire is a complex knot of a book and one likely to provoke a wide range of emotions in the reader. What is not up for debate is the mastery of Powell’s visual storytelling which is evident from the opening panels. Powell embeds his drawings with stunning narrative precision. It is, for long stretches, a quiet book, composed of nearly textless sequences sparsely punctuated by dialogue. What dialogue there is deceptively powerful, more often characterized by what it doesn’t come out and say rather than by what it does.
In a story driven so absolutely by the art, Powell’s aesthetic choices inform the tone throughout. His line work recalls that of Sam Keith while inheriting almost none of Keith’s manic attention to texture or labyrinthine layout strategies. Powell uses caricature without allowing it to become shorthand for how we are expected to feel about characters. No one is particularly beautiful or ugly but allowed to stand with flaws so that their actions define them as desirable or otherwise. His approach to page design serves the story at every turn with no discernible template emerging as his intent shifts from segment to segment.
With a story that unfolds over a decade, beginning in the 1980s, Any Empire uses language and setting very carefully to evoke the passage of years, ringing true in a haunting fashion to those who experienced them firsthand. Powell’s manipulation of time in the book is fascinating, with past, present and future intruding in on one another. Any Empire emphasizes the fluidity of our experiences—how the past not only influences the future but shapes our understanding of the present. It accurately reflects how consciousness often ignores the boundaries between them in making connections that might otherwise be lost.
The characters are complex and, at once, familiar. People are simply allowed to be with the scars of their upbringing left visibly on the surface for the reader to appreciate. We are given the space to admire, despise, pity and, sometimes, root for them without being invited fully to push them into one box or another. Static characters inform our understanding of the more dynamic ones but eventually drift out of the story and become mere references for the players within it.
Within this matrix, Powell explores a number of heady themes. The story dwells on the means by which the casual violence of childhood festers into more horrific forms—chance events gently nudging characters in one direction or the other until the profundity of those accidental vectors can be clearly seen in a character’s eventual destination. Powell also mixes in subtle conversations about the relationship that people cultivate between the places they live and how that effects who they eventually assume that they are.
Long sections of the book have the patina of autobiography superimposed upon an odd narrative that doesn’t differentiate between the actual, the possible and the fantastic. There is a tension between memory, reality and fantasy in Any Empire that becomes progressively insistent. The first half is more linear, with only occasional intrusions of the future upon the past. It begs to be read as an accurate account of how things were, what characters experienced and (in some cases) endured. It contains forays into the fantastic but they are usually delineated as such, acted out by exaggerated and archetypal constructs of the characters’ minds that are firewalled away from the events of the story.
As it moves into its later sections, however, this line becomes increasingly blurred until, by the ending, the fantastic exists alongside the mundane in such a way that it is difficult to say what happens and what is imagined. This tendency reaches a climax in the ending to such a degree that the more newly introduced elements may seem jarring or forced to some readers. After three reads, I’m not certain whether the ending “works” in the traditional sense.
That said, Any Empire is not a traditional kind of story and Powell’s unflinching examination of the moral/ethical motivations of his characters doesn’t really cry out for a simplistic resolution upon its conclusion. The reader is left with a strong sense of who these people are and the winding paths they traveled to arrive at the place we leave them without Powell’s precluding where they will travel forward from there. The effect feels intentional and serves the greater themes of the book earnestly.
One of the most compelling things I can leave you with regarding Any Empire is the suggestion that there are dozens of elements and interpretations contained within its pages that haven’t even been touched on in this review. It is a frictionless read that is pregnant with dense possibilities. It is also a fitting testament to the thousands of hours that Nate Powell has spent at the drawing table improving his craft as both artist and storyteller. It left me eagerly awaiting the next work to emerge from his pen even as it coyly invited me back for another read.
I don’t expect to resist that temptation for long.