From Essex County to DC: The Transplanting of Jeff Lemire

Posted by on September 10th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

 


From Sweet Tooth #5, ©2010 Jeff Lemire.

 

Sweet Tooth: Out of the Deep Woods
DC/Vertigo; 126 pp.; $ 9.99
Color; Trade Paperback
ISBN: 9781401226961

Brightest Day: The Atom Special #1
DC; 24 pp.; $2.99; Color

Action Comics #892
DC; $3.99; Color

Last time out, an attempt was made to keep a bit of a sustained light on Jeff Lemire’s extraordinary collected volume of Essex County. I referred to it, relative to its Internet coverage, as the most under-recognized and under-praised big book of comics after Eddie Campbell’s Alec: The Years Have Pants. I also owned up that my belated praise was in no small measure wistful in nature.

That’s because, of late, Lemire has taken up a daunting slate of work for DC. And although several of the themes explored in Essex County can be seen infiltrating this newer material, there is the distinct sense that Lemire has relocated far from his wellsprings.

Among the concerns of Essex County were relations and relationships concerning land (wide, agrarian and emptied), family (tension, chiefly between males), home (precarious, precious and vacated) and community (makeshift, stopgap and wanting). Sweet Tooth, a Vertigo series for which Lemire supplies both writing and art, depicts a post-apocalyptic nightmare for a coveted, antlered innocent… like Essex‘s young character Jimmy, but with horns. The land has been scrubbed of people by plague, the innocent is flushed from his home, and a distorted father figure of uncertain, or at least compromised, motivations appears. As of the first trade paperback, several communities have arisen, none of which have been healthy or sustaining.

Visions of dystopias in the media have become common so now it generally takes a great deal of substantiation or distinctiveness to impress. In large and small chunks, the story of Sweet Tooth is thin and standard entertainment-grade. It suffers particularly in its issue-sized chapters with awkward pacing that struggles to insert the minimum commercial requirements of violence and the occasional labored cliff-hanger pause. As an artist, Lemire’s strengths lie in intimacy and evocative expressiveness. Here his draftsmanship is tested and there’s a sense that his drawings are continually stretched to “make weight” in a marketplace addicted to sensation. It requires little of and gains accordingly from Jose Villarrubia’s coloring.

 


(Click image to read longer excerpt.) From Brightest Day: The Atom Special, written by Jeff Lemire, penciled by Mahmud Asrar and inked by John Dell; ©2010 DC Comics.

 

Lemire has also written The Atom Special, a lead-in to an ongoing back-up feature for Adventure Comics. To his credit, he pretty much nails the cogitating inclinations of title character in his role as scientist — but after Essex this story is shockingly gabby and amok with exposition. In the reboot, Lemire neatly establishes the hooks for an ongoing series, refining the origins of the Atom and setting up an inaugural mystery that will guide the action in the immediate future… although it may also be too much of a set up: there’s the suspicious disclosure, after 49 years, that the Atom’s alter ego has a brother, one with whom there had been trouble. Oh, and as a child he didn’t get along with his father (“I felt like an alien growing up. So out of place. Like I couldn’t possibly belong to this family… to this man”). Finally there’s this odd, intervening uncle of some significance in early years who now resurfaces with a tie to the ominous goings-on. In short, more unresolved man issues among the kinfolk.

If you are going the way of superheroes, there might be a certain amount of sense to have Lemire write a Superboy back-up feature in Action Comics. After all, the sequestered, rural setting of Smallville would seem to have strong and immediate associations to the cricket-quiet isolation portrayed in Essex County, to say nothing of the sensibility growing up there would instill.

Naturally then, the initial 10-page Superboy installment in Action #892 is a raucous, non-stop melee against towering dirt monsters rising straight up out of the Kansas soil. There are guest stars galore, both known (Krypto, the Phantom Stranger, the Legion of Superher… no wait… the Teen Titans!) and less known (the brainy kid surrounded by magenta and white frogs). It is, in its frantic, typical superdoings, a fine, reductive representation of its genre, one nicely skewed to a younger readership (which in turn is a curious if intriguing contrast with the book’s current lead, a Lex Luthor series full of grown-up delusions, lusts, vainglory and bluster).

In all these ways Lemire seems like a jes’ fine addition to a corporate stable of talent. So far as I can judge he’s perfectly capable — as long as he hits those deadlines — of delivering serviceable product as demanded and I’m not one to unnecessarily begrudge a person their payday.

…But let’s always keep a place in our hearts for Essex County. And before I resort to any hoary cliché about not being able to go home again, let’s invoke Eddie Campbell once more. Campbell, of course, had a real opportunity to continue to feed at the corporate troughs with his stint on Hellblazer, his bouts with Batman and Captain America and Lord knows what all else. Instead he forsook them to return to his real work on this green and bountiful earth: making comics that make sense and please us.

 

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