Sunday, December 5, 2010

Review: Essex County, by Jeff Lemire

Published: Part 1 – March, 2007

Part 2 – September, 2007

Part 3 – August, 2008

The Complete Saga – September, 2009

Finally got around to it: December, 2010

Full disclosure time: I hadn’t heard more than passing comments made about Jeff Lemire’s Essex County before this year, and I might not have picked it up had it not made the top five of this year’s Canada Reads competition. That’s not a knock against the book by any means, I simply had not given it the attention it deserved.

I am so happy to have rectified this gross oversight.

Bundling together the three independent-yet-interlinked volumes that made up the saga (Tales From The Farm, Ghost Stories, and The Country Nurse), The Complete Essex County is a remarkable title of beauty, scope and serenity. Using the backdrop of a small Ontario town to bridge together the lives of two intertwined family trees over the course of nearly one hundred years, Essex County is, in fact, charming in its simplicity. That may sound trite to some, but there is no other way I can think to describe the tenderness by which Lemire writes and illustrates his populace. This is a lovingly crafted set of tales.

Most interesting is the emptiness that Lemire embraces as an intrinsic part of his visual design. The loneliness of lost souls on farms—or of those facing just as much isolation in the city, despite the densely populated surroundings—is depicted with careful attention to long, drawn out horizons and fields of vanishing points, where a tractor could work all day and barely cover the ground it needs to. Where a single crow stands out against a sea of blue and white and little else overhead. The characters are just as lovingly illustrated, but no two greater than Lou and Vince, the two brothers at the core of the second volume, Ghost Stories. The lines on their faces say more than most authors could dream of doing. The willingness to embrace nothingness or minimalism as an aesthetic conceit is something few graphic artists have the confidence to attempt, but Lemire does it with style to spare.

As the first graphic novel to break the Canada Reads barrier, I don’t think we could have a stronger contender than Essex County. The book wears its Canadian heritage with pride. This is a work of art in so many ways. A new printing of the complete saga is coming in early 2011—don’t miss this one.

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