Like a lot of little boys, I grew up thinking war was cool. You got to shoot big ol’ guns and put packs of cigarettes into your helmet band and wear a lot of camo. Then the first time, as a teenager, I heard the Dead Kennedys’ “Rambozo the Clown” I remember thinking, “Oh, no. Now I gotta rethink my whole stance on this.” War is actually a total drag, it turns out, but why would it still appeal to me as a little kid, dumb as I may have been?
Nate Powell’s 2011 graphic novel Any Empire seeks to answer this question by exploring where the lines of demarcation begin to blur between adolescence and adulthood. Lee and Purdy are both young suburbanites who are bored out of their minds, and while that boredom can foster a drive for creativity and empathy, it can just as easily create an appetite for destruction. It’s up to each boy to decide what kind of man he wants to be.
Lee is frustrated by everything: His parents and their decision to move to a new part of town, his peers and their territoriality, his burgeoning hormones and their dictates. So he retreats into comic books and action figures, building for himself a world where the rules make sense and there is a role for him. As we follow Lee from middle school to high school to young adulthood, we see his tendency to withdraw, to contemplate, leads to his ultimate ability to reason with his surroundings and to adjust them through art and creativity.
Purdy is frustrated by everything: his family and their coldness, his peers and their pressure, his own burgeoning hormones and their dictates. Rather than internalize these struggles, Purdy seeks action, to try to force the world to conform to his standards. Purdy spends his every waking effort trying to mold his reality into one where the rules make sense. This is extremely difficult to do for fully functioning adults, much less a young kid, and so Purdy eventually joins the military in hopes that this will provide him with the skills necessary to make the world come in line with how he sees it, by force if necessary.
Unfortunately, Purdy finds that when you try to force the world to change, the world can force itself right back, and with a vengeance.
There are other subplots and storylines going on in Any Empire, but the parallel lives of these boys, who are friends and enemies in almost exact measure, speaks to me the most. Looking back on my own childhood, powerlessness was the overwhelmingly prominent feeling I had. So it’s a beautiful thing when an artist like Powell can speak to and for a part of me that was without a voice for so long. There’s an argument to be made that the coming-of-age story has been done to death, but reading Any Empire, I didn’t feel like I was being told a story I’d heard before, but like I was hearing for the first time a story I’d known all my life.