A Month of Wednesdays: <em>Any Empire</em>, <em>Big Questions</em> and every graphic novel I read in August

Any Empire (Top Shelf) Nate Powell’s follow-up to 2008’s well-received Swallow Me Whole is similar in tone and subject matter. The former is a palpable sadness borne of masterfully communicated verisimilitude is the former, and the latter is  troubled lives of young people.

The effects of various forms of militarism on young boys, and the lives that can result, accounts for much of Powell’s focus, as two of the three principal characters grew up with real soldiers in their families, and the boys devote much of their imaginative lives to war fantasies inspired by G.I. Joe comics and toys and Hollywood movies like Platoon.

A third character, a young girl, is similarly affected by her fantasy life, although she plays at girl detective thanks to Nancy Drew novels, rather than dealing with the anxieties the boys suffer trying to live up to their society’s narrow notion of manliness.

All three share a school and exposure to a weird neighborhood mystery—turtles are being found badly wounded, their shells smashed intentionally—but they drift into radically different directions as they reach adulthood and, eventually, they reunite.

It’s pretty heartbreaking stuff, but it’s never hard to read, as Powell infuses the narrative with occasionally quite startling fantasy sequences that seem to ebb and flow from the lives of the characters; initially these sequences seem summoned by them in order to deal with boredom or escape stressful situations, but  later they seemingly have a life of their own, coming unbidden.

Big Questions (Drawn and Quarterly) The first thing one notices about Anders Nielsen’s career-spanning work is how apt the first half of the title is—it’s big. The hardcover deluxe edition is 660 pages long, almost three inches thick and weighs in at five pounds.

The second thing one notices is how quickly it changes its tone and style from short, crudely-drawn gag strips to an elegantly, airily drawn epic narrative that wrestles with some of the biggest issues any story can ever wrestle with…as experienced by a group of finches and the many animals and few humans in their neighborhood.

There’s a blurb from Paul Constant of The Stranger about the book, saying “Imagine if Peanuts suddenly turned into Lord of the Rings and you have a vague idea of the tone.”

Vague is right; that example certainly gets at the way a couple of funny comic strips about birds eating seeds transforms into a sprawling mythology, with birds breaking into different religious factions, going to war with one another, offering the finch version of Plato’s shadows on the wall theory of reality and even visiting the bird underworld, but the example unfortunately carries with it the connotations of the works cited.

And it’s difficult to define Big Questions by reference to other works, because there aren’t any other works like it. Certainly there are plenty of ones that involve discussing big, human issues in the context of the animal kingdom, stripping them of the specifics and making them more universal and timeless in the process, but not in a comic book—certainly not a comic book of this size, scope, scale and ambition.

Nilsen’s Big Questions is like Nilsen’s Big Questions, and nothing else.

The large cast of finches are all simply drawn—somewhere between John Porcellino and James Kochalka on the complexity-of-design spectrum—usually appearing in medium shot as bird shapes with beaks and dot eyes (In close-up, they get more detailed). Their simplicity and indistinguishability makes their sometimes grandiose names seem ironic (Ulysses, Theodorus, Eusippius and Algernon are some of the fancier names, although there are more common sounding oness like Betty, Curtis and Leroy), as well as add a layer of humor to their personality and social conflicts.

While their lives are defined by their interactions with one another, their predators and the search for food, some of which they get from an elderly woman who cares for a young man with serious developmental issues (He’s referred to as “The Idiot”), the appearance of a unexploded bomb dropped by an airplane (Or is it an egg, laid by a giant bird?) introduces a new, all-consuming conflict in their lives, as does the inevitable result of a bomb, the later crash of an airplane and the introduction of its human pilot.

The results are amazing. It’s action-packed (who knew finch fights could be so suspenseful?) and it’s funny (I laughed out loud at page 489) by turns, but more than anything it’s meditative and elegiac. It’s…it’s…um...


It’s Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions. You should probably read it.

Daybreak (Drawn and Quarterly) When you hear someone say they’re sick of reading comics of a particular genre or on a particular subject, chances are what they really mean is they’re sick of reading comics from that genre or on that subject that aren’t very good.

For example, I know I’ve told myself I’m sick of reading zombie comics a few dozen times over the course of the last decade (and I’m sure I’ve publicly declared as much to anyone who would listen at least half as many times), and yet every once in a while I’ll come across a really amazing zombie comic that makes me eat those words.

Brian Ralph’s Daybreak is just such a comic.

Ralph, an alternative cartoonist who came out of the Fort Thunder collective, has a highly cartoony, illustrative style with a greater focus on story and emotion rather than representation. And this collection of the previously serialized Daybreak is a handsome little hardcover from Drawn and Quarterly, a publisher not especially known for jockeying with IDW and Dark Horse for the horror comics publishing crown.

But that’s exactly what Daybreak is, a very atypical version of your typical zombiepocalypse premise.

Aside from the difference in presentation and style than, say, Walking Dead or Marvel Zombies or one of those Ashley Wood comics, Ralph’s comic is told in second-person, with the reader being the main character.

It opens with a one-armed man in tattered clothes standing atop a pile of rubble, looking at the reader and, in the next panel, saying, “It’ll be dark soon. Better come with me.”

Keeping a rigid, six-panel grid structure, which focuses a consistent of point-of-view similar to what you might see in a film shot with a single, hand-held camera in a single take, the one-armed man leads the main character (the reader) through the piles of rubble that passes for the world, from hide-out to hide-out and battle to battle, meeting several other characters along the way.

Ralph’s zombies, which, in good zombie movie tradition, are never referred to as zombies, rarely if ever appear on panel, usually depicted in the distance as emaciated, lurching silhouettes, which certainly adds to the horror of the climax, when the reader finally has to deal with one face to face, and the book’s equivocal conclusion.

Daybreak is perhaps most unusual, however, in its ability to pass through the eye of the needle that is the space between the extreme edge of art comics and the extreme edge of pop genre comics. That, and Ralph’s ability to so masterfully tell an immersive, gripping story in such a difficult structure.

Okie Dokie Donuts: Open For Business (Top Shelf) This slim, 48-page graphic novel from writer/artist Chris Eliopoulos and Top Shelf is the first in a planned series about the titular doughnut shop, “a little place in town that you should know…a hot donut service that’s sure to grow,” as the big-headed, tiny-bodied, elastic-limbed characters sing in their musical introduction of the shop and its, um, zaftig proprietor, the appropriately named Big Mama.

Everything seems to be going great at her doughnut shop—everyone’s singing about her products, after all—until a salesman with a very untrustworthy-looking moustache overheard Big Mama mention that she could use a little more help around the shop (“Hark! Did I just hear a restaurateur in trouble?!” he cries, storming in).

His solution is Mr. Baker, a giant robot that is, “The latest in high-tech oven machinery!”

Mama is leery of trusting a soulless machine to produce her doughnuts, as her secret ingredient is love, but she’s persuaded to at least try him out. And as in any story in which a machine is called in to replace a human being, it naturally runs amuck.

But don’t worry, this book is part of Top Shelf’s growing kids line, so the robot doesn’t go on a killing spree or anything too terrible. It simply causes some kitchen chaos and makes some pretty gross doughnuts, but it all ends happily enough.

Well, “all-ages” is probably a better demarcation of the intended age group than “kids,” as anyone who enjoys cool comics art should find plenty to love in here. Eliopoulos’ panels are jam-packed with busy little-details, most of the movement augmented by sweat drops, action lines, clouds of breath and steam, stars and hearts to further clutter them, making each panel into a sort of baroque of cartoon elements.

Design-wise, Eliopoulos’ characters are all wildly exaggerated, but in a remarkably consistent way, so that their arms may stretch like taffy in movement, but they slide right back into place for the next panel. The character’s are flexible, but solid; they’re cartoons, but they’re real cartoons.

Each page is packed with panels and action, and the art is all colored in a limited, doughnut-shop palette of browns, whites, oranges and pinks. Like the snack in the title, the book is small, but sweet and satisfying.

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