By Andrea Warner
About four hours southwest of Toronto lies Essex County, a region that, until recently, was best known for two things: the city of Windsor (its county seat), and its spitting-distance proximity to Detroit.
But in 2008, Jeff Lemire’s Tales from the Farm, the first installment in his Essex County Trilogy, quietly burst onto the international comic/graphic-novel scene. Ghost Stories followed a few months later, and then The Country Nurse, inadvertently launching Lemire’s tiny hometown of Woodslee (pop. 5,000) out of obscurity and into the imaginations of readers around the world. At the time of this writing, Lemire is the sole “notable person” on Essex County’s Wikipedia page.
Lemire’s rise to fame is part of Canadian cartoonists’ growing role in the comics industry, according to Robin McConnell, host of the comics-based CITR radio show, InkStuds. Lemire’s success continues to raise the profile of Vancouver artists as well.
“Vancouver has some great talents, like Brandon Graham and James Stokoe,” McConnell says. “Jeff exemplifies the work of a Canadian cartoonist, not succumbing to any form of Hollywood or genre-specific pressure for light and easy fare.”
Lemire’s trilogy covers vast narrative terrain, but is consistently rooted in its fictionalized version of his hometown, a rural community where everyone’s histories are neatly and inextricably weaved together through complicated backstories, expressed through sparse but evocative drawings that perfectly capture the books’ themes of loneliness and family. Tales from the Farm focuses on a young comic-book-obsessed boy who wears a superhero cape everywhere he goes, and is forced to move in with his uncle after his mother dies. Ghost Stories best shows Lemire’s innovation as a storyteller as it details an old man’s backward glances at his troubled life, his thwarted hockey career, and the complicated history he shared with his brother. The Country Nurse ties the first two stories together, and follows a tireless woman with her own troubles as she tries her best to tend to the emotional and physical issues of everyone around her.
Top Shelf Comix, the Portland-based independent publishing company that discovered Lemire, recently released The Collected Essex County.
“In some ways, it’s a romanticized view of where I grew up,” Lemire says. “In other ways, it’s a colder, starker version as well. Essex County is flat, with family farms spread out along very flat land. My closest neighbours were miles away, and that led to a lot of time playing alone on the farm, and a lot of time in my room reading and drawing comics.”
Lemire’s early artistic training came from those hours in his room, during which he devoured comics and observed the various styles used by different artists, particularly those featured in DC Comics’ Who’s Who directories.
“That was a real turning point for me,” Lemire says. “It was like an encyclopedia of all of their characters, featuring artwork by every comics artist working at the time. I copied different entries in the styles of [my favourite] artists. I remember my Mom and Dad would sit and go through the books with me; they would cover the artist credit at the bottom of the page and I would tell them which artist drew each page. I got them all right, and they couldn’t believe it, because to their untrained eye all those drawings just looked the same. But I had studied and poured over these drawings and knew the way every different artist created lines and shadow.”
Visually, Essex County’s illustrations offer up starkly contrasted images of people in varying states of despair, discovery, or delightful escape, usually interacting with some element of nature. Long country roads, a frozen river, the high-stakes hockey game — all are rendered with varying intensity. Hazy memories are represented by loosely penciled renditions, while present-day confrontations are liberally shaded with rich black ink. These drawings, more than the stories themselves, fulfill the mission that Lemire set for himself with the Essex County Trilogy.
“I never really sat down and wrote,” Lemire says. “I still rarely do. For me, it’s always been about the drawing first. It all starts visually, and story and character and plot all evolve out of my drawings. In a way, my drawing is my writing. I don’t see a separation between the two when it comes to making comics; they’re all part of the same process... I took the things I loved the most about the Essex County landscape — old rusted farm equipment, tattered wooden barns, vast open fields, endless telephone lines running off into the horizon — and focused on creating an idealized, timeless visual shorthand for the setting.”
Lemire’s ascent has been both arduous and breakneck. The 33-year-old former film student self-published his first book, Lost Dogs, in 2005. Flash forward four years, and he’s now part of DC Comics / Vertigo, one of the biggest players in the comics market. Lemire’s first novel for DC, The Nobody, came out this year, and he’s now working on a monthly series called Sweet Tooth, and another book for Top Shelf about impending fatherhood (Lemire himself is a proud new dad). Ultimately, he says, it was self-publishing that was key in launching his career.
“There is just no other way to get started,” Lemire says. “Who’s going to publish someone who’s never been published before? I mean, of course that happens on the rare occasion, but really most publishers need to see a published — or at least a finished — work to be able to get a sense of who you are and if it’s something they want to take on. In comics we’re lucky that it’s seen as cool to go the DIY route, and there’s actually grassroots support for that.”
And taking chances on new writers is continuing to pay off as the audience for graphic novels continues to widen. According to Publishers Weekly, North American graphic-novel and comic-book sales is one of the few areas of growth in the publishing industry, up to 715 million in 2008, versus 705 million in 2007. It’s a relatively small increase, but in an industry on the decline, any growth is deemed a success. Lemire’s view of his industry’s future is decidedly similar to the tone of his work: realistic with a dash of hopefulness.
“Eventually, it will all be digitally distributed and viewed, and only a few really high-end print editions will be done as collector’s items,” Lemire predicts.
“In terms of the medium itself, it’s really limitless.There are going to be more and more interesting young voices coming up in the comics, telling really diverse stories. It’s not just going to be white boys bred on superheroes like me anymore. I also think we’re seeing more and more female cartoonists emerging each year, and that’s really going to change a traditionally male-dominated medium for the better. The more diverse comics get, the more the medium can continue to grow and evolve... There are a lot more women coming up to me at shows and getting their books signed. It’s not just 18- to 40-year-old men with Batman T-shirts anymore.”