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Essex County Vol. 1 (of 3): Tales From the Farm

Here’s a somber, emphatic mood piece of a comic, recently released by Top Shelf at $9.95 for 112 b&w pages. I suspect it’ll strike a chord with some readers, immersed as it is in sense of reflective childhood isolation and recovery, dabbed with sports heroes and superheroes, all of the things a young man might come to admire while stuck in the middle of nowhere in every sense of the phrase.

I’m unfamiliar with writer/artist Jeff Lemire, although I know he did two issues of a comic titled Ashtray in 2003, won a Xeric grant for his 2005 graphic novel Lost Dogs, and is currently serializing a comic titled Soft Instruments online. As you can tell from the title, this book is only the first volume in a trilogy of books to be released by Top Shelf from now to 2008, although it’s a full story in and of itself.

The premise is quite simple - tracking the seasons of a year in the titular rural Ontario county, the story follows a young boy named Lester who’s been orphaned through the death of his mother and must live with his Uncle Ken on a farm. Lester has withdrawn far inside himself, and constantly wears a superhero cape and mask, claiming to be hunting malevolent scouts from an upcoming alien invasion. He doesn’t appear to have any friends, although his twin loves of comics and hockey leads him into a friendly-seeming interaction with one Jimmy Lebeuf, a gas station attendant that everyone has written off as brain-damaged after a nasty injury in his first big game on the Toronto Maple Leafs. Personal growth and many inky, isolation-dipped views of rural scenery and farm equipment ensue.

On the level of symbol and character, this is not a deep or particularly innovative book. Lemire has a good grasp of choked, plainspoken dialogue, which suits his characters just fine, although their personal arcs rarely seem more than predestined by the thrust of this type of coming-of-age story (as Uncle Ken loads his truck up with chickens for the slaughter before a weeping Jimmy, is their ever any doubt that this divide between two seemingly incompatible lives will be sensitively filled?). The same goes for the use of superhero accoutrement, kept on so broad a symbolic level as to seem almost precious by the book’s concluding plunge into outright metaphoric fantasy, though I expect Lemire’s two-fisted wrap-up of a boy’s growth may hold more resonance for those with a greater childhood attachment to superhero comics than I. Indeed, Lemire even inserts seven pages of his very own childhood superhero comics, drawn at the age of 9, so as to deepen his own presence in the form of young Lester.

Of wider appeal, I think, are Lemire’s visuals, which considerably augment his story’s impact through their own scratched visions of power - mighty farm instruments, sharp rows of crops, razor-like thatches of grass, looming, blank horizons. It’s more than enough to sell the psychological state of the three primary characters, all of whom are quite lost in their own ways. Lemire is additionally talented at summarizing character traits in their faces, Jimmy a menacing/cuddly hulk with knob ears and an elephantine nose that seems to have been broken a thousand times, Uncle Ken and his canyons of wrinkles and thick mustache perfect for brooding over tragic flashbacks in the shadows, all the other detail in his body drained as if it migrated to his pained face. Lemire trusts quite heavily in his visuals, many pages very light on words or entirely ‘silent,’ and that’s undoubtedly the best creative choice made with the work.

Predominantly, this reads like an early work from a talented creator, which is precisely what it is. As is fully expected, young Lester ultimately grasps his own power as an individual, and is able to relate to others on a more mature level by book’s end. Likewise, Lemire possesses an evident aptitude for infusing his comics with a black and wind-beat authenticity. His tale of childhood’s twilight out and onto the page, the reader can hope for stronger sights in the promised future.

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