December 2011

Martyn Pedler


Boom Dead Next: Nate Powell's Any Empire

Lee and Purdy, the two young boys in Nate Powell's Any Empire, settle down to watch a VHS copy of Platoon. As they fall asleep in front of the TV, they see the forests and fires and dropping bombs and severed limbs of the movie through drooping eyelids. Dragging himself to bed, Lee sees tiny helicopters flutter in the darkness above him. 

It's not that he's been infected by the film; violence had already insinuated itself between the panels of Any EmpireLee's G.I. Joe comics become Gitmo horror photographs. He draws himself a black eye. He imagines his home split in two: half-normal, half-bombed, flaming wreck. The book opens with a cut from a firing squad to action figures playing out the same scene. He mutters explosive sound effects to himself as a soundtrack to his life. "Spsshhh! Kpwww!" Lee's mother wonders if they should worry. His father says that "boys just have this phase, I guess. Maybe." 

Do only boys have this phase? Whenever I hear someone banging on about the ways men and women are different, I wonder if they're equally as shocked by the small differences in everything else. ("My god! Look at this chair and this table! Look at how different they are! It's amazing they can exist in the same room!") But I can still hazily remember the weird, primal anger of being a boy in his early teens, and comics are particularly good at holding onto to that feeling, reflecting it, repackaging it. 

And not just in war stories, specifically, but all stories foregrounding violent and spectacular solutions to all narrative problems. The website Our Valued Customers currently features caricatures of comic shop customers with quotes heard by the employees. They're purposefully mining for the worst fanboy clichés, no doubt, but it's still striking how many of them express frustration that heroes can't be more violent. "If I was in X-Men, I'd just be killing everyone," one says. "Wolverine, Magneto, I wouldn't give a shit." And another: "I wouldn't be afraid of Scarecrow. Besides, he's just made of straw. I'd just set him on fire. Boom. Dead. Next." 

A few years ago, the first issue of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman featured their hero sitting quietly on a cloud, eschewing the usual macho posing required from men of action. Later Chip Kidd, the man who designed the book's logo and wrote a lovely introduction for the collected edition, said he hated the cover. He joked: "You didn't tell me in this one that Superman's gay!" Whenever superheroes aren't pummelling someone into submission, it's a betrayal. Don't they know that's what people deserve? Don't they know what the rest of us would do if we had that power? 

Daniel Clowes's masterful The Death Ray was originally released in 2004, but its recent rerelease in oversized hardcover is a reminder of how deeply it cut into the logic of these power fantasies. In it, a boy named Andy develops powers after his first cigarette. As if in a dream, logic be damned, his violent urges escalate until he has a special gun that makes you disappear entirely if he thinks you're unworthy. Andy's unstable best friend, listening to music taped off the radio, can't say if he likes it. He just knows it makes him want to "kill somebody." 

Lee also has an unstable best friend, Purdy: the kind of kid who announces unprompted that he has a grenade and knows where Lee can get one, too. (This provides the first chilling moment of the book: the kids rummaging through an army store, and Lee, looking up, seeing a swastika pinned to the ceiling.) Any Empire provides another welcome point of view. Sarah is the moral center of the story, sitting outside the boiling cauldron of male energy. It's far too predictable for fiction to offer up a lone female to provide quick, ethical judgments on the uncivilized behavior of men; Powell sidesteps the cliché somewhat by making Sarah an active force for justice. 

She's investigating what the book's back cover blurb describes as "a rash of mysterious turtle mutilations." (It's less Scooby Doo and more upsetting than that makes it sound.) Neighborhood boys are killing the turtles because... well, just because. They've decided you need to kill something to be in their gang. Purdy's desperate to be accepted but he can't kill. He doesn't try to stop them, though. He just tries to change the rules of the gang so he can join anyway. 

Do you remember the constantly shifting laws of childhood? They're one of the things Any Empire captures best. Being a kid was like defending yourself in court with no legal training, all day, every day, against charges of crimes you didn't understand. Casual cruelty was part of every friendship, and you could decide you hate your best friend and still end up sleeping over at his house that same night. The first act of Any Empire is a stunning evocation of this confusion, shame, and adolescent anger. 

Powell's black-and-white art often has panels bleeding into darkness, and his figures sometimes appear alone for a panel before the background kicks in around them. They're disconnected, dreamy moments. There's no control, no solid ground on which to stand. No wonder these boys can't wait to grow up, even if they confuse being a man with being an action figure. Lee remembers his father telling him that anyone can act like a monster "but it's just us. People kill each other in war. And you'll hear this too much -- but you should know this: war is hell." He already senses it's a quick cliché, robbed of all its power. 

Lee, Purdy, and Sarah do grow up. Any Empire flips, jumping forward years at its halfway point, aging its children into young adults and reintroducing them to each other, their hometown, and a grand, vaguely-sketched military metaphor as an excuse. There are some lovely pages here: a flirtatious conversation told through the tiny details of body language; or past and present, war and peace symbolically crossing each other's paths in a field. The dream logic increases, linearity falls away, and the imagery becomes more overtly symbolic. This allows Powell a big, emotionally redemptive ending where violent urges are finally replaced by something better. God knows it's better than awaits poor Andy in The Death Ray, left whispering tough guy threats to himself while sitting alone at the kitchen table. 

But the second half of Any Empire never stops feeling like an extended epilogue to what's come before. When you recreate the dark currents of childhood as vividly as Powell does, it activates a kind of black magic -- something the reason of later years can never overcome. 

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia.