by Lindsey H., Kayla P., and Eilidh S.
Essex County is a compilation of three graphic novels by the amazing Jeff Lemire. Top Shelf published the trilogy in 2011, but they were originally three separate stories; “Tales from the Farm” (2008), “Ghost Stories” (2008), and “The County Nurse” (2009). In this combined version we are also given two shorter graphic stories that stay within Essex County, “The Sad and Lonely Life of Eddie Elephant Ears” and “The Essex County Boxing Club”. This trilogy pulls on the reader’s heartstrings and gives a bird’s eye view of Essex County, Ontario, Lemire’s hometown. Jeff Lemire is best known for his work for DC Comics but to truly experience the heart and soul of this man you must go back to Essex County, to where it all began.
Essex County is a beautifully crafted tale that centers around the passage of time and the memories that come along with it. So much of this story was defined or catalyzed by the past and the emotions those memories evoked. Even from the first story of a young boy’s memory, and specifically the memory of a trauma, Les is deeply affected by the passing of his mother. In the second book, there is the constant memory of Lou betraying his brother Vince by sleeping with his girlfriend, and later wife, Beth. This mistake cost Lou much of his happiness and instigated a life filled with regret. There are many other instances in this story of the power of the past and how those memories affect people for the rest of their lives. This leads to the discussion question: There is a theme of childhood and generational changes in this book. Why is it significant to tell this story over the course of four generations and roughly 100 years? What is powerful about showing this timespan and what is the power memory holds?
One of the things that Jeff Lemire has stated in his online blog post is that “all of my stories start with the setting, and even more than that, location totally informs how my characters and plots grow and take shape. The Essex County books, all started when I decided to do a book set in the tiny Canadian farming town where I grew up.” Setting is clearly one of the most important parts of this story and Jeff’s process as a graphic novel author. In Essex country, so much of the storyline is driven by where they are and how that setting affects the characters. The farm and the city of Toronto are constantly juxtaposed and at odds with each other, paralleling to the different lives lived in each setting. What is the significance of the setting (rural juxtaposed with urban) and how does this relate to hockey? Is there a generational link? Does it show a common thread of interest? Does it evoke a sense of national pride of Canada?
Next, In Essex County, Lemire has created such a unique and interesting style. His characters range from iconic or realistic and back again. He can emphasize through detail or simplicity and he utilizes black and white versus gray scale. Specifically in this text, Lemire uses gray scale whenever he is depicting a memory. When Lester’s mother dies and her funeral, in the scrapbook Lou finds with all the pictures in gray scale, even Lemire’s childhood sketches are in gray scale. This begs the question: Why do this? What is important about making the memories throughout the book in gray scale? What does it offer to the overall novel?
Finally, the most present symbol throughout the entire book is that of the crow. It is present in every point of transition and in every generation’s story. It seems that the bird is present at most points of transition throughout the book acting like a symbol for the passage of time. Of course, it couldn’t be the same bird throughout all the generations, but there is nonetheless always a bird at times of change. It is possible that the bird acts as the reader or audience does, literally giving the birds-eye view of these people’s lives. The bird acts as a omniscient lens that zooms in and out of focus independent of time or place. What is the purpose of the bird? If it is used as a lens of change, is it used effectively? Is there a symbol that would have been better suited?
Together, these three installments that make up Essex County create a surprisingly cohesive and truly touching story of a family over the span of roughly 100 years. Lemire is able to use his experiences of growing up in a farm town in Ontario Canada to craft an authentically raw story.
Lemire, Jeff. Essex County. Atlanta: Top Shelf Productions, 2009. Print.
Lemire, Jeff. “Jeff Lemire’s Blog: The Real Essex County.” Jeff Lemire’s Blog: The Real Essex County. Web. 24 Apr. 2016. <http://jefflemire.blogspot.com/2008/11/real-essex-county.html>.