“…and you’ll hear this too much, but you should know it well: War is Hell.”
Any analysis of Any Empire begins at an instant disadvantage, no matter how manically you proclaim that “It’s an anti-war book and bloody good to boot!” the readers reaction will always be to yawn, already bored by the now pedestrian political premise. “War is Hell,” they’ll say, “I get it. How ’bout you tell me something that I don’t already know?” The real trick to this tome’s success though is that it does just that; hammering home the fact that while war is figuratively hell, literally it is entirely of this plane, an act of and involving people just like you and me. Instead of focusing on the fear and failures of the battlefield like all the tales that have made the position such a familiar one do ( Actual war doesn’t even show itself until a few hundred pages in, and even then it is only a snippet in the story) , it takes us to the genesis of violence and conflict, the genesis of war’s people – it’s soldiers, politicians and civilian casualties – childhood.
We are constantly informed of how influential our childhood is on us, the way it warps and changes our cores into what they are today and it is that process that is at the core of this comic. Where we live, which books we read, the movies we watch, who we hang out with and what we do with them are all seemingly small decisions in the grand scheme of things but it is these external elements that determine exactly what kind of people we are on the inside today. These small town boys read G.I. Joe, watch Platoon and then go out into the fields to play Army or torture turtles and so it is not surprising that some of them develop into soldiers, while the book-smart girl who seek to save and care for the turtles and other creatures turn into a social worker; all the while our protagonist and prism of perspective is stuck in the middle, torn between the two conflicting sides like a civilian in the midst of a so-called civil war.
It is just that though, a book and not an essay or stump speech, and so it conveys all of this through the telling of a story. In this way Powell’s depiction of childhood is perfect; despite all that potent cerebrality I just spouted about the world that he creates feels entirely natural and without contrivance, it’s real childhood captured on the page of a comic. The conversations, the imagination, the emptiness all ring true but it is the much smaller details that make the story sing; the way that you are friends with people that you have to hang out with rather than those that you want to hang out with, because they are all you know, because it’s better than being alone. The violence that drives the story is shocking but also innately innocent, there is almost no malice behind it; this is just what boys do, it’s in their nature not to respect other lives because no-one ever really respects theirs. All of this is exacerbated by the fact that it is occurring in such a small town; a place where life is just that simple, that black and white.
Speaking of binary palettes, the art in this book – which is also by Powell – is incredibly interesting. The sparseness of the black and white, predominantly full page panels, is shocking to see and initially makes reading the book a little too difficult; following the flow of motion is tricky thanks to the common, unheralded narrative jumps and lack of traditional structure. Once you seep into the style fully though you really start to feel just why it is Powell has chosen to picture in this way; the gray-scale on display here is ultimately akin to that in great films like The Last Picture Show, in that the town and the life of its people is simple, sparse and colourless so drawing it any other way would be false. The writing takes a similar approach in its style: the dialogue is rare and when we are actually given some, feather light. It’s not empty, it’s just that these people speak around what they actually mean, saying one thing while their actions suggest another. Neither of these are approaches that I, a fan of scripts and super high concepts, usually like but here they are handled impeccably, reminding you just why people implement them in the first place.
Funnily then the final part of the book, in which we the reality of the future breaks down allowing the characters to cross paths with every iteration of each other in the midst of a massive conflict, is actually my least favourite, though the images are stunning and what they say so very important. The flashes in this final chapter elucidate my earlier point in a simple, but tragically effective way; simply showing us how small changes in the choices made back then – art instead of anarchy, the tipping over of a box in the wind – could so drastically change everything ten years down the track. We so often forget about where the war came from and focus only on the current conflict, which means that we are missing the most important lesson, something that this book strives to address. It also hammers home the grand message that each and every soldier in each and every army, past and present is a Purdy and thus a person in a sublime aping of ‘The Evolution of Man’. All amazing points that are breathtakingly depicted, but it is the little things that most effected me and will stay in my mind much longer, like the passing of notes and the holding of hands. Maybe i’m just a child? Either way this is a very mature, masterful piece of literature that every reader should rush out and buy, even those who think that they know everything there is about war.