Book Of The Month – August 2011
Written & Illustrated by Jeff Lemire
When one thinks of the country Canada, a few keywords that come to mind may include ‘polite’, ‘friendly’, and ‘hockey’. Some might say they’re a little too polite and friendly. They are right above us after all, sitting on prime location to strike at us if necessary with a Canadian blitzkrieg during a quiet winter evening. The only indication that we were taken over would be socialized medicine and the right to smoke the wacky-tobaccy in peace. But alas, Canada is more than just the prime exporter of maple syrup, Michael J. Fox and snow, it’s also the setting of Jeff Lemire’s imaginary hometown in Essex County in his first major graphic novel of the same name.
My first introduction to Jeff Lemire’s work was in fact Essex County, much like everyone else at the time. I remember listening to an episode of the podcast Around Comics (R.I.P.) where one of the hosts Chris was gushing about it, saying it was so much more than just a story about life on the farm. I mean, how do you try and sell a comic set in that landscape? Especially in an industry dominated by superheroes and events, the little independent guys don’t have any room to rise to the top like the exquisite crème that they are. After finally coming across a copy of the first trade paperback, Tales From The Farm, I was immediately hooked. His art style wasn’t conventional in the least; it was very loose, messy and bold, and I loved every single page because of it. His style was something I had never seen before, and yet it worked so well with the storytelling. The style and the story were a natural pairing. To even try and imagine another artist’s style for the series was ludicrous.
Eventually the Essex County Trilogy hardcover came out collecting all three volumes into one gigantic collection, and I naturally swooped-it up and devoured it all over again. Only this time I was in for a bit of a surprise; the collection had two unreleased stories in the very back along with production materials. I was so happy I cried tears of maple! 512 pages, all black and white, ready to be enjoyed all over again multiple times throughout the year (or maybe a tad-bit more spread out than that). If that wasn’t enough, the gargantuan trade paperback was just released earlier this year as well. It’s not as massive as the Bone trade, but it can still kill a small child just the same.
In the first story, Tales From The Farm, we’re introduced to Essex County and the main characters who live there. Lester, a boy who moves in with his uncle Ken after his mother died, has a big imagination and isn’t into farm life as much as he’s into playing down by the creek and creating his own comic books. His uncle doesn’t know how to connect with the boy, but the one thing that brings them together is their love of hockey. Lester starts hanging with the gas attendant Jimmy Lebeuf down by the creek, and enjoys their imaginary battles against aliens and share a love of comic books. Seeds are planted in this first story, and slowly you start seeing the rich history of the town and its inhabitants. It’s fun trying to connect the dots of who is related to whom, and how far back their family history goes.
Continuing on in Ghost Stories, you’re introduced to Lou Lebeuf who is a frail old man suffering from Alzheimer’s, going back and forth from past to present. This volume in particular is fertile with history and hockey, maintaining a perfect balance between the two throughout. Lou remembers fondly playing professionally with his brother Vinnie on the Toronto Grizzlies, until an unexpected love triangle blossoms between Lou, Vinnie, and Vinnie’s girlfriend, causing the brothers to not speak to one another for several decades. It truly is one of the saddest chapters I’ve ever read in comics, and I still feel the tears forming in my eyes when thinking about one panel in particular.
Finally, with The Country Nurse, we follow the daily routine of Nurse Annie, who travels across the county taking care of the patients in need of help. Her own grandmother helped bring orphans from the neighboring county to Essex County back in 1917 after their orphanage burned down one snowy night, further adding to the already rich back story of the place. The events of all three volumes wrap-up quite nicely in this last one, bringing families together, saying good-bye to some old favorites and even introducing a family tree for the reader to see the official history of those involved. From the first volume to the last, you do notice Lemire’s style progressing slow and steady right before your eyes, and yet it blends together quite smoothly for such a quirky style.
I’ll be bold and say Essex County belongs on your bookshelf next to Maus and Persepolis, because it is storytelling at its finest. It’s epic in scope for a graphic novel set in Canadian farm country, but it’s also something you’ll never come across again. If you do, it won’t be as good as this I can guarantee it. It brings me immense joy to see Lemire as a hot-shot writer at DC now, lending his talents to such high profile projects such as Superboy, Animal Man, Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE, and my personal favorite, Sweet Tooth. After reading Essex County, you’ll follow Jeff Lemire with such blind loyalty from title to title, publisher to publisher. He will be the Grant Morrison of a new generation, with his stories staying with us for a thousand years. He should be considered royalty in Canada, because he is hands-down my favorite export from that country.
Well played, Canada, well played.