Yearlong Best of the Year: Essex County

Posted by on September 9th, 2010 at 10:01 AM

 


From Essex County, ©2009 Jeff Lemire.

 

Essex County
Jeff Lemire
B&W; 512 pp.
Top Shelf; Hardcover; $49.95
ISBN: 9781603090469

Essex County, Ontario spreads out east and south of the city of Windsor, which itself is across the river east and south of Detroit. It is anything but imaginary territory. In his collected edition, Jeff Lemire persuasively presents it as hardscrabble rural. Late in the hardcover version, a literal bird’s eye view shows the countryside as surprisingly organized and geometric. Plowed fields arrange themselves in furrowed squares surrounding farmhouses. The homes, set in the cultivated order, are not so very far from one another, yet Lemire has us convinced we may as well be looking over the vast, trackless expanses of interstellar space.

The main body of the assembled County has three formidable books. The opening Tales From the Farm centers around Jimmy, living with his uncle, feeding the chicks he knows are bound for slaughter and escaping into fantasy while wearing a mask and cape. The second and far longest section, Ghost Stories, belongs to the hockey-playing LeBeuf brothers who, for a time, plied their trades in Toronto before returning to the family spread. The concluding novella is that of Anne Byrne, The Country Nurse, who tends as best she can to the well-being of her charges and in the process gathers up various histories for readers’ satisfaction. Two short stories, goodies and addenda round out the hardcover, a tome that, in its heft, resembles the thick mail-order catalogs that once brought the promise of material progress and domestic modernity to outlying farmsteads.

There’s a deeply nested dovetailing of lives to the County, complicated and enriched by issues of parentage, home-leaving, freedom, roots, blood-ties, heartfelt dreams, the past, the ineluctable, the avoidance of responsibilities and the acceptance of obligations. There’s a tough-minded cohesiveness to the epic, shot through with the sentimentality of the tough. The wide world is laced with social and personal interrelationship, but they are a touch off from the conventional and a further piece from the mechanistic. Moreover, enough fearsome monkey wrenches are thrown in to confound the handy interpretative theories applicable to stories made up by people.

 


From Essex County, ©2009 Jeff Lemire.

 

A summary tapestry evolves. Tatters are knitted up. An encircling embrace establishes a whole, almost in spite of the physical and emotional remove exhibited by the parts. The developed cohesion can be felt, alternately, as either barren and pessimistic or smothering and pessimistic. Regardless, as with most transporting works of art, there’s still that thrill in the recognition of the indomitable vitality of the human spirit as it is expressed through the peculiarities of living (see, most explicitly, the epilogue of “the plowing pugilists,” the members of “The Essex County Boxing Club”).

Lemire substantiates his vision with a multitude of authenticating details. There’s a single page on the continuity of hockey in Canada that shows it spanning generations, linking family and overshadowing just about any other man-made institution that easily comes to mind. Other things repeat, return, particularly for the young… target practice with a weapon of choice, an off-the-shoulder cloth as warming cloak or escapist cape. And then there’s that bird, that scrawny, faintly humanizied crow, appearing as witness, savior and, more than anything else, survivor.

The rough-hewn art lends unimpeachable authority to the proceedings. It is leathery, textured to highlight age and weathering. This representation of endurance imparts a timelessness to the faces, the land, the space between things, the distance between people. And with that comes the haunting sense that this is all happening at once, vividly, the flashbacks and impossible parts alike, occurring together, continually,

in perpetuity. As a function of human handcraft and artistic style, Lemire’s visual language may well start out as a taste to be acquired, but very soon it feels perfectly natural, organic and fit, absolutely beautiful in the manner of tree bark.

Essex County may be the most under-recognized and under-praised big book of comics after Eddie Campbell’s Alec: The Years Have Pants. I bring Lemire’s masterwork up now, a little tardy and with a certain amount of wistfulness, for reasons I’ll relate next time.

 

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