Southwestern; South Western

Essex County: The Collected Edition (containing Tales from the Farm, Ghost Stories, The Country Nurse, and additional material): written and illustrated by Jeff Lemire (2008-2009): This mutiple-award-winning graphic novel both in Canada and the U.S. (or perhaps more accurately, a graphic short-story cycle in the tradition of Alice Munro and Stephen Leacock) really is a lovely piece of work in terms of writing and cartooning.

Lemire’s moved on to more mainstream, big-company books (he currently writes for DC and DC/Vertigo), but I hope he returns to his more personal, independent roots at some point. I like his work on DC’s Animal Man and Frankenstein, but his work here really sings.

Essex County, set in Southwestern Ontario’s Essex County (on the Ontario/Michigan border near Detroit, if you’re wondering) tells the story of four generations of interlocking lives and families over about a century in a partially non-linear fashion — the earliest chronological flashback here is the last extended flashback in the book.

There’s a lot of grief, family discord, and hockey. There’s an eleven-year-old orphan who wears a superhero cape and mask all the time while he grieves for his mother and tries to acclimate to living with his bachelor uncle. There’s a gas-station owner with a secret who played one game (and scored one goal) in the National Hockey League. There’s the nurse who checks up on the isolated, elderly members of this diffuse community. And there’s a crow who seems to watch everything.

Lemire manages the difficult feat of juggling humour and pathos without slipping into sentimentality and bathos. His writing is spare and realistic, and he lets his cartooning carry a lot of the narrative and thematic weight — there are as many full-page spreads here as in a Jack Kirby superhero comic, and lots of big panels with a lot of space for sky and field. Lemire’s not a slick cartoonist, which fits the material. He’s rough in a suitable, evocative way; his faces, especially, are his strength.

The art reminds me favourably of William Messner-Loeb’s art on Journey. Messner-Loebs is on the American side of that Ontario/Michigan border: is there an Ontario/Michigan Border Cartooning Style? Probably not, but they’re both fine writers and cartoonists. While there are elements of setting, plot, and location that recall Ontario small-town chroniclers Alice Munro and Stephen Leacock, the closest Canadian analogy to Lemire I can think of in the non-graphic-novel arena is Paul Quarrington, whose novels¬†including King Leary and Whale Music have a similar mix of family drama, humour, tragedy, and hockey. Highly recommended.

Cowboys and Aliens: created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg written by Fred Van Lente; illustrated by Dennis Calero and others (2006): I’m pretty sure Scott Rosenberg came up with the concept of Cowboys and Aliens and then farmed out the writing and drawing to others with an eye to selling the concept to Hollywood. Certainly I’ve never seen the first installment of a comic book in which the creator doesn’t write or draw anything.

The ploy worked. A movie was made, and that movie contains almost no plot points or characters or even character names in common with this short graphic novel. But it does have the same title! The comic is marginally better than the movie, bland but not as dumb as Hollywood’s take on the material. And at least some of the advanced aliens here wear clothing. Not recommended.

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