Thursday, January 21, 2021

Frogcatchers by Jeff Lemire

Jeff Lemire is at least two different comics creators -- metaphorically if not in reality. (Maybe in reality, too, since otherwise I wonder how he finds time to sleep.)

There's the Big Two Lemire, who writes punch-em-up comics for other people to draw. He's pretty well regarded for that, but I wandered off from the Big Two around the beginning of this century, so I have no personal experience with that side of his work.

The original Jeff Lemire, though, who started his career with the Xeric-winning Lost Dogs and broke out soon afterward with the three books that make up Essex County, was and is a indy-graphic-novel guy, who makes book-length stories all by himself and shoves them out into the world.

That Jeff Lemire also works in comics issues, sometimes -- yesterday I wrote about the third volume of  Royal City, which is indy-Lemire but originally a fourteen issue series from Image -- but what he mostly does is make stories about Canadian blue-collar men (sometimes women) with various problems, usually at a moment when they're being beaten by life more than usual.

(And the Schroedinger Lemire is the one in the middle: who writes books that usually come out as issues, who works with other artists, but doesn't do superhero stuff. Think Descender and Plutona; books like that. Again, it makes me wonder when the man sleeps.)

Frogcatchers is very much in indy-Lemire mode, following on previous solo books like The Nobody, The Underwater Welder, Trillium, and Roughneck. Lemire draws it very loosely, like his earliest work, giving this atmospheric, surrealistic story a jolt of immediacy and energy. It feels like he drew it almost as quickly as you can read it: that's obviously not true (there's a lot of hidden work in a comics page), but it gives a story with few characters and big transcendent themes a a strong sense of velocity and vector.

It opens with a boy catching frogs under an overpass, somewhere. Then a man wakes up in a hotel bed -- maybe the same man, dreaming of his youth? But he soon finds the hotel is locked and empty, except for that boy -- who still looks a lot like him -- and the boy tells him the story of this world: they're trying to escape the hotel, to get away from The Frog King, who lives in a locked room across from where the man woke up. A room the man has a key to, in fact -- the only key to any of the rooms in this hotel. Monstrous frog-like Agents of the King chase them -- the boy is right, at least in some way.

But the man may be right about other things. And escape might not be what it seems.

Frogcatchers is deeply metaphorical, obviously. I'm not going to spoil the metaphor here: it's a good one, though the focus on frogs is quirky and specific. (I suspect Lemire himself caught frogs as a kid; I never did or even thought of it as a thing people did in the modern world.) I think this is a book most resonant for those of us in middle age or later: you need to have done things to look back on (with regret, or nostalgia, or whatever) to get the most out of it. Maybe not catching frogs, but something. We all have something.

If it resonates for you, if there something in your past or present that connects to Lemire's metaphor -- and there probably will be -- this is a fine, resonant, deep book about the meanings of a life and the decisions we all make and regret.

The thing about frogs is that they're slippery: hard to catch, hard to keep. And what do you do after you catch them: what happens next?

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