Trapped in Mourning- a review of Jeff Lemire's Royal City Volume 1: Next of Kin

The Pike family looks like an all-American family, with its aging parents, a son who has written a best-selling book, an ambitious daughter with plans of saving the city even as she transforms it into something unrecognizable, and one son who is the black sheep of the family, willing to steal his father’s stuff to pay off a debt. By no means is it a perfect family but when does Jeff Lemire ever give us one of those. For everything they’ve done with their lives, the death of Tommy, the son who died in an accident in 1993, is all that really defines this family. Every surviving member of the PIkes is followed around by their own personal ghost of Tommy.

Many of Jeff Lemire’s recent books have been about family. Sometimes it’s about a missing family like his recent work on Secret Path, or about the family we find ourselves in as in Black Hammer or even what our responsibilities to family are in Roughneck. Royal City Volume 1: Next of Kin continues that fascination with family but this time, it’s about a family that’s been lost in mourning for over twenty years. Royal City gives us a family who is trapped in their loss that is so rooted to their hometown. From his earliest independent comics through to his most recent Marvel and Image work, Lemire’s characters are shaped by family and home even as they’re incredibly damaged by their past. 

This family’s ghost is a pastor to the mother who’s looking for absolution from her own sins. He’s a teen to the author who looks to his brother for authorial inspiration. He’s a child to the sister, who herself remains in a loveless and childless marriage herself. He’s a criminal to the other brother, his own worst instincts made into a guardian “angel.” And to the father, he’s a kid, possibly the most honest image of who Tommy really was. In these ghosts of Tommy, Lemire mirrors back to the family their own faults and sins even as they’re too wrapped up in them to even recognize them.

Lemire’s characteristic line here is thinner than usual, allowing his lightly applied watercolors to give this world a pale semblance of life. But the artwork is very thin, very anemic in a way that reflects this family’s place in this world. While Lemire’s images are bold, his gestural line in Royal City shows that these characters are barely anymore present in this world than their dead son and brother. This allows Lemire to traverse this veil of the afterlife and merge the living and the dead into this purgatorial state.

Royal City itself is a factory town on its last leg. The family has always been rooted there so as the town goes, so goes the family. Tara, the real estate agent sister, is trying to revive the town but it’s through a method that would totally rewrite what the town is, profiting off its past while making it something completely different. And maybe it’s that kind of workover that the Pike family needs as well. In this first volume, Lemire is so focused on showing us who and what the family is the cliffhanger ending totally rewrites who this family has been since Tommy died. For all of their visions of Tommy, it turns out that he probably was something completely different than any of the ghosts that they so tightly cling to.

With so much recent work about family, Royal City feels like Lemire’s finally figured out the ways that family doesn’t work, or at least he’s willing to accept that there are ways that family can’t recover from tragedy without ever accepting them as a lost cause. In Lemire’s cartooning and his writing, you can see him searching for something to hold this family together. While he’s willing to accept that there are ways that family can’t recover from tragedy, he refuses to accept them as a lost cause. On the surface of Royal City, it’s the heart attack that the father suffers that’s the catalyst for this family coming back together in the smallest of ways. Lemire’s writing lately has been about the ways that families come together after some kind of event, whether it’s being trapped in a parallel universe (Black Hammer) or siblings finally bonding after both separately ran away from home (Roughneck.)

So in Royal City Volume 1: Next of Kin, a father’s heart attack calls them all back home. This volume provides a catalyst for each of them to face up to their own pain. While today it may be a father that brings them together, it’s still the loss of a son and a brother over twenty years ago that keeps them apart. Tommy may be the ghost that haunts them but each of them moves like a ghost through this world, barely interacting with it or making a true impression on it. A family in disarray, the Pikes themselves may have all but died along with Tommy. Even now, each acts like that was the end of the world and they’re just waiting for everyone else to catch up.
Royal City Volume 1: Next of Kin
Written and Drawn by Jeff Lemire
Published by Image Comics