Yesterday Kim and I received our preordered copy of Any Empire, the new graphic novel by my comix man crush, Nate Powell.  I’ve powered through it twice as of this morning and am already looking forward to a third read (after I get some work done, of course!).  Published by Top Shelf, the book is scheduled for release in August, although if you order directly from Nate, copies will be shipping out on July 19th, and you’ll also be giving your money directly to the artist (which I always find preferable).

Any Empire is set in the fictional town of Wormwood, which was also the setting of Nate’s last big solo project, Swallow Me Whole.  The similarities between the two books don’t end there as the observant reader will also notice that minor characters from each story overlap and bump into each other; in fact, one of the main characters in Any Empire is the kid brother of a marginal character from Swallow Me Whole.  Both books are also coming of age stories, but while Swallow Me Whole focuses on teenage angst, alienation, and struggles with mental illness, Any Empire is a story about violence in American culture told from the perspective of a series of young adults individually and collectively reminiscing about their connected childhoods in an attempt to understand the people they’ve become.

Each character’s childhood is defined in relation to their attitudes toward and experience with violence, and the effects of those experiences are reflected in the choices that each character makes later in life and the identities that they assume.  As the story progresses, Nate draws us backwards and forwards in time in order to show these connections with a clarity that standard chronological story-telling might obscure.

The book culminates with an ambiguous ending that borders on magical realism (although nowhere near as much as Swallow Me Whole).  Nate trusts his readers to make up their own minds about the story and to hopefully learn something about themselves, much as the characters do.

There’s poetry in the way that Any Empire unfolds – both visually and textually.  There’s never a wasted line or syllable, which makes multiple reads almost a necessity.  Nate is a master of visual storytelling; in fact, some of the best sequences in the story feature little to no dialogue, but you’ll be too busy falling in love with his characters to even notice.  That’s not to say that the art is better than the writing – the dialogue is masterfully written and distinct, and text and image often meld together in inventive and evocative ways, turning the writing itself into a part of the landscape.  In fact, it’s difficult to comment on the visuals without addressing Nate’s treatment of the text, and vice versa, as each element is so closely married.

Without a doubt Any Empire is a personal story featuring elements of autobiography woven into the fictional world that Nate has crafted.  This is evident not only from the fact that one of the characters is clearly an avatar for the author, but also from how much he obviously cares about his characters.  This care translates into a story that is both intimately introspective and broadly reflective of our culture – Nate is careful not to point a critical finger at American attitudes toward violence without revealing his own history and relationship to the same.

The intimate nature of the story also allowed me, as a reader, to connect much more closely with the characters in Any Empire than I have with characters in any other story I’ve read recently.  There were a few moments where I saw myself reflected in the pages of this book as a nine or ten year old boy, watching GI Joe cartoons; playing Kung Fu and Double Dragon on our old Nintendo; “sword fighting” my younger brother with found sticks from the woods behind our house; yelling, “Bang! You’re dead!” as I fired an old wood and aluminum toy rifle with an orange plastic cap on the barrel… and in that moment I felt like I knew those characters – Lee, Purdy, Sarah, the twins – because, just like Nate, their story was my story.