Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Mildly Informative Review - Essex County: Tales From the Farm

I’ve been trying to come up with a good post for this book for quite a while now but it seems that the workLIFE continuum had other plans for me. In essence I’ve read Jeff Lemire’s Essex County: Tales from the Farm and I’ve also been slowly reading Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics. In McCloud’s book he explores the notion of comics not only as art but as literature and how, at the time of publication for his book, comics were still coming to terms with this notion. That comics have yet to achieve that potential while facing the numerous challenges within and without the medium.

And then I read Essex County, which to me, is the modern of embodiment of comics as literature. This is a book that has a unique yet approachable voice, from a story that understands its audience to a look that is a departure from the superhuman copy reality blandness. Here you are presented with characters that look rough around the edges because they exist as characters that are meant to be rough around the edges while still being easily identifiable and unique. This is actually a book that looks like nothing else on the shelves, which is very welcome, but that uniqueness does not detract from its appeal or ability to convey the narrative or emotions of the characters.

The story itself is quite stark, again something I find Lemire’s character work and general layout of panels helps portray. The main characters have all suffered a loss, from a sister, to a mother, to a fabled career and possibly a son. The plot involves Lester as the boy always in a cape and mask living on his uncle’s farm as his mother, Ken’s sister, dies. While this is a generally strained relationship between two men at different points in their lives dealing with a shared loss Lester does manage to befriend the local gas station attendant Jimmy LeBoeuf. Their relationship starts because of their appreciation for the make believe worlds in comics but develops into a shared trust of one another, since they’re both cast as outsiders (amplified by comics' status as outsider entertainment)

But none of this really explains why I think this is my new example of comics as literature. No, for me it’s in Lemire’s storytelling. Whenever the characters retreat into their minds the panels have a new presentation, from Lester’s own comic book to Ken’s remembrance of his sister. When the somewhat jarring climax takes place it is never presented differently, which leaves it up to the interpretation of the audience. Did it really happen or does Lester just believe it happened? That is the open ended question being asked of the audience, and without reading it again I’m unsure I can come down on one side of the coin or the other. It works because it is so out of left field but also perfectly sensible within the story being told. That’s the moment that really sealed the deal for me, to say nothing of the reminiscent of Sling Blade relationship between the boy and man.

All in all, this is a fantastic piece of comic bookery. I think Jimmy LeBoeuf says it best.

Thanks Jimmy.

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