Friday, February 19, 2010

Collecting some thoughts on Essex County

One of the things I love most about comics and all cartooning for that matter is that they create an obviously interpreted world. In my opinion comic art that exaggerates or simplifies the world in meaningful ways is what appeals so much about the artform. Yes, there is a lot of personal aesthetics involved when approaching or talking about art – some people don’t like black and white, me – I’m not a huge fan of photorealism. If I wanted things to “look real” then I’d just watch something with live actors. This isn’t to say that photorealism is worse than other art, there is a lot of skill and love that goes into that work and it can be very impressive. However, the strength of the cartoon medium is that nothing needs to be realistic.

Blending realistic elements into comics, on the other hand, does seem to work when you think about narrative. I should really get my thoughts together on Maus, which I just re-read. It is a masterful combination of real and cartoon, but if you flipped the elements and made the art more photoreal and the narrative more fictional it just wouldn’t hold the same appeal. Now, simplified doesn’t mean lazy or messy. When I see simplified artwork I see a wonderful economy of linework. Every piece must be just right in order for it to work; there is care in the placing of every element on a page.

Combine this style of art with a good story and you’ve got me hooked (most times). For whatever reason I find that in having characters that can be expressive and “act” for the artist seems to allow for stronger storytelling. This allows for really fantastical stories but it also allows more down to earth and real “slice of life” storytelling. By keeping one aspect stylized, the rest of the elements become more powerful in the weird balance of ideas that Scott McLoud explores a lot better than I ever hope to.

So what’s all this leading to? I reread Jeff Lemire’s Essex County and it’s really fucking good. I’m generally burned out on the usual Can Lit stuff (depressing things happening in small communities) but his art and story telling completely sucks me in. I’d read the first two volumes previously, and my wife picked up the collected edition for me as a Christmas gift, and I happily read the whole thing cover to cover. The way these lives intersect and inform one another is made all the more engaging simply by how the pages look. The characters come to life with Lemire’s lines and inks that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. You see the pain of ages on faces and the desire to get lost in imagination. The connection to the land and the ties of history are all reflected in the enduring love that one character has for another.

Essex County is really a great place to visit that slowly draws you in and reveals the connection that these characters have to one another and to the place. This isn’t a tapestry, it’s a lovely torn rag mat that was put together by someone who is wisely frugal. Shit, I should have written this based around that metaphor – it really is a beautifully woven and solid piece of work that invites you in and stays with you after you put it down, which I used to find incredibly rare in comics (but I’m seeing my tastes change and my purchases lead me to more material that isn’t just simple plot).

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