According to TIME magazine, of the 100 greatest novels ever written, only one of them has pictures. And it’s not by Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein. You probably already know that book is Alan Moore’s opus, Watchmen. TIME describes the comic as “…a graphic novel — a book-length comic book with ambitions above its station—starring a ragbag of bizarre, damaged, retired superheroes,” but the more comic book studious of you know that Watchmen was actually released in twelve-issues before being collected into the highly esteemed graphic novel that TIME magazine freely associates with other novelly novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and Lolita. The even more studious Alan Moore fans will know that Moore does not like the term “graphic novel” (nor does he like anything really), calling it “a marketing term.”
By the basest definition, “graphic novel” just means “long comic book,” but TIME goes one step further and claims that definition includes “ambitions above its station,” a means of separating the silly superheroes with the more serious art, the equivalent of calling your garbage man a sanitation expert.
I’m not here to argue with TIME’s list and say that The Sandman ought to have a place on their list instead of On the Road (although it totally should). No, I’m here to talk to you about one particular graphic novel, Essex County by Jeff Lemire, but as Carl Sagan once stated that “in order to make a pie from scratch one must first create the universe,” I have decided to create the graphic novel universe for you before launching into my review (because, like TIME magazine, I am pretentious enough to use the term “graphic novel” and pretentious enough to quote Carl Sagan without a hint of irony).
Will Eisner popularized the term with his book, A Contract with God, though he even admits that he wasn’t the first to coin the phrase. George Metzger, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, as well as a few others, all wrote “graphic novels” prior to Eisner’s book, but A Contract with God is a good starting point nonetheless. It deals with bleak themes, grounded in auto-biographical stories, and higher-browed subject matters. The stories in the comic all revolve around a tenement in Brooklyn in the 1930s, which is the 1930s equivalent of living in the projects but without the hope that one day you may break into hip-hop. It paved the way for comic books to tell stories like Maus and Persepolis, which both handle lofty subjects (the holocaust and the Islamic revolution in Iran, respectively), something that seemed reserved for just book books previously.
And it’s that brand of comic book storytelling that leads us into Essex County. The historical context of Lemire’s book isn’t nearly as lofty as The Holocaust, and few things are, but like Maus it takes a deeply personal and somber story and takes it into a medium that still carries the stigma of catering to children and man-children.
Essex County is three graphic novels that all take place in the titular rural county in Canada. The first book follows a young farm boy named Lester who strikes up a friendship with a local gas station cashier, Jimmy LeBeuf. Jimmy was a professional hockey player for one game until he suffered a career-ending injury that renders him “a little slow.” The second tells the story of Lou LeBeuf, another former hockey player who now spends his days in a nursing home, unable to hear, and reminiscing about his past. Finally, Lemire tells the story ofAnnie Guenneville in the third book and ties all of the different threads together. While the third novel loses much of its steam in trying to wrap everything up in a bow, the first two are beautifully melancholic looks into this unassuming county and present us with an interesting insight into the fleeting promise of athletic success.
And those first two novels do everything so well that the somewhat haphazard handling of the conclusion drifts out of your memory. Instead, you find yourself lingering in Essex County, maybe you even cried if you’re kind of a wuss. Lemire’s deft handling of his characters, his subtle but definite characterizations, his loose but honed in art style, draw us into this quiet town and allows us to see the noise rustling just beneath the surface. The scenes with Lou LeBeuf in the second novel illustrate this the best. Lemire’s almost sketch-like art gives life to an otherwise sad, old, deaf man who seems to have given up on life.
These are the kind of tales that come to mind when we think “graphic novel.” These comic books that solicit emotion from us, emotions aside from the excitement one feels when Superman punches someone’s head into space. Yes, Batman has had tales told in the form of the “graphic novel,” some very good and notable ones at that, as have many other superheroes and super villains, but it’s a rather nebulous signifier, “graphic novel,” one that tries to distinguish things that don’t need distinguishing. These are the supposed “art house” films of the comic book medium, and Watchmen is their Citizen Kane. Or perhaps, Watchmen is more like The Godfather and A Contract with God is the Citizen Kane. And that would make The Dark Knight Returns Goodfellas or something, so … of course … Ghost World would be the film adaptation of Ghost World and … this metaphor got away from me pretty quickly. You see! You see what happens when you create vague and unnecessary genres! Just ask whoever came up with “indie rock.”
~ The Black Ness Monster ~