The first two books of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County trilogy — “Tales from the Farm” and “Ghost Stories” — are a one-two punch for 2007, easily two of the best graphic novels that year.
The novels draw their inspiration from the creator’s hometown in Ontario, crafting personal narratives of the people who live there that are impossible to separate from the land itself. Lemire’s pen renders the town and farm land in the bleakest black and white, with lines that are like gashes in the character’s souls. Their pasts are reflected in their faces, craggy and broken like the earth they walk on — it’s a stylistic triumph of sequential illustration.
In the first volume, “Tales from the Farm,” orphaned Lester goes to live on his uncle’s farm. Disinterested in that life, Lester retreats into a comic book fantasy, dressing as a superhero and playing war against invading aliens. He secretly befriends the rumored to be brain damaged former hockey player Jimmy Lebeuf, even though his uncle disapproves, and the two embark on a play fantasy mixed with frank conversation. For Lester, it’s the backdrop to a year-long psychological process during which he must come to terms with his mother’s death and his uncle’s inability to comfortably transition into the role of a parent.
In the second, “Ghost Stories,” Lemire turns his attention to brothers Lou and Vince Lebeuf and their brief and disastrous careers as hockey players — disastrous physically and emotionally, tearing them apart and scarring them well into old age. Lemire reveals their history through the displaced point of view of the now elderly and decrepit Lou, whose memories mix with his depressing present day to have him grapple with everything that has come before and what little follows.
Lemire also addresses the real and thematic relationships between the stories in the two volumes, tossing hints as to the ways in which they intertwine. It’s a raw portrayal of emotions and relationships and the damage souls that lurk within any of it.
They are also admirable for the integration of hockey as a centerpiece to the drama, built on admirable scholarship of the game, a sincere understanding of its relevance to Canadian culture, and a skillful presentation to those who have little knowledge or interest of the game before they pick up the book. Most of the story in “Ghost Stories” takes place in a hockey arena — Lemire takes the physical decimation that the game heaps on its players and applies it metaphorically to the way rough lives are lived in the rural lands he chooses to portray.
Lemire took the time for a short Q&A with me in regard to his work.
J7: Do you like Ingmar Bergman at all?
JL: Not really. My main non-comics/cinematic influences would be David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Stanley Kubrick, and Werner Hertzog.
J7: How much is the landscape as drawn representational of the actual town? Are there direct portraits in there of real places?
JL: Most of the main settings in the books (the gas station, the bridge and the river, the co-op etc) are all based directly from the real locations.
J7: Did you consciously decide to represent your hometown in fiction, or was it something that developed into it as you crafted a story?
JL: It developed as I started to work on the story. I started out with the characters of Lester and Jimmy and their relationship, and the setting was essentially Essex County, my hometown. So, after a while I just dropped the pretense of an imaginary town, and decided to use as much of the real Essex County as I could.
J7: The landscape itself functions as a character, as well as a psychological backdrop to the internal movement of the characters — did you consider these ideas as you conceived it, or did that come out as you worked on it?
JL: I suppose a bit of both. I purposely set out to use the four seasons as reflections of the characters paths. And, by extension, the settings and landscapes came to reflect the psychology of the characters as well.
J7: Is it really as bleak as it seems in your book?
JL: No, probably not. As you said, it came to represent the internal state of the characters who are all going through rather hard times, but to be honest, I find a lot of beauty in the starkness and sparseness of the landscape, and don’t necessarily see it as bleak.*
J7: You draw some mesmerizing, harsh faces on people — what goes into a face? Do you study faces on people? What sorts attract you to draw?
JL: I don’t generally draw my characters based on real people, or from life. They just sort of emerge in my sketchbooks. I obviously prefer hard, aged, rugged faces, they are the most fun to draw. Children’s and women’s faces are much tougher, because there are not many defining characteristics. However, I feel I’m getting much better at these especially in my more recent work.
J7: Are the human stories, relationships, circumstances based on any real versions of the same? Or is any of this autobiographical?
JL: Most of it is fiction, but certain character traits and parts of my own family history sort of worked themselves into the narrative as well. For example, Lou from Ghost Stories is an amalgam of different people from my life. He looks like my Grandfather did late in life, and the nursing home/deaf scenes were based on the last days of my Great Uncle. But, all of the hockey stuff, and the brother relationship was fiction.
J7: I loved the comic pages drawn by Lester — are these new pages you created specifically for the book, or are these actual kid drawn pages?
JL: Those are actual comics I drew when I was 8 or 99 years old. I have bunch more and may add them to a collected edition of Essex County some day as a “More comics by Lester” section in the back. You could never recreate that kind of energy and directness now, no matter how hard you tried.*
J7: It’s interesting how you utilize escapism in various forms — for Lester, it’s comic books, for Lou, it’s hockey. For people who are into these things, they can sometimes be obsessions at the expense of some levels of reality. Reality does enter into the lives of both characters, though — Lester allows it, while it infringes on Lou.
JL: That in a nutshell is exactly what I was trying to communicate in the first two books. Lester escapes into comics/his imagination and Lou has nothing to look forward to, no imagination, so he escapes into memory. More than anything it’s a statement on youth vs. old age.