Writer, artist and musician Nate Powell recently followed up his Eisner-winning graphic novel Swallow Me Whole with Any Empire from Top Shelf, a dark, lyrical look at the imagination of childhood and its violent undertones. In the 1980s, a group of children grow up together in a small town; some escape into the fantasy of G.I. Joe inspired games, while others enact violence themselves and some seek to stop it. As adults, their lives take different, startling turns, only to be brought back together again.
We spoke with Powell about creating his Empire, the political and cultural contexts that led to this work, and more.Newsarama: Nate, what was the initial inspiration for Any Empire?
Nate Powell: I was very focused on describing the culture of paranoia and fear that we’ve built up around each other here in the U.S., almost forcing us into an implosive state as our inevitably transient cultural and economic preeminence begins to crumble.
The more I was able to focus on the specifics of what I felt needed to be said, the more these moments from my childhood began to weave themselves into a narrative framework that encapsulated the human elements in a much more satisfying way.
Any Empire is definitely a work of fiction, but Lee is certainly patterned after me as a kid, and a lot of the circumstances of his childhood are parallel to my own.
Nrama: What was the biggest challenge in creating this story, and how was it different from Swallow Me Whole?
Powell: Well, Swallow Me Whole was just such an entirely different beast. It remains one of the most special and personal things I’ve ever been a part of, and I’m still a bit surprised that lots of people have read it and have responded or been impacted by it in some way.
That book emerged from a dream I had, and was reverse-engineered into a narrative to allow some of the trippy events to occur in a feasible way. As I drew the book, the personal relevance and parallels emerged slowly, and in layers.
Any Empire was born from a series of questions I wanted to pose about the nature of states themselves, about power and nationalism, and about finding hope and energy to continue growing as people, even with so many assholes in control of our lives.
In both books, the story emerged as I clarified what I felt was at the core of the book, but each plot addition to Any Empire seemed to come in a much more natural and personally satisfying way.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was with the ambiguities. Both books have some open-ended parts, and I enjoy inviting the reader to meet the book halfway, to provide answers to these questions that are a little different for each person. But I wanted the action to be much clearer in Any Empire, especially when these intersecting worlds collide near the climax.
With Swallow Me Whole, I learned that this kind of ambiguity can work only when the reader is able to take what’s happening at face value, and process it without weighing so much whether or not it’s something that could happen.Nrama: Children imitating the violence of adults -- and the relationship this has to children at play and to bullying -- is one of the most chilling images in fiction. What do you feel draws readers/viewers to this concept time and again?
Powell: Everyone has some dark shit they did as a child, or some stuff they saw other kids do or were subjected to. Most of the time it’s not actually anything that’s a huge deal, but because it’s something we never bother to share with anyone as we outgrow its immediate impact, I feel it satisfies a need for internal dialogue to explore those situations in fiction.
In more specific reference to Any Empire’s content, I feel that mythologizing nationalist violence is deeply encouraged in America, and it certainly crested with my generation and my parents’ generation. Horrific acts, each a human choice, are generally given a pass if done in the name of national service, as long as a few exceptions are highlighted as “bad apple” moments.
The modus operandi of war has not gotten any more civilized in our time—we, as Americans, have generally just been cut off from experiencing its effects, especially after Vietnam.
I’m very anti-nationalist, even by its most basic definition-- I feel it’s dangerous and baffling to identify primarily as Americans, but at the same time, we are, and we own this dark legacy.
Nrama: What role did G.I. Joe toys/cartoons/comics play in your life growing up, and why do you feel they've been so enduring? Also, what was it like getting Larry Hama's endorsement for this?
Powell: First, I should say I don’t know if I agree that they’re enduring or not—I don’t even know if G.I.Joe stuff even exists anymore. [Newsarama Note: There is currently a popular G.I. Joe cartoon, multiple G.I. Joe comics, and plans for a second live action movie in the works.] I don’t think it was a relevant toy after 1990 or so, but I could be wrong. I grew up in a military family as a G.I.Joe kid, as did many kids my age (and my parents’ age).
All politics aside, G.I.Joe was a pretty awesome franchise in the 1980’s! I started reading the comic with issue #3, and got into the toys starting in 1982, so they were with me throughout childhood. As far-fetched as some of the characters and toys were, I really got into the comic’s attempt to ground itself loosely in some realistic details and specs.
I probably responded to it so much because most of my imaginative play was based around pretty epic plots in my head, and it often involved sneaking into a “final fortress” for an operation or confrontation in which the balance of the world hung. Sure, G.I.Joe was part of the Reagan era’s vaguely apocalyptic culture-clash rhetoric, but the comic was much more shaped around the shifting relationships among various factions.
I was much more impacted by Larry Hama’s 1986 series The ‘Nam. Besides it being the first time I recognized “excellent comic art” from “other comic art” and paid attention to certain storytelling methods, it also helped me understand how cognitive dissonance works for folks who find themselves entwined in military service, and allowed me to begin having somewhat intelligent conversations with my dad about the military.
I also appreciated how it highlighted boredom, terror, and the inescapable framework of incremental time passage as previously unknown dimensions of these teenagers’ experiences at war.
I was amazed to hear word back from Mr. Hama, and to receive such a positive and nuanced response from him in regards to the book! I had no idea how it would go over.Nrama: How did the decision to do the time shift in the story come about?
Powell: The real-world time jump happened simply because I didn’t see a big point in focusing on unrelated details in the middle of these people’s lives, and I did not want the romantic relationship to be the focus either.
My experience was that prepubescent friendships just end, they don’t lead up to anything epic, and most of the time you’re not even that sure why you hang out with the people you do.
The quantum and bubble-universe time-jumps happened organically, as the story was solidifying. As characters imagined a divergent present, and invested in the weight of their own choices, it made sense to give life to those divergent paths.
Some of these intersect with the book’s “real” world very clearly, much to the characters’ confusion. I tried to make this feel as acceptable as any otherworldly experience a person might have, where one’s logic and grasp of reality simply does nothing to resolve something unexplainable happening before their very eyes.
The woods that the gang walks through en route to the quarry, for example, would need to act as a nexus or wormhole of sorts. At the book’s beginning, Lee’s imaginative play is unknowingly pre-creating criminal consequences for a divergent adult Purdy’s actions in a later path of the book.
Nrama: What do you feel was particularly unique about the environment of the 1980s, and how is it similar/different to America today?
Powell: That’s hard to put together, as so much of my experience is shaped by the fact that I was a prepubescent then. Generally speaking, I’d say that in the 1980’s we had a very different kind of cultural whitewashing and revisionism.
What’s interesting is this wretched post-mortem mythologizing of Ronald Reagan, a true shitbag. As things continue to get worse and worse in 2011, as the previous decade was not a “long cultural nightmare” we all hoped we’d emerge from but just a pretty shitty decade.
The authoritarian right takes great care to shape our memory of the Reagan era, and it’s something that the moderate left is afraid to stand against. The 1980’s were Cheney and Rumsfeld touring their hit LP, but really just looking forward to cashing in on the reunion tour in the 00’s.
As the Minutemen (the band, not the fascist sympathizers) said, “maybe partying will help.” In terms of pop culture, I think that this sentiment rings true in both decades, but with varying degrees of progressive and transgressive elements shining through. I feel that our era will be looked back upon as more conservative, more illogical, more religion-soaked, more regressive than anything the 1980’s threw at us. We’ll just have to see.Nrama: Tell us a little about your process for creating this book, story and art.
Powell: Well, the central themes and questions were very clear from the beginning, but as far as the narrative went, I began with a list I’d collected of little vignettes, scenes, and memories I thought might be relevant.
Usually once 25 or 30 of those come together, it’s a matter of waiting until a character emerges that I really care about. This book began as non-fiction, so that didn’t really apply, but as it began to shape up as a novel, the emergence of Purdy finally pushed the narrative in a particular direction.
The next year or so was five or six waves of communication back and forth with my editor Chris Staros, sending rough pencils and script of the entire book each time. We’d have a couple of hour-long phone conversations, scenes would be added, deleted, and redrawn, and a new draft would go out.
Amidst these editing sessions, my wife and my best friend both read and edited drafts (as they do for each book). The length went from 160 pages up to 350, and then back down to 300 again.
One of my biggest personal challenges is remembering that a book simply can’t be about everything, and carefully choosing what content actually serves the narrative itself. A lot of deleted tangential scenes might well re-emerge as short stories later.
Once the story was sufficiently tightened up, it was just a matter of chaining myself to the drawing table for nine months to ink the whole thing. Since I do most of my visual “thinking” in the ink stage, any details and tweaks served to close the gaps in the narrative.
Nrama: Did you adapt a new artistic style for this book, and if so, could you tell us about this?
Powell: There were certainly some formal and stylistic changes, but for the most part they were beginning to emerge independently of the book. I drew the pages at 13” instead of 17” (mostly because I was drawing another book at the same time, and both were under tight deadlines), and as a result the lettering is a little larger and more crisp than in Swallow Me Whole.
I changed my inking method by the end of my previous book so that I do contour work with a nib, then spot blacks and textures with a brush, and finish up with a nib again for any hatching/greys, and this really helped keep the noodling to a minimum.
The biggest change was a clarification of how the border/gutter/framing is used to communicate place, time, subjective reality, and sequence. Throughout Swallow Me Whole I’d been developing a technique to indicate certain shifts, but didn’t firmly establish it until Any Empire.
There are exceptions throughout the book, but generally the past features no borders, and black and white backgrounds indicate different indoor/outdoor, day/night, internal/external mental landscapes. Some of the parallel reality/time-shifting sequences exist in multiple continuities, so those are usually the exceptions.
Nrama: What's been the most interesting reaction you've had from readers so far?Powell: Overall, the reaction has been very positive, and I’ve had a lot of interesting dialogue with folks about it. Sometimes it’s a little uncomfortable when folks read it as a nostalgia piece, but that’s pretty rare. Every once in a while folks will spot the cameos of Swallow Me Whole, or identify Purdy’s older brother Benny as a background member of the teenage crew in SMW.
I do perceive that many readers might misread Purdy’s scenes in the Army as fantasy, when a horror of the book (and our world) is that regular people commit horrible, state-sanctioned acts of depravity and cruelty every day in service of our nation’s political and economic interests.
I also haven’t gotten in any real conversation about the creeping presence of white supremacy as a mainstream perspective and a natural consequence of nationalism. Our cultural and political climate has become so bizarre, so extreme, and so authoritarian in the last four years, that I feel this issue will be forced to the forefront of our collective discussions much sooner than expected.
We won’t have to worry about China invading the U.S. in 150 years when it’s becoming increasingly certain we’ll be too busy defending ourselves from evangelical, middle class and redneck authoritarians shooting us in the streets of our own neighborhoods in 20 years. We will be identified as our own enemies, I guarantee it.
Nrama: Did you ever consider doing a soundtrack to this book, or if not, what songs did you listen to while creating this?
Powell: I occasionally imagine soundtracking film versions of my books, but I would definitely reserve that duty to my good friend Ryan Seaton, an Arkansas native and Brooklyn resident who plays guitar in the band Callers. A true musical prodigy. In the actual nuts-and-bolts of the book, though, here’s what I listened to the most while it unfolded:
Peter Gabriel—Security and Melt LP’s (including, of course, “Games Without Frontiers”)
Genesis—Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot LP’s
Fat Shadow—Foot Of Love LP
Moss Icon—Lyburnum Wits’ End Liberation Fly LP and split LP with Silver
Bearing (the lyrics to “Divinity Cove” struck a chord with me back in 1994, planting an early seed for this book)
Moby/Voodoo Child—The End Of Everything (a severely underrated record, and maybe my most listened-to album of all-time)
Black Sabbath—first five LP’s
Articles of Faith—In This Life LP
King Crimson—Discipline LP
^ (Arc)— Wire Migraine
Anthrax—Among The Living and State Of Euphoria
Harold Budd & Brian Eno—The Pavillion Of Dreams and The Plateaux of Mirror LP’s
Nrama: What's next for you?Powell: In January, First Second Books will be releasing The Silence Of Our Friends, written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos, and later in the spring, Roaring Brook Press will release The Year Of The Beasts, written by Cecil Castellucci.
I’ll be releasing a collection of short stories called You Don’t Say, hopefully on Top Shelf in 2013, and 2014 will hopefully see the release of my next graphic novel Cover and a still-undisclosed graphic novel collaboration on Top Shelf. More on those in coming months!
Nrama: A number of your upcoming projects are ones you're drawing for other writers. How is this different from writing/drawing your own material, and what are the unique advantages/disadvantages of each process?
Powell: It’s a very different process for sure, but I haven’t found any disadvantages yet. A lot of work still goes into the storytelling side of things, but once thumbnails for the pages are done, I feel a lot more freed up to simply enjoy the process of drawing. It feels great!
The last two collaborative books were both done using grey washes over the line art, and it’s kinda hard to go back to straight line art because it was so enjoyable. Generally, though, drawing from a writer’s script activated such a different part of the brain that it was no problem at all to work on that book while doing my own work simultaneously. It definitely takes a little while longer to “grow into” the characters—I was probably about 70 pages into The Silence Of Our Friends before I crossed the threshold of truly committing to the characters.
Enter Nate Powell’s Any Empire at bookstores and comic shops now.