Last week I was talking with my writing teacher, Dale, about graphic novels. I was reading one before class started and he, pretty unfamiliar with the form, was curious what a lit snob like me thought of them.
I told him I was pretty new to the form myself, having only started reading graphic novels seriously for the past year or so. What I had found, I said, is that I tend to like the books that feature a writer and artist team. It seemed to me that the novels with just one person doing the art and the story often seemed to come up lacking (though I do have to take that back because a lot of the graphic memoirs I’ve read and enjoyed are by one person). The artist-written stories were a bit tired, cliche, stories I had already read before. He wasn’t surprised since visual art and writing are two completely different art forms.
Of course, Jeff Lemire has either blown that theory to bits, or proven to be the exception to the rule. I’m not sure yet.
What I am sure of is that The Complete Essex County has both a beautiful story and fabulous art.
Set in rural Canada, the story starts with Lester a young boy who wears a superhero cape and mask and who, after his mother dies, has to live with his uncle Ken on a farm in Essex County. Lester befriends Jimmy a sort of weirdo loner who runs the gas station and whose claim to fame is scoring one goal as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The relationship between Lester and Jimmy is tender and sweet and it isn’t until later in the book that you find out the significance of their friendship.
From Lester and Jimmy we move on to hockey-playing brother Vince and Lou, two Essex County farmboys who move to Toronto in the 50s to play what I think would be called minor league hockey. The two brothers are, of course, in love with the same woman, and their story is told mostly in flashback by an aged Lou who is about to be forced into a nursing home. His story, the flashbacks, are so infused with regret and loss that reading some of the panels was very nearly painful. There is one panel of hockey players clicking their stick on the ice that made my eyes fill with water.
Finally, we read about Anne, a country nurse, who ties all the stories together in a way that is reassuring and fulfilling without feeling contrived at all.
It’s a little tough to write about the stories in Essex County for fear of giving too much away. The way the art and stories intertwine and give you tiny clues about the bigger story going through the book is the most enjoyable part of the collection. I wouldn’t want to ruin that for anyone. Part of the joy of reading a book like this is how very smart and perceptive you feel when something you suspected, something you thought you picked up on is finally revealed, and you were right all along.
The Complete Essex County is one of those rare graphic novels where the art and story have equal weight and work together beautifully. It doesn’t happen that often, and when it does it is pure magic. It’s graphic novels like this that really demonstrate what a powerful and evocative art form graphic storytelling can be.