Hockey captures the essence of Canadian experience in the New World. In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold, hockey is the chance of life, and an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.
– Stephen Leacock (quoted by Jeff Lemire in Essex Country)
In April, DC comics launched Justice League Unlimited, an ongoing comic series to be set primarily in Canada. The series is helmed by Canadian writer Jeff Lemire and artist Mike McKone and marks the return of Adam Strange (now newly Canadian!) to DC's New 52 universe, along with a other Justice League mainstays like Martian Manhunter, Supergirl, and Green Arrow. Originally titled Justice League Canada (that suggestive name still remains as the title of the series' first main story arc), the series also promises to introduce a new DC teen hero of Lemire's own creation: Equinox, a sixteen-year-old girl of Cree descent who hails from Moose Factory, Ontario (pop. 2500). The next issue of Justice League United goes on sale on June 11, but if you want a taste of Lemire's unequalled talent while you await the debut of DC's first First Nations hero, the best place to begin is with his now-classic Essex County Trilogy.
The three books – originally published as Tales From the Farm (2008), Ghost Stories (2008), The Country Nurse (2009) before being collected as the Essex County Trilogy in 2011 by Top Shelf – earned Lemire international acclaim, including a Harvey Award nomination for Best New Talent in 2008 and an Eisner nomination for the collection itself in 2010. Set in Lemire's home turf of Essex County, Ontario, the books are rendered with stark black-and-white lines and often minimal dialogue. While for many, the vast and urban Toronto likely dominates their image of life in Ontario, drive just 350 kilometres southwest from the city, and you will find suburban sprawl turn to prairie and longstanding farming communities with centuries-old histories. In three volumes, Lemire paints an unparalleled portrait of loss and survival, set among the fields, farms, and frozen rivers of small-town Ontario. Read individually, the books are powerful and poignant; read together, they tell an quiet but epic generational story that is as Canadian as it is universal.
The look of each book, while always understated black-and-white line art, grows and evolves with the stories being told; the look of the first book is simple, reflecting the point of view of the boy, while the second book's story of lost love, betrayal, and hockey in its more urban setting is drawn with greater complexity reflecting urban life and alienation. When we finally return firmly to Essex County in the final volume – returning even to Lester, his uncle, and Jimmy – the weight of the generational story is felt in the art itself. With the same sensitive hand, Lemire gives his reader glimpses into the lives of semi-professional hockey players and turn-of-the-century Ontario pioneers, and at other times merely the exquisite, burning silence across a farm dinner table. It is a stunning visual and narrative achievement that exceeds most expectations of any novel series, graphic or otherwise.
The characters are pragmatic, sometimes sullen, and possessed of a level-headed pessimism. With few actions and perhaps fewer words, the quiet strength and human brokenness of the people of Essex County is slowly and tenderly revealed. Every page of the book has an ominous air hanging over it – like the dark clouds of an imminent summer storm – but the real drama happens within the people themselves. These aren't stories of suspense or action, but of inner lives and the human relationships that sustain or destroy them. When you finally turn that last page of Essex County you will be speechless. It is a story that I felt in my gut more than my head, and I was left with ghostly resonance of the thousands of stories still untold of this small community. (The Collected Essex County generously includes a couple of those unpublished tales.)
Lemire's depiction of rural Ontario life – full of tractors, unspoken pain, and hockey – is as understated and as deeply human as the characters he portrays. Essex County also tells the most distinctly and powerfully Canadian story I have read in over a decade. Since 2009, Lemire has been hard at work at DC Comics, contributing to its ongoing New 52 universe, including in 2010 helming the publisher's relaunch of Superboy, whose Smallville setting took full advantage of Lemire's knack for rural life and characters. Even though Lemire has found (well-deserved) mainstream success of late, we can only hope he still finds time to return to Essex County in the future.
– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.