The noses Jeff Lemire draws don’t just sit in the middle of his characters’ faces, they loom so large as to be unavoidable. These landmarks serve as emblems of both personality and family history. Some possess a beaklike sharpness (aligning their characters with the crows that make regular appearances in these books), while others are as blocky as ice cubes—not surprising, given that Lemire’s stories are set in Southern Ontario and feature men and boys who love hockey. Cartooning at its liveliest and most expressive, is rarely about delineating faces with photographic accuracy. The great cartoonists have been adept at exaggeration, distortion, and distillation—all the tricks of visual shorthand necessary to give life to pen-and-ink people. In Essex County, Lemire’s ambitious graphic-novel trilogy, the artist’s sure-handed and deft caricatures prove instantly engaging: a doe-faced boy dreaming of becoming a superhero, a careworn farmer baffled by unwanted family responsibilities, a good-natured lunkhead of a gas-station attendant still recovering from a hockey injury suffered many years earlier.
These are rough-hewn people whose raggedy appearances match their rustic surroundings. Essex County (a real place, although given a fictional history by Lemire) is farmland near the Detroit border, settled largely by French Canadians and Irish immigrants. The same quivering, fluid line that describes those memorable noses also expresses their geographic equivalents: lonely silos and windmills, quiet fields blanketed with snow, and the ever-observant crows circling overhead. Lemire’s people are taciturn and deeply rooted, human counterparts to a land that took generations of labor to tame but still retains its secrets.
The trilogy starts in the present, with a prepubescent superhero wannabe whose fantasies unknowingly enact his instinctual search for his missing father, and each successive volume reaches further back in time to unfold the history of the town and the boy’s family. Lemire’s storytelling skill is such that, although his narrative eventually spans more than a century and five generations, the reader never gets lost. Two family trees appear near the end of the last book, but they’re really not necessary, since it’s clear throughout who is related to whom—similar-looking nasal organs show up generation after generation.
The longing for absent family members, evident at the start of the story, becomes the thread that holds the multigenerational saga together. This is, of course, well-trodden territory in comics. Perhaps because many cartoonists fall in love with their craft before they can even read, the comic book is among the most Freudian of art forms, filled with boys wrestling with daddy issues. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Daniel Clowes’s David Boring, and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan plumb fraught family history, especially the problem of overbearing or absent dads. (Female cartoonists, from Lynda Barry to Alison Bechdel, tend to be more inclusive, writing stories about the group dynamics of the home.)
But if Lemire is following in the footsteps of earlier cartoonists, he does so with a visual vocabulary taken from an unexpected source: mainstream comic books. In interviews, Lemire has spoken of his love of journeymen like Joe Kubert (best known for drawing Sgt. Rock), Carmine Infantino (the premier Flash artist), and Alex Toth (a master of stark imagery who worked in many genres). From them, Lemire learned how to draw cinematically—the reader’s vantage zooms in and out from panel to panel, with quick shifts from one scene to the next—as well as how to mark his pages with well-placed dollops of ink (if you look at his books upside down, you can still appreciate how the black and white design elements play off one another).
It’s so easy to flip from one page to the next that the book even acquires some of the speed of cinema. This perhaps explains why Essex County is slightly dissatisfying when reread slowly. What first appears as the fluid skill of a confident artist can, the second time around, look like a flashy confidence trick. Although Lemire tries to tone down emotional scenes with multiple silent panels, he instead comes perilously close to melodrama. Such a saga will naturally have numerous dramatic turns, but too many smoldering rivalries, illicit births, and early deaths turn the story into a soap opera, draining the best scenes of genuine feeling.
The trilogy’s dominant emotions—wistfulness and melancholy—are initially charming (the expression of such feelings is rare in comics, although a small cohort of emo cartoonists have plowed the same fields) but, over the course of the series, grow into an oppressive sentimentality. This is especially evident in Lemire’s handling of a character named Lou Lebeuf, whose estrangement from his brother leads to decades of mutual misery. Their feud lies at the heart of the trilogy, with Lou’s selfishness standing in sharp contrast to the family ties celebrated elsewhere. Alas, Lemire softens this story line by turning Lou into a lovable “old bugger.”
Lemire’s best scenes are done with a light touch, in particular his rendering of birds: Crows flit through many pages, alighting on branches and spreading their black wings against a pure white moon. The freedom of these soaring birds is evidence of Lemire’s own artistic flight, his infectious pleasure in his skills as a storyteller.
Jeet Heer is editor, with Kent Worcester, of Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (2004) and the forthcoming A Comics Studies Reader (both University Press of Mississippi).