April 13, 2020

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Essex County: The Origin Story of Jeff Lemire


The Collected Essex County

by Jeff Lemire
published by Top Shelf

Who needs a superhero when you already have one?

This is the story of a man, a man and his origin. Well, not really... let me start over. This is a modestly long-winded deep dive into a recommendation to read the graphic novel series that became the origin story to the Jeff Lemire that we all know today. The accidental classic in graphic literature, Essex County, is the quintessential reason why Lemire has been able to spread his branches into so many directions within comics. That story was one of his first published works and soon became an oft-referred to moment when Lemire became the creator who once was into the one we know now. That published work, written as a three-part graphic novel series, quickly became a ripple in an industry unbeknownst to it without knowledge of it's need to be shaken. Today, it is widely acclaimed as one of the finest pieces of graphic literature, all while he continues inking pages to more stories, and often handfuls at a time. So again I say: who needs a superhero when you already have one?

Jeff Lemire is known for many things, and oftentimes those many things are done simultaneously or back-to-back. He has gone from small-town hopeful to comic creator superstar, and he'd be the first to say that it's his persistent work ethic that got him there. He literally has done damn near everything that can be done with comics. Going from illustrating story's of his own published by small independent companies, to writing for Marvel and DC then back to creating his own stories for smaller companies. He even has created his own universe of characters while somehow also finding time for the multiple projects he has that are headed toward various versions of the screen. If tasked with giving a single recommendation of what of his to read I'd be hard-pressed to even narrow it down to a simple few. How can one man write the perfect story over and over again in so many ways and in so many facets? He simply cannot write a story that misses the mark; he is incapable.

Every story has a beginning. Lemire's began with Essex County. It is a delicate and quiet story with a small cast of characters. Introduced throughout the graphic series, they all carry personal burdens of isolation and share a largely unknown (until the final act) common existence. Originally published in three different paperbacks, the story of Essex County can easily be enjoyed separately, but, like any good season of a Netflix Original, is best consumed all at once and with modest introspection. Lemire's ability to tell a story with pictures colored only by the black of his ink and the white of the paper is at a level most just cannot. While many of his comics are referred to as must-reads, the ones where he is the author and illustrator in smaller formats such as this one is where he shines the brightest.




The first of the three stories, Tales From the Farm, is a story about a boy. The boy, Lester, having a vivid imagination (as most kids do), escapes his unfortunate life circumstance in episodic daydreams. Established at the very beginning, and taking on it's own form of metaphor, Lester adores the life of a cape and cowl as he transforms himself into his own superhero. The instant giveaway is the costume he wears and persistently refuses to take off, even as his perpetually angry but secretly sad uncle demands he removes them. Lester lives with that uncle on a farm in Essex County and his solitary reason for getting up each day is so that he can drift off into that daydream, imagining himself to fly. Also keeping Lester company, in addition to the credulous flying, are frequent visits to a bridge where he befriends a man resembling the one owning and operating the gas station. As previously mentioned, the tone in the story is soft, quaint, and desolate as we drift through a series of moments in the life of Lester. This first act of Essex County, in particular, has a period of sentiment that will touch the hearts of many when moment comes for Lester to finally hang his hat.




Sometimes things are hopeless and seemingly unending. Book number two in the Essex County collection, Ghost Stories, continues the trend of discovering solace and companionship in an emotion so often compared with solitude. Those feelings of isolation can be bold and powerful as they make the strongest person left broken. In these moments, sometimes the last saving grace is hope, the hope that someone else might feel, understand, and relate. No better time than now to respond with stories as comfort food necessary for our collective sanity. Ghost Stories follows two brothers, Vince and Lou, largely told as a series of flashbacks from the perspective of an old Lou. The brothers grow up on a farm in Essex County (a theme that seems to be a familiar place for Lemire to falter to), and they end up following their dream of playing competitive hockey - one more so than the other. Eventually, the one who follows through with the dream (Lou) becomes increasingly more consumed in his own isolation while the other finds peace in the farm they grew up on with a wife who unknowingly becomes the catalyst to a memory Lou kept forgetting he remembered. This second act of the series reads as a stand-alone after the first but exists as a necessary passageway connecting all three together once the journey is complete. Lemire continues to flex his muscle here as a prolific cartoonist telling parts to the story through illustration that others cannot. Vivid full-page layouts of Lou looking back on himself are some of the most powerful pages of the collection. One spread, in particular, shows an entire hockey team tapping the ice surrounding poor old Lou holding Vince in a desperate moment of forgiveness and goodbye.




The third part of the book, The Country Nurse, does with Essex County what we have come to see from Lemire with stories he's since told. He has a unique way to tell a story; picking up pieces left along the way he plants throughout and then surprises readers with new and unexpected ways to connect dots previously only seen as obvious. Centering mostly around a character introduced in the second book, this county nurse becomes not only our first real glimpse of how everything relates but also gives the third act its name. The book began with a story that felt isolated and rigid ends yet with a collected sense of fellowship. The characters, all serving their own existence rely on one another for the support necessary to make tomorrow become today.

As this story finds you in whatever capacity that may be, have patience and let the pictures come to life as Jeff Lemire tells you a story about no matter how broken or how lost we may feel there are still tomorrows worth being here for. With a perspective of self from a vantage point of others, we need not assume meddling in the lives of others to be a bother or without purpose. Instead, we can and should see it as the necessary act of kindness to assist the most isolated person of today gets to their own place of tomorrow in content.