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The Empire Strikes Back: Nate Powell

Following up a book as moving and well-received as Swallow Me Whole would seem like a great challenge. It’s one that Nate Powell met with Any Empire, his broad, ambitious look at how violence, nationalism, prejudices, and belief systems permeate our society. We caught up with Nate to discuss what this book meant to him and the important message he wants to bring across with it. 

This is such a different book than Swallow Me Whole. Do you find that the graphic medium gives you wider room to experiment and breathe than if you were doing prose books?
Simply enough, comics is my natural language. I’m not much of a prose storyteller at all. If I had the ability, however, I don’t think that comics necessarily give any more or less room for experimentation than prose—it’s just not my strength.
Any Empire weaves a fairly complex narrative throughout its pages. Was it difficult to orchestrate?
The story came together pretty organically, but it certainly took a while and went through many different incarnations. I started writing the book in late 2007, while I was finishing up inks on Swallow Me Whole, and originally Any Empire was a shorter, more political autobiographical essay/rant. As I clarified what I actually wanted to say in the story, the fiction naturally overtook the essay elements as the best route. Chris Staros and I went through several cycles of penciled drafts for the book along the way, each accompanied by some in-depth conversations about the storytelling components.

This process went back and forth until early in 2010, and I probably wound up penciling a total of 500 pages, 200 of which wound up being scrapped or replaced in some way. Once everything was hammered out, I burned through the inks in about ten months.
Both Swallow Me Whole and Any Empire are set in a town called Wormwood. Do you envision creating a library of books set in this fictional town?
I’d like to. I didn’t intend on Any Empire’s placement in Wormwood, but at a certain point, I realized I was narrating it within the same fictionalized version of Little Rock present in Swallow Me Whole. After asking myself “why not?” the possibilities of weaving these tales into the same town seemed really exciting! I’ve really enjoyed the character cameos and figuring what certain characters would be like at certain times, but I envision the town as a quasi-magical nexus wherein each tale can float around pretty freely. Swallow Me Whole’s Wormwood contains a little bit of Richmond, Virginia, as well, and Any Empire’s Wormwood has a little bit of Montgomery, Alabama, where I spent some of my elementary school years, but Little Rock remains the general template.
The book makes a profound statement on how we exalt and glorify violence. Did you envision Any Empire as a treatise against violence? How would you like to see its themes resonate with readers?
Any rational person understands that “violence is bad,” and a book underlining that would be really lame. I feel Any Empire is less about violence than it is about living in a culture of deep distrust and paranoia, and how these elements have manifested themselves in specific ways for our generation and our parents’ generation. We’re on the threshold of our society’s reshuffled relationship to the rest of the world, and I think that the children of Baby Boomers experienced a really bizarre moment to grow into—that of being the last generation of Americans bred into a very privileged nationalist glory-myth.
Any Empire is largely a book of questions. If we really want a better world not ruled by murderous a--holes but can’t do much about it, do we still participate in acts of resistance that are really gestures? Why are we like little dragons hoarding our pasts (personal and political), unwilling to step into something truly unknown, but with real possibilities? The overarching question in the book is “what now?”—characters are confronted with moments in which they finally have an option to take a huge step out of their way of living, even with the knowledge that very little might change as a result. I’m really curious, and terrified, to see kids come of age surrounded by this cultural resurgence of evangelical, Objectivist, authoritarian proto-fascists in the last five years, and to try to understand their own way of navigating what seems to be an even more hostile, nationalist, and ideologically driven cultural climate.
Which of the characters in Any Empire did you find yourself relating to most?
Well, I’ll be up-front that Lee is essentially me as a kid. Lee’s my middle name. I find myself identifying most strongly with Sarah, though. She finds herself possessed by those things she’s felt have wronged her or those she loves, and has difficulty recognizing when it’s time to let go of her notions of justice and vindication. In her childhood form, I identify strongly with the way her fiction and fantasy life provides a lens through which she navigates the real world, problem-solves, and assesses what’s going on around her.
Have you been surprised in any way by the reactions of readers to the book?
There’s been a good amount of feedback, and it’s been exciting to have face-to-face dialogue with folks who bought the book at a convention on a Saturday, read it that night, and returned to discuss it the next day. Some readers have deeply personal reactions to the specific setting of the book, and others read it in a more vague and open-ended way, and there’s been plenty to discuss on either end of the spectrum.
The only thing that has come as a surprise and continues to be a challenge involves Any Empire’s status as the next work following Swallow Me Whole, specifically that book’s ambiguous ending and its use of subjective reality. Some readers of Any Empire are quite focused on whether or not the climax of the book is “real” or “fantasy,” and seem frustrated that it doesn’t exactly fall into either of those categories. As a result, some readers think that Purdy’s entire adult Army involvement is some kind of fantasy, and this sort of undermines the whole point of the book.
All of his military sequences are in “the real world,” though some are interlaced with if/then scenarios, personal second-guessing on alternate past choices, and a couple of weird quantum loops. What’s most important is that the narrative’s action be taken at face value, and that characters (and the people around us) be held accountable for their actions and complicity, even when that means accepting that otherwise “normal” people have historically always participated in state-sanctioned mass murder, rape, arson, and torture—even when it’s potentially your childhood friend or your grandfather.
You often mix fantasy and reality in your work. Do you consider yourself a writer of magic realism? Or do you see it as something different?
A lot of folks use that term on my stuff, but I just think of it as fiction. All bets are off when you open a new book, and a good story requires a contract between you and the author to meet halfway. The author provides a rich framework onto which the reader projects their own parallel experiences of the world, their own feelings and loves, and in turn the author asks the reader to trust they will be transformed. I feel it’s kind of a quantum experience which allows each book to carry its own life with a different reader. Magical and fantastic elements in stories are just different applications of fiction.
This must have been a very personal book to work on. Was it cathartic in a way to create it?
This sounds like a bit of a cliché, but every book I do is really personal, and the process of drawing it is always cathartic. With this book in particular, it was very satisfying to find a meeting ground in fiction for highly personal, semi-autobiographical narratives and more concrete, pointed subject matter. I grew up in a military family in the Reagan era, and didn’t have the maturity or experience to understand things like cognitive dissonance, or how so many people who serve in the armed forces could hold so many conflicting feelings and motivations for their participation in something so powerful, so deeply mythologized, but so incontestably dark and anti-human. My dad’s a great person and was always careful to let me come to my own conclusions about nationalism and the military when we’d discuss it in my childhood. He’d speak of his own reasons and reservations about service, but was able to do so without telling me how to process his experiences.
For me, Any Empire is deeply about identity, belonging, and fear, and the personal notes struck within the narrative are the ones that have nothing to do with the military angle. The privileged subjective violence of moving around so much as a child, early exercises in ethics and decision-making, the quest for something other than our cultural push-pull framework that guides every moment of our existences. The feelings of real salvation in books and music. The realization as a young person that you can choose real friends. All these discoveries give us long-awaited views into an impossibly broad world not ruled by our immediate surroundings.
What are you working on next?
There’s a lot on deck—while doing Any Empire I was also drawing The Silence of Our Friends, which is coming out in January from First Second Books, and I also just finished up a novel/graphic novel hybrid called The Year of the Beasts, written by Cecil Castellucci. That’ll be out in May with Roaring Brook Press. I just did an album cover for Good Luck’s Without Hesitation, and also did a title sequence for a film called Baby Girl directed by Macdara Vallely—that should be out in time for Sundance.
Right now I’m about to start work as the fill-in writer/artist on Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth #34 for Vertigo, and am also beginning work on three different graphic novels. One of them is a solo book called Cover, and the other two are collaborations that I can’t quite spill the beans about just yet! In the meantime, I’ll have an omnibus called You Don’t Say that collects all the short stories and one-shots I’ve done from 2004 to present, with a bunch of new and unpublished stuff. That should be coming out in 2013 from Top Shelf.
Most importantly, though, I’ll be working on being a new dad starting in December!