Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Any Empire (from Top Shelf and costing $19.95, for those who need to know), Nate Powell’s follow-up to the brilliant Swallow Me Whole, was supposed to be less of a fever dream and more of a narrative so that dumb people like me wouldn’t end it by scratching our heads and wondering when the next episode of 19 Kids and Counting was coming on to ease our puzzled minds. (Seriously, that chick is pregnant again? GodDAMN!) So I bought Any Empire, and I believed Mr. Powell when he told me (to my face, even!) that it was more straightforward than his first book. Don’t you fucking believe it, is all I can say. How can Mr. Powell live with himself when he’s outright lying to those people (like me) who are too moronic to realize it? HOW CAN HE?!?!?
Of course, even a rather dim bulb like me can see that Any Empire is superb, perhaps not the best graphic novel of the year but definitely in the conversation. Powell understand that the word “fantasy” does not need to mean a world populated by elves and goblins and wizards, but that it can exist in a small town in Alabama and in the minds of its children, who create their own worlds because their world is too dull to stimulate them. “Fantasy” for Powell means crossing the line between reality and dreams, so that Any Empire evolves from something that seems prosaic and becomes almost surreal. It’s a comic with long stretches of wordless art that sucks you right in, and when someone does speak, it feels weightier than normal, even if the actual words are commonplace. Powell doesn’t dazzle the reader with fancy speeches – his characters speak like regular folk – but because of the situations in which they find themselves, the words pack an extra punch. Like a select few comics creators, it’s maddening reading Powell’s work because you gnash your teeth at how damned good he is with seemingly so little effort (that’s not to denigrate Powell, whom I’m sure works very hard at his stuff; it’s more a testament to his talent because it only appears he can do this kind of stuff in his sleep).
Lee, Sarah, and Purdy are three kids living in Wormwood, Alabama, in the 1980s (Powell set Swallow Me Whole in the same place, if I’m remembering correctly, and there’s never any indication why people would name their town “Wormwood,” which has many negative connotations). It’s probably 1987, as The A-Team is still on the air and the kids watch a video of Platoon, but it doesn’t really matter all that much. Lee is a shy kid who creates fantasy worlds using characters from G.I. Joe comics (changed just enough so Powell doesn’t tread on any copyrighted material); Sarah reads Nancy Drew books and tries to figure out who’s torturing and in some cases killing turtles; Purdy is an angry kid who hangs around with sociopathic twins and tries to dominate his relationship with Lee. Lee and Purdy have active imaginations; they’re not unlike many kids wiling away the days, turning their toys into vast armies and stealthy ninjas. They’re largely friendless, and so they gravitate toward each other, but Purdy is kind of a jerk, so he doesn’t treat Lee like an equal friend – he’s more of a psychological bully. Lee fights back in his own, passive-aggressive way, and the relationship doesn’t evolve in a terribly healthy manner. Meanwhile, Lee tries to help Sarah figure out who’s killing the turtles, but even so, he can’t bring himself to make any kind of move toward being her friend. Of course, real life intervenes, as both Lee and Sarah change houses during the course of the book, shaking up their worlds even more (although they don’t leave the town). Slowly, Powell lets the kids grow up, and when they reconnect years later, they still have some of the same issues that plagued them in childhood.
Powell blends fantasy and the “real” beautifully in this book, which is part of the reason why it’s so challenging and enjoyable to puzzle out. When Purdy joins the army, we see it as simply an extension of his childhood desires, as he has some issues with violence, a domineering older brother, and some father issues (I’ll get to those). He also follows the twins into the military, so he’s still unable to escape their shadow. Lee eventually gets together with Sarah, who works for a child protective service – she’s obviously still trying to help the less fortunate. Purdy crashes back into their lives (literally) and the three of them must decide what they stand for and how they will become adults. Powell never beats us over the head with it, but one theme of the comic is courage in the face of adversity and what it means to transition from childhood to adulthood. Some make it faster than others, while some never quite make it. In the end, only the individual can decide where to make his or her stand. Does Purdy grow up when he joins the military? Not really. Does Lee grow up when he finally asks Sarah out? Possibly. The nice thing about the book is how tantalizingly vague it is – kind of like real life. Even when the three are confronted with something that seems concrete, Powell messes with our expectations, which gets back to the blending of the real and the make-believe. This entire book could, conceivably, be the manic musings of a dying man. At one point, it’s presented as “real” when we suspect (and it’s later confirmed) that it’s “make-believe.” That’s kind of the point: ultimately, it doesn’t matter; ultimately, what matters is how we react, not whether the situation is grand or not.
Interestingly, as the book is about growing up, Powell doesn’t neglect the kids’ parents. They certainly aren’t perfect, but they’re trying as best as they can, and they show their kids a way to live that the kids can choose to reject or accept. Sarah’s mother is single, apparently, and raising a troubled son and an empathetic daughter, and she naturally gravitates toward Sarah (especially as she appears to be a doctor or a nurse). Whether Sarah’s brother, Josh, would benefit from a father’s direction is unexplored, but it’s certainly out there. Lee’s father is in the Air Force, and the shadow of the Vietnam War falls over this book just a bit, even though it’s never really discussed. Purdy’s father is in the National Guard, and one wonders if Purdy joined the military because he was ashamed that his father was never in the “real” army. Violence, of course, looms over the entire book, from the “war games” the kids play to the way Purdy re-enters the story when the kids are grown up. Again, without making too big a deal of it, Powell shows how parents influence their kids even if they don’t realize it. Could they have had a more direct influence? Sure. But would the kids have rebelled against it? Who knows.
Powell’s art, as usual, is wonderful. He evokes a suburban/slightly rural setting beautifully – this is a place with fields and forests but also bland housing tracts, so the kids have many places to play but also a taste of banality. The fantasy scenes are tremendous – tiny tanks in a pile of sand become war machines clanking across the desert, while in another sequence, two characters/action figures who resemble Scarlett and (possibly) Snake Eyes (although he talks) attack a “fortress” – a charcoal grill in Lee’s backyard. Powell moves very easily between fantasy and reality, which helps him when he’s trying to blur the lines – later, when some scenes are “make-believe,” his art helps sell the illusion that the events are really happening. He’s very good at the quieter moments, too – when Sarah tries to lure a bunny out from the field by her trailer, Powell does an excellent job making the art feel naturalistic, so we can almost feel the breeze as Sarah crouches, carrot in hand, and the bunny looks at her suspiciously. He changes styles occasionally, too – when Lee watches a bizarre, post-apocalyptic cartoon in which men have killed each other and mice now rule the world, Powell uses simple pencil work and foregoes inks, giving the images a more sketchy and even hallucinogenic look. Powell’s design work, which was such an integral part of Swallow Me Whole, is also on display here, as his lettering becomes part of the panels, weaving between characters, leading the reader’s eyes where Powell wants them to go, and even, as song lyrics, drawing Lee in when he arrives at Sarah’s birthday party (the song is “Ice Ice Baby,” which adds an extra layer of absurdity to the proceedings, despite the popularity of the tune when it was first released). Powell, as we’ve seen before, is very good at telling the story through his art. He takes his time, too, and very often he’ll show silent, full-page panels of the landscape, creating moods of despair or innocence or power of even joy. He pulls back on some important events to show how indifferent the larger world is to what’s happening to these characters, which both helps put them into context and, in a strange way, maximize their struggles – no, the world might not care, but these are still important matters that people struggle with. Powell’s artwork on this book is less oppressive than it was on Swallow Me Whole (which isn’t surprising, given the tone of that book and the tone of this one), but it does show how versatile he is, which is nice.
While I am still scratching my head about some aspects of Any Empire, that doesn’t mean it’s not excellent. It’s a comic that can be dissected many different ways, and I’ve only touched on a few of them. Powell takes mundane subjects – normal kids, normal adults, a fairly normal town – and makes them mythic, turning Any Empire into a uniquely American epic without making it obvious or even nationalistic. It’s a powerful book that demands your attention and your reflection. Nate Powell has shown that he is a force to be reckoned with in comics and in fiction. He’s already working on his next book, and I can’t wait to read that sucker, either. I really can’t recommend Any Empire enough.
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.