Essex County by Jeff Lemire is the first graphic novel I’ve ever read and I found it pretty interesting. The book was nominated by CBC’s Canada Reads as one of the 40 most important Canadian novels of the decade and was also one of the five Canada Reads novels for 2011. The author grew up in Essex County in southern Ontario.
Essex County is actually three interconnected novels, with some common characters in each. I kind of forgot this while I was reading and I think wasted some energy looking for connections that might or might not be there. It’s a surprisingly emotional read. The characters grab you, the drawings get you, and you really get involved in the relationships between the characters. Both plot and character development sneak up on you, since the medium allows minimal explanation and dialogue.
Being in the midst of making a cartoon book of my own, I was most intrigued with the drawing. Lemire has a scratchy black and white style, looking as though it was done with an old fountain pen that leaked or at least dispensed ink fairly randomly. While Lemire is sparse with faces and bodies, he is lavish with his use of panels – he often has a whole page or two of panels just showing a crow flying off a fencepost and into a night sky, or a page-size panel of the farmyard at sunset. I’m always looking for cartooning shortcuts, so while I didn’t always get the purpose of these dialogue-free graphic panels, I admired them for the sheer work they represent and the author’s willingness to stop and depict a mood rather than just rushing the plot along.
I loved the Canadiana – the farm, the small town, the people who don’t quite understand each other, don’t talk much, but still care, the one-bay garage and gas station, and the omni-present hockey story that ties it all together. It struck me a little bit like watching an old silent movie, except visually much quieter. Some of the dialogue, especially of the hockey players, is flat-out hilarious. I laughed out loud.