Caution, Kids at War: Nate Powell Talks His New Book, 'Any Empire'

In his new OGN from Top Shelf, graphic novelist and musician Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole) would like for you to consider how kids play and how they go to war. In the lyrical Any Empire, Powell takes several snapshots in the lives of a group of small-town children, with much of the focus on the quite, introverted, and war-obsessed Lee, whose story weaves in and out of the goings-on of the other characters in the novel. At times poignant, at at others surreal, Any Empire is an engaging, never preachy work about childhood, centering on those secret currents that define our youthful rivalries and the games we play. It's also a great looking title, too.

Powell spoke to MTV Geek by e-mail about the book, its origins, and our increased national obsession with war.

MTV Geek: What was the genesis for Any Empire? When did you start writing it?

Nate Powell: I started writing the book in spring 2007, while I was inking Swallow Me Whole. The notable seeds at that time were Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker, On Killing by Dave Grossman, and the movie Children Of Men. It had hit me pretty hard at the time that abstract images of warzone rubble broadcast on the news was, in fact, former buildings and former neighborhoods—that, in 100 or 150 years, our city streets could reasonably be someone else’s broadcast rubble. Another major focus at the time was that a sovereign state’s preservation of itself is historically a much higher priority than representing or even protecting its citizens or their vital interests—that there’s a deep history within the U.S. of the state using force against its own citizens in different contexts. 2007 was also the first year that I started to acutely feel the dangerous authoritarian-right shift in many Americans’ political alignment, and that real debate, real discourse, was basically down the shitter. We’ve become immersed in a culture of fear and distrust, and when any shit actually does hit the fan, I fear that disenfranchised rednecks and authoritarian evangelicals might well be shooting their neighbors in the streets.

The book went through a lot of transformations, and many of the narrative elements and personally relevant Reagan-era childhood themes emerged throughout 2009.

Geek: One of your characters, Lee, is early on really fascinated by war and war stories. And there are so many ways for kids to play at war. Why do you think war and playing at war appealed to us as kids?

NP: Kids have always play-fought, but I think my generation had a particularly privileged cultural fantasy surrounding military violence. We were relatively removed from the immediate reality of war and immersed in a Cold War glory-myth that conveyed state violence as some kind of idealized epic into which we, as Americans, had written ourselves an exceptional role. I was fortunate not to have much real violence in my life, and that cultural privilege certainly affects the nature of my own relationship to war fantasies as a kid. I did grow up in a military family, but lacked the perspective to grasp the cognitive dissonance carried by most people who serve in the armed forces, or the circumstances that push lots of folks into the military. I don’t blame G.I.Joe or Rambo for that atmosphere, but they certainly reflected the final stage of a two-generation cultural myth. War-play was epic, and that kind of narrative intensity was really satisfying.

Geek: Do you think this kind of play is harmful?

NP: Of course there are parts that are healthy and parts that are harmful, but I think that’s sort of a non-issue. I turned out all right, as did most kids. It’s a (very gendered) way for kids to explore power, agency, and the potential for a different, fantastic world. It’s certainly more harmful to get molested by a babysitter or get hit by your parents or have them smoke meth around you, and those situations are just as much a part of our cultural reality (and discussed a lot less than the perceived harm from violent toys or video games or gangsta rap, or whatever interchangeable consumer threat is buzzworthy).

Geek: In Part I, one theme I picked up in the reading is how fiction shapes our childhood—Lee with his war games and Sarah attempting to solve the mystery of the turtles like a junior Nancy Drew. What appealed to you about this concept?

NP: Part of fiction’s attraction here is simply being placed at the center of something important. The story follows a few kids in one town, and the different relationships each has to both violence and fantasy. Lee’s character is pretty similar to me as a child, and gets something very different out of his war fantasies than Purdy, who’s mostly enthralled by the fantasies of clarity, empowerment, and control that emerge in his play. Sarah has a turbulent but loving relationship with her younger brother as he is peripherally involved with kids exercising darker elements at play. Her mom is a nurse, and Sarah has grown up with a much more down-to-earth understanding of mortality and violence. Where Lee finds engagement with a larger world through his fantasies, Sarah seeks a window into a world governed by forces very different than what she feels surround her.

Geek: As a kid, what kind of fiction were you most affected by?

NP: The books that stuck with me most as a child were A Wrinkle In Time, Dracula, Hatchet, Bunnicula, White Fang, and this YA/kids’ book called Nobody’s Fault where a kid drowns one weekend as friends play around a flooded ditch. I guess that book and Hatchet resonated in a special way at the time—they both presented situations in which very normal kids needed to move forward into more grave situations, ready or not. I only saw the cartoon of The Secret Of Nimh, but that remains one of my all-time favorite stories as well.

Geek: What the hell is Purdy’s problem?

NP: Purdy just feels that everything is on shaky ground, all the time. His entire way of navigating life is built around push-pull relationships. Part of it is family stability issues, part of it is feeling that his real, uninflated self would be utterly crushed by peers who he perceives as infinitely more powerful or competent than he is, all ready to ditch him at a moment’s weakness.

Geek: What are you working on now?

NP: I’m drawing Year Of The Beasts written by Cecil Castellucci—it’s a weird, dark book. Half young adult novel, half graphic novel, out in 2012 on Roaring Brook Press. I’ve also finished drawing a GN called The Silence Of Our Friends written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos, out in January on First Second Books. I’ll be doing a fill-in issue of Jeff Lemire’s excellent Sweet Tooth series from Vertigo at year’s end, and then I have a couple of new graphic novels currently in the writing stages as we speak. No downtime for now, that’s for sure.

Any Empire will be on shelves on August 9th from Top Shelf.

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