Friday, November 26, 2010
Canada Reads! Essex County by Jeff Lemire
CBC has an annual contest up here called Canada Reads. This year they are doing the 'Top Canadian Book of the Decade' and Jeff Lemire is a Top 5 contender for his trilogy Essex County. The contest runs until February with celebrity supporters making the case for each book. Jeff's celebrity is Sara Quin from Tegan and Sara!
Essex County is available at comic shops everywhere, if you can't find it DEMAND IT. Strange Adventures always has it in stock so drop Cal a line and he can have one in hands super fast. Good luck to all the nominees, but our heart is behind Jeff and his incredible tale of Essex County.
Darwyn wrote the introduction for Jeff's collected edition. It is re-posted below.
Essex County - Introduction by Darwyn Cooke
I think it appropriate to confess a degree of trepidation regarding my qualifications for writing this introduction. Although I've been called upon many times to do just that for a variety of collected comics stories they usually involve flying men or scheming femme fatales. I am, and probably always will be, a genre entertainer. As such, it is fairly easy work for me to key up an engaging thousand words about the craft displayed in the book I'm introducing.
Here we have a somewhat different situation. Jeff Lemire's Essex County is more than an engaging afternoon's read; it represents a high watermark that supersedes the label of graphic fiction and even graphic literature. This is a high watermark in Canadian Literature that can proudly rest beside the Lawrences, Richlers, Atwoods on the big shelf.
Canadian cartooning has a rich and wildly varied history that calls back to the very beginnings of the form. By the 1970s it became clear that mass market comics publications aimed at an exclusively Canadian audience weren't viable, and over the next couple of decades we saw the ascent of the independent cartoonist. With Dave Sim and Gerhardt charting the waters and setting an astonishing standard, young Canadian cartoonists began to see that there were alternatives to going to New York to draw Batman.
The nineties saw the emergence of autobio and the trio of Seth, Brown and Matt focused much of the Indie world's attention on Canada. It is early now but I believe this will one day be seen as Canada's first real golden age of cartooning. It must have been impossible for an art comics connesieur in the late nineties to think of Canada without thinking autobio.
As we moved into the twenty first century what I have found particularly exciting is the emergence of a new generation that has taken it's inspiration from that era but pushed forward into broader areas of interest. At the crest of this wave are two cartoonists at completely different points on the compass; Brian Lee O'Malley, the genre splicing genius behind Scott Pilgrim and relative newcomer Jeff Lemire.
It would seem Jeff Lemire is a haunted man. I don't mean this in any melodramatic, ectoplasmic sense. I refer to a more serious condition common amongst many great storytellers. His head and his heart seem to carry remembrances of the quiet beats in which people stand revealed. With a casual grace that would make the late Raymond Carver envious, Lemire's stories build out of innocuous and seemingly unconnected moments that gather and gain weight when viewed in a cumulative light. His instinct for where to start and end a scene and where to place that scene within the larger tapestry is sublime. The ease with which Essex County flows from past to present to future to fantasy shows the kind of mastery that most cartoonists are incapable of after a lifetime of practice.
While Essex County is laced with sentiment, it all seems natural and hard earned. Lemire has either cannily or intuitively avoided the pitfall of many far more celebrated cartoonists; the pitfall of self pity. Many of our best cartoonists have a conflated sense of their own suffering and isolation, and large passages of their work seem engineered to give this type of self absorption a heroic context. Lemire's characters weather their lives with resolution and quiet despair. We feel for them because of Lemire's talent for revealing their inner strength, not their outer weakness. In Tales from the Farm, our cast are all people trapped in a life they didn't ask for or expect. Lester, Kenny and Jimmy are all caught in a stasis brought about by external forces they couldn't foresee or control. It seems their only substantive way forward is to endure and abide. The road out of the woods is laid stone by quiet stone.
Lemire's approach is so devoid of melodrama that when he does go all in we're taken aback, and shopworn cliches take on a heartbreaking freshness. The life of Vince in Ghost Stories is so spartanly laid before us that when he passes we expect yet another moment of quiet despair. When off panel tapping spurs us to turn the page we see Lemire has dove in with both feet. Vince's team stands before us, offering that most Canadian sign of masculine respect; the quiet clicking of sticks on the ice. This moment of melodrama is timed so perfectly it sneaks past our cynicism and floods our hearts with something we forgot we had inside us.
What this all adds up to is a work of unexpected maturity that speaks on a universal level, but holds special rewards for those familiar with life in rural Canada. Essex County is a tremendous achievement made all the more incredible when we consider the relative youth of the author. This heartfelt piece of graphic literature surpasses it's form to stand as what I'm sure will be an enduring example of the finest in Canadian literature proper.
Pierre Burton, Farley Mowat, Jeff Lemire. Sounds as natural as the quiet clean of a sharpened blade on fresh ice.
Darwyn Cooke 2009
East of Essex County