Sunday, June 8, 2014

Tragi-Comic: Jeff Lemire's Essex County Trilogy

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 first book is told from the perspective of 10-year-old Lester who moves in his uncle after his mother's death from cancer, and who finds refuge from the isolation of farm life in comic books and fantasy and through an unlikely friendship he strikes up with Jimmy, who runs the local gas station. The second book introduces us to Lou LeBoeuf, an aging man whose memory is beginning to fade and who finds himself becoming lost in dreams of his own heyday as a semi-professional hockey player in Toronto in the early 1950s. In classic Canadian trilogy fashion (which I have no hesitation comparing, in structure, to Robertson Davies' two greatest series, the Deptford and Cornish trilogies), the middle story takes us temporarily out of the confines of the books' primary setting into the heart of the big city, only to return us painfully to the small community Lou's heart never really left. The final book focuses on Anne, the caretaker nurse who took care of Lou in his final days, whose connection to the Leboeufs goes far deeper than even she herself knows. The three stories overlap and interweave in complex ways – a structure that may be familiar to readers Gene Luen Yang's groundbreaking American Born Chinese (First Second Books, 2006) – directly and indirectly compiling a subtle portrait of this small community through only a handful of characters, revealed over decades.

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.

Lemire tells his stories with same unsentimental pragmatism that he attributes to his characters, painted with painstaking details that always ring emotionally true – stories that small communities tell themselves, and the stories that families won't. Nostalgic sentimentality is certainly a theme of the book, but it is never one of its failings. The past haunts and the future beckons, but it is the present moment which holds the power to reveal and grow. The tales of Essex County are those that sit silently and patiently in a dusty shoebox full of newspaper clippings at the back of a closet or barn; the ratty hockey cards and scrapbooks that could tell a decade-long story in a few pages, but more often will be thrown away without a second thought by unthinking grandchildren and real estate agents.

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.

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