Monday, April 02, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #92: Essex County by Jeff Lemire

An omnibus can bring together things that stood well on their own, but work more strongly together. Or it can drag things into one place just for the novelty of volume -- that's fine, since bigger is still nice -- which is more common in our fallen world.

I'm happy to say that Jeff Lemire's Essex County is the first kind of omnibus: there are connections in the three graphic novels collected here that become much clearer when they're all in one volume. And the extras included at the end, nearly obligatory these days, actually add to and extend the main story, showing roads Lemire went down a short way and was going to integrate more strongly with the whole until he thought better of it.

Essex County comprises a trilogy of graphic novels that were nearly the first things Lemire published: Tales from the Farm, Ghost Stories, and The Country Nurse. (Back in 2008, I covered Ghost Stories and Country Nurse for ComicMix.) Up front is an introduction by Darwyn Cooke, new for the combined edition in 2009. And at the end are two related short stories, "The Essex County Boxing Club" and "The Sad and Lonely Life of Eddie Elephant-Ears," which started out as part of Country Nurse but were extracted during the creation process. And then last is a collection of bonus material: promo art, character designs, unused pages.

Tales looks a little rougher and less-formed in its art than the later books, but Lemire settled into his mature style -- as blocky and rough-hewn as it is, full of distorted faces and inky, bleak Canadian landscapes -- pretty quickly. (Some people might say that all of Lemire's work looks too rough or less-formed; those people are called Philistines.)

And the stories are very much the same sort of thing Lemire has gone on to focus on in his personal work: small-time Canadians, who never dreamed of very much but didn't even get that, caught up in long family stories and connected deeply to people who they'll never talk to again. There's a lot of hockey, a lot of farming, a lot of hard work at mostly blue-collar jobs. And, again, the three books of Essex County each tell a separate story like that, but the three together interlock to tell that same story on a larger scale.

So this is the story of a family and a place, over the course of close to a century. They have it tough, but they're tough people: they know how to survive. Well, we all survive up until the point that we don't, and they're no different.

Essex County is a major achievement in comics -- it won the Alex award from the ALA, the Doug Wright Award, and the Joe Shuster Award. And it's a major achievement as a Canadian novel, selected in 2011 as one of the "Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade." It's, as my favorite Vice President might have said, a big fucking deal. And it's a great story on top of that, told by a great storyteller. Read it, if you haven't already.

If you have, read it again.

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