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Essex County (The Complete Essex County)

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks, Charles Webb
Charles Webb: So, I'm going to go on a limb and say I loved Essex County without qualification.

Jason Sacks: We definitely agree there.

Jason Sacks:
Charles Webb:

Charles: And I think - correct me if I'm wrong - this is your second exposure to Lemire, the first being The Nobody which didn't work for you?

Jason: Yes, I read The Nobody, and, that book didn't really work for me. I felt like it was striving to be a parable of something but that the kind of quiet and naturalistic feel of the story kind of worked against the book succeeding.

Charles: "Naturalistic" - that's what EC has going for it in spades. Even the big moments are played small and played well.

Jason: The big payoff moments were just wonderful because they all felt so natural.

I think of the hockey story that ends with the tapping... it felt so natural and appropriate for the story.

Charles: The second one - about the two brothers Lou and Vince - in the introduction, Darwyn Cooke goes on a bit about how it's his favorite moment as well.

Lemire comes from this tradition of Canadian storytellers, writers, and filmmakers who "play it quiet" for the biggest result. You've got guys like Atom Egoyan or writer Robertson Davies showing the quiet physical and emotional landscape of Canada and all the tumult that exists below.

Jason: Hockey is a pervasive element in the book, which I found exciting and interesting, especially in light of the epigram that starts book two: "Hockey captures the essence of Canadian experience in the New World."

By having so much of the first book devoted to the kind of afterlife of a hockey player, and book two being really centered on hockey, the book takes on this wonderful quality of being both specific and being a... parable? Template? Example? Of something larger.

Charles: The sport does seem to be where its male characters can connect - from the uncle and nephew of the first chapter, the two brothers of the second.

Jason: and even in book three, before the big fire, kids are playing hockey.

Charles: In that chapter it feels like the one respite the characters have from their grim lives.

Jason: God knows their lives get harder soon afterwards.

Charles: Definitely. We mentioned melodrama at the beginning of the conversation - and the book is filled with it but it gentle ways. There's a great deal of love and loss throughout Essex County and the overall thesis is, I think, "get over it and move on" which seems to be the issue facing the leads in each story.

Charles: Lester, dealing with his mother's death, Lou dealing with the loss of his whole family, and the nurse kind of tying it all together in the third chapter.

Jason: I just totally loved the way that Lester in book one gets over his traumas. The way he literally cast aside childish things was exactly the kind of gentle ways that you were talking about in Lemire's technique - and the calm ways that Lemire portrays the traumas... the kind of simple, daily tragedies that happen all the time.

Charles: You know, I suspect Lester is the centerpiece of the entire work. Even if it's alluded to in the first chapter, the overarching arc of the three books is - who is Lester's father and how is he connected to the past.

Jason: That moment on page 442 - don't want to spoil it - I gotta admit it made me gasp. The subtlety of the way that Lemire builds to that moment is very special.

Charles: With the crow?

Jason: It was the first time I really realized who the kid was who we were following.

Charles: Right! Lemire does lots of matching like that - visual parity between characters of the past and the present to tie their stories together.

Jason: whenever cartoonists do that sort of thing, I always find it very exciting... the sort of thing that comics do so well.

Charles: Here, part of it is establishing lineage but the other part seems to be showing patterns of behavior and life.

Jason: Very true! It gives the book a rhythm and resonance, and a feeling of continuity of characters and themes. The crow being a great example.

Charles: Yes, I felt a little slow for not picking up on the crow until the last chapter.

Jason: LOL, I love that feeling! Only the best graphic novels do that... spin recurrent images and sequences in ways that give the book deeper resonance. But also the image of the farm, and his characters, and the long lonely open roads.

Charles: The highest compliment I could give the book is that I wish it had kept going - into Lester's future and his kids' future and so on.

Jason: (I keep reading reviews of Asterios Polyp where people bring out subtle details and I feel so dumb for not picking up on them... then again, that's the sign that a book is really thematically dense and thoughtful - just what I love).

I was disappointed in the two bonus stories, though. They didn't flow really from any events in the story.

Charles: I'm glad they were placed where they were - in the back of the book. I actually really quite liked the story about the boxing club - it just felt like extra gloss and detail on the lives of this place where Lemire really is from.

And again, it was about how sports created a line, a connection between people who are otherwise just plain farm folk.

Jason: I dunno... it was a very nice story, but its rhythm and feel were so different from the main story that I found it kind of unsatisfying.

Charles: The last, "Eddie Elephant Ears" didn't work for me solely because it had little room to breathe. It felt like a longer story given short shrift.

Jason: One of the things I enjoyed about the three main books is that Lemire feels free to write as long a piece as he wants... each piece had as much space to breathe as it needed. These two pieces didn't have as much room.

With the shorts it felt like Lemire constrained himself. Although they do seem to kind of anticipate a move into more magical realist comics like the stuff he's doing for Vertigo.

Charles: I actually just read the first issue of Sweet Tooth this weekend. It shares a bit with EC - the quiet, the simple characters and the clipped, direct dialogue. Even though it has this sci-fi story (the mutation of many of the world's children and a lowered birth rate) it's still really matter-of-fact. I'm still digesting it but my inclination is to say that it's pretty good with the possibility of going either way in the coming months.

Jason: I was debating reading that book - picked it up Thursday when I got this week's Wednesday Comics - but was concerned if I read it after having read The Nobody, it might prejudice my view of Lemire's work.

I was actually kind of troubled that I didn't like The Nobody. I expected going in to love it, given the reviews that Essex County had received.

Charles: I may have been susceptible to Sweet Tooth because I'm such a fan of post-apocalyptic work - that sense of loneliness and pulling together through the end of it all. Looping things back to EC, there's the sense that where those characters live it's a very, very small world. The first chapter only has three characters, and the second has its lead, Lou, go into a decades-long crisis because he leaves the boundaries of his world. The third is about literally how small and connected their world is.

Wait, what was my point again?

Jason: It's a small world in terms of people, but the landscape is so large. Whether it's the big city in Toronto or the vast farmlands, the sense of geography dwarfing characters is striking.

Even in large communities, it all feels small... the orphanage has just a dozen or so kids and is in the middle of nowhere, and it takes an incredibly long walk to get to civilization

Charles: It helps that the work is in black and white - it's what made Sweet Tooth so jarring, seeing that emptiness nonetheless filled with color.

Jason: The Nobody had a muted palette, and that really worked well in the book.

Charles: Make no mistake; I'm enamored with Lemire's art style. His characters have this deliberate simplicity and chunkiness that I feel works better in black and white

Jason: Back to your previous point, when we see a party with 7 people on page 191, it's a little shocking. And just imagine the shock the brothers must have felt on pages 140-141 meeting all their teammates.

I do love the art, too. It's perfectly well suited to this book.

Charles: Yeah. Lou - the main character of the second book - both loves and hates the city once he's there. He can get lost in it but his heart pines for the simplicity of Essex County.

While I'm a city boy and can't really sympathize I can empathize with him thanks to Lemire.

Jason: Vince talks almost immediately about returning to Essex County as soon as they get to Toronto. Now, Vince and Beth and Mary seemed like such a happy family.

And your comment is the ultimate compliment for a novelist, I think.

Charles: Vince, Mary, and Beth were happy for the most part. But I imagine there was probably still a tense undercurrent there even after all those years. It's like every time Vince looks at Mary, knowing what he knows, he still has doubts.

It's almost the first thing he talks about when he sees Lou again.

Jason: He carried the anger, but he carried it quietly... I keep going back in my mind to the scene of him and his family on the couch, all huddled together and watching Hockey Night in Canada. But yeah when they get together again at the funeral, the anger was right there on the surface.

Charles: Do you think Lemire - given what you've seen in The Nobody and what we've read here is going to be a good fit for a semi-mainstream line like Vertigo's? Will he become a "name" creator like Carey, Mulligan, Aaron, or even Gaiman?

Jason: Hmm that's a good question. Or will he be a name creator like Hernandez, Clowes, and Mazzucchelli...

Because Essex County feels much more like an indie book than a mainstream book. And though IMHO Beto Hernandez has done interesting work for Vertigo, he's always seemed like a bit of an outsider when he's done a book for the line.

I guess I feel like I'd like Lemire to do work for the line but I wonder how much he might have to compromise his natural inclinations and interests to make it work.

Charles: It seems like those lines are fits for genre books - crime, horror, fantasy - but Lemire is a dramatist (with what I've seen of EC and Sweet Tooth). I think he has something to add but I won't hold my breath that the average reader will get with the rhythms of his low-key writing.

No value judgments on the audience - it's just that they will have to experience him at 24 pages a month versus having a complete text to take in his work and enjoy it.

Jason: At least the Vertigo audience is conditioned to wait for the trade, so that should help.

I also worry that his work doesn't have the high concept feel that makes the Vertigo books work.

Charles: Yeah, what's the back cover blurb for EC that you'd pitch to the studio? It's hard to nail down.

Jason: That's a bit of why Young Liars failed, I think, even though it was amazing: It was too strange and too oblique.

Charles: I kind of sort of hated/loved Young Liars - it seemed to be going for deliberate oddity without having earned it… "Preacher" without making any damned sense.

Jason: I want to go back and reread it, but there were moments that really took my breath away. But we should stay focused on Essex County, shouldn't we? : )

Charles: Digressions will always get you.

Jason: my last Wednesday Comics column was all digression!

Charles: It does get you talking, which is an admirable trait in a book. It's so spare and leaves you to fill in a lot with your own experiences and understanding.

The same goes for certain elements of Wednesday Comics: the watercooler factor.

Jason: and yet it's dense in that there's a lot of thought behind every image and in every storytelling element.

Footprints in the snow of course, but also panel sequence. I thought Lemire's visual storytelling was wonderful. The playing with recurrent symbols, as you mentions, gives the book a really satisfying sense of denseness.

Charles: Yes, there's a good mix of solitary, basic pages with just one figure alongside crammed panels showing vibrancy and life. Lester standing alone, Lou in the city, the orphans in the snow

Jason: For instance, the sequence beginning at page 437 or so is so wonderful. We get a really thoughtful mix of close-ups and distance shots, full pagers and 9 panel grids and one of those great only in comics pages with the family tree, closing out with that satisfying two-page spread and the moon watching over everything.

Charles: So let's sum up - how would YOU recommend Essex County to someone - comics fan and non-comics fan alike? I'm trying to figure out how to get the wife to read it.

Jason: It's a deeply satisfying emotional experience that naturalistically captures the lives of three intersecting generations of residents of a small country area.

I seldom give five bullets . . . but five bullets . . . Among the best graphic novels of the year.

Charles: I'm framing it this way: it's the book that keeps breaking your heart… Five Bullets here as well.

Jason: "The book that keeps breaking your heart in deeply satisfying ways."

Though everything is shooting for second best this year, sorry but Mazzucchelli created a classic.

Charles: We've got the hardcover quote!

Jason: Sweet!

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of the author’s work at Monster In Your Veins

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