I’m sure that anyone who is a frequentor of this column probably knows who Nate Powell is. Why wouldn’t you? He won an Eisner Award for his last book on Top Shelf, Swallow Me Whole, and he even had a guest appearance in the comic book Sweet Tooth. I don’t think you need much better indie cred/press than that! So if you’re here now, I’m going to venture a guess that I don’t need to verbally illustrate who Nate Powell is.
However, I’m going to venture a guess that you have not read Any Empire – at least, not yet. It’s currently set for an August release (and you can pre-order it from Amazon.com right now), and considering it is the tail end of May, that means we’re in the pre-release buzz time – and that’s exactly what I’m here to do.
Take a look after the cut for some thoughts on Powell’s follow-up to Swallow Me Whole.
Before we take a look at what Powell has done with his new title, let’s take a moment to briefly look back on what came before. Swallow Me Whole saw Powell take two step-siblings who each dealt with different psychological problems, and the story follows them through their difficult adolescent years where they are struggling to come into their own while dealing with the darkness that is their encompassing world. The story was both a dark spirited tale against the use of drugs and medication, as well as a somewhat uplifting tale of the power that resides within ones self to overcome personal demons that sometimes only you can actually see (literally and figuratively).
Now we have Any Empire. Any Empire is not a direct sequel to Swallow Me Whole, but can be easily seen as a spiritual successor to it. While the connection is loose and a tad esoteric, it’s still there. Any Empire does not follow step-siblings, but rather three young and impressionable children on three intertwining journeys throughout life that eventually cascade and collapse back into their roots. In the same vein as Swallow Me Whole, the story is not read straight through as an account of actual reality, but rather a metaphorical romp through the imaginative eyes of children who are confronted with the world of war. It’s a story about the impressionable youths and how our actions today can and will eventually influence their future, just as the actions of our own fathers had effects on ours. It’s both real and imaginary, and ultimately a rather beautiful, if not rather dark, story about how our childhood can shape us into the adults we become.
Powell’s voice is a very strong one. While the story is told intermittently from the voice of three different characters at two different ages, Powell never fails to capture the voice of the various forms of youth. The children in this story are definitively children, faced with quandries and situations that are entirely reminiscent of the average youth (the tree-house scene rings particularly true to myself). They are immature, they are selfish, but they are also innocent and true to form. While a lot of the story does somewhat deal with the imagination of a child, it deals with it in a more realistic way for the medium that shows the myths and realities of what a child wants to believe and what actually exists. The cover alone is a great description of what lies within the pages of a book: this is a story of children who think that playing war is cool, but it’s also a story that follows the reaction when one child grows out of this and one doesn’t.
There’s of course more to the story than the analogues. It’s a turtle murder mystery; it’s a coming of age; it’s even an ode to comic books. Any Empire is similar to Swallow Me Whole in that it is a rather vivid story of growing up, although this book includes the added element of rediscovering your home. Powell’s brilliance here is that he manages to create a story that is ultimately a fantasy, but one that is realistic enough that it draws the reader in to the narrative and shows exactly where the reader fits in. There is this wonderful thing about “slice of life” comic books that not only allows a writer and/or artist to play around with what is visually familiar, but also tug on our own heart strings and help us to remember experiences of our own lives that draw us into the story of the protagonists more evocatively. You may not connect with everything in the story, granted; I never knew anyone who killed turtles. However, I do remember other kids stealing my belongings for no other reason than they wanted and that now it was “theirs”. There is more than enough to read here in order to see yourself.Continued below
I have more to say about the book, but there’s ultimately no way to talk about the ending without spoiling what is – without a doubt – a tremendously big moment that is also entirely subjective to the reader’s own imagination. It’s something that can be read both figuratively and literally, with different endings that appear as a result of both. However, while you can wait until the book comes out to read the ending, I will say this: it is the only logical and possible ending that this book could ever have had. If you’ve read a book like Asterios Polyp and adored the finale as much as I did, then an ending like the one contained within Any Empire – which is similarly disorienting, in a fashion – is exactly the type of ending you want to see.
Suffice it to say, Powell does a fantastic job with the book. It’s a wonderful book, and it’s very well illustrated. It’s always inspiring to see a creator follow a powerful and beautiful story like Swallow Me Whole with a book like this, and fans of his previous work will not be let down. Powell is only getting better with time. His illustrations are much more resolute here, firm in their presentation but still open ended in their interpretation. Powell does a great job with the mixed timelines of the story as well, clearly defining the different characters throughout the different ages as they grow up and move on to more complicated problems of their young adult lives. Powell’s handling of the environment is particularly noteworthy, with the world the characters inhabit full of rich detail and the characters themselves being slightly cartoonish, offering an impressive disconnect between the fictional characters and the very real world that they inhabit. It’s quite an interesting parallel to see, given the context and themes of the book.
So while Any Empire is still a few months away from release date, I can’t help but actively encourage you to pre-order it either online or at your local comic book shop. Fans of Powell’s past work will be very pleased to see the quality of his follow-up, and the book is of course absolutely perfect for readers looking to just get away from the average book on the shelf. Any Empire is just one of those books, that you can read and see reflections of yourself on the pages. It’s a story that can infinitely personal to you, and it’s one that is clearly personal to Powell himself. It’s a dark look at the impressionable youth of our world, but it’s also a hopeful tale of growing up and finding your place in the world, both through your environment and who you were – through Any Empire.