Sunday, March 18, 2012

GN Review -- Any Empire / Nate Powell

I've read other reviews of Nate Powell's Any Empire, where the reviewers are more familiar with his work, and likely a lot more adept than I am at teasing out thematic significance from his stories.  It was a necessary undertaking for this review, as I was left confused by several parts of the story, and found myself wondering how much of this realistically told story was based in actual fact.  As it turns out, there's more realism to this story, particularly towards the end, than a casual comics reader might suspect.

At the beginning of Any Empire, we see several plot threads revolving around three characters, starting with young Lee being uprooted from yet another community due to his father's military career.  He escapes by reading G.I. Joe comics and imagining the trappings of war as part of his life.  Purdy, one of the first boys he encounters in the story, is a little unbalanced, his own father also a military man, and leads a gang of boys around town.  It is later discovered in the story that these boys are mutilating turtles, which the final character, Sarah, finds and, with a little assistance from Lee, figures out who's doing it and promises to punish the boys for their cruelty.  As they grow into young adults, their lives drifting apart and then reconnecting, they come face to face with the violence that has influenced and shaped their lives, as a military exercise in their hometown has unforeseen consequences for the former neighbors.

With all that said, there's a ton going on in this story that I'm not touching on.  Powell tells a riveting tale, at times with a vague, almost detached quiet, that emphasizes the loneliness and isolation that these characters experience.  We have a boy whose escape into comics is so pronounced that he gets upset when his latest moving experience promises to put him near a comic shop that is more DC-friendly than Marvel-friendly.  Sarah is mostly alone in her hunt for the turtle assailants, pressed on by a sense of compassion and justice that simply won't let her rest until she figures out who's doing it.

The story also places a strong emphasis on violence, and how it can affect people over a long time.  Lee isn't particularly violent, but his occasional military daydream and his obvious resentment at having to change communities so often sow potential seeds for it.  Purdy, on the other hand, leads a gang of boys in the mutilation of turtles, and acts out much more aggressively with his violent, military-inspired fantasies than the comparatively low-key Lee.  He acts violently toward Lee for reasons unspoken, and he steals from others and makes aggressive attempts to control all situations.  Even Sarah, in her pursuit of justice, lets a violent tendency overtake her when she balefully questions her brother's involvement in Purdy's turtle activities.

The ending, involving Purdy turning on his miltary unit when they roll into their hometown on some kind of military exercise, redeems Purdy somewhat, but reconnects him with his past, which has undoubtedly influenced where he ends up at the end of the narrative.  Lee and Sarah are astounded that the military would take part in such an activity on civilian land, giving her a perverse glee at the end of the story when the soldiers find her evidence of the turtle killers.

I came away with a sense of having missed a lot of the point of the story.  I think the non-chronological telling contributed to this, but I'm also pretty sure there's just a lot about the author's experiences that inform this comic that I'm just not familiar with.  All in all, the writing is not bad, but I'll probably need to re-read this to get a fuller sense of fulfillment from it.

Artistically, Powell does an excellent job of conveying emotion and tone through facial expression, scene composition, and action.  I did find myself getting a little confused by some of the characters--for instance, I thought for a while that Purdy was Sarah's brother before finally realizing that he was a different character--and would have appreciated a little more distinction there.  Still, there's no denying that the artwork is striking and beautiful in places, and it will help keep the reader moving through the narrative.

Overall, this is an interesting story with good artwork.  I feel like I may need to re-read it at some point to get more meaning from it, but what I did manage to glean was intriguing.  Those who like realistic fiction and stories about the influence of military and violence on people's lives should give this a read.  Recommended.

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