Lives and generations of families quietly fade in and out through the Essex County trilogy, woven expertly by writer and artist Jeff Lemire. Quiet lives, quiet people, and quiet drawings rest on every page, in the middle of vast, quiet farmlands that seem perpetually cold and barren, but somehow still sustain life.
It all starts with Lester, a kid who loves comics. While this is a perfect sympathetic device to draw in the casual comic reader (as it did for me), it evolves into something far richer and deeper. As an orphan living on his uncle’s farm, Lester Papineau is isolated both geographically and emotionally, losing himself in comic worlds of his own creation, hanging out at a creek behind the farm, and eventually befriending Jimmy, the hulking service station attendant. The first volume is even augmented by Lester’s hand-drawn comics, which were drawn by a young Jeff Lemire and lend the story credibility, and even more sympathy. People barely talk, but when they do, it’s important. If only the rest of the world functioned with such gravitas.
It’s already clear that everyone is dealing with their own self-imposed loneliness and rich inner lives by the beginning of volume two, where the life of an aging, deaf hockey player is explored. In the third and final volume, a traveling nurse does her best to heal the wounds of the town, bringing the whole story back around through an entire century of secrets and loss. The family tree at the end of the third volume doesn’t hurt either, because these things get complicated, especially when family similarities over five generations and a minimal art style confuse whom we might be looking at in a few panels.
Lemire’s pen and brushwork are intentionally scratchy, loose, and splotchy, not caring as much for details as the impression that the whole careful mess of jagged lines creates. Everyone looks perpetually haunted by something or other (which could just be the scribbly, hollow eyes), and by the end of the trilogy, you realize how true that actually is. The drawing style is especially sparse, with large, almost bare panels, mixed panels of deep blacks and shadows, all organized thoughtfully and gracefully. Think Dave McKean’s epicCages. The very organic, handwritten lettering of the first volume seems to match the art a lot better than the later, more careful lettering, but it’s not too difficult an adjustment to make, as the drawing itself becomes more careful and restrained as the pages progress.
The books of the Essex County trilogy can definitely be enjoyed separately but make a much more rich tableau when read together, as characters recur and grow and evolve within the pages of each other volume. The books are intended for mature readers more than young kids, given the frequent subject of death, the complexity of dealing with messed-up families, an instance of infidelity, and some good old-fashioned profanity.
Reviewed by Collin David on August 29, 2008
The Country Nurse