The story takes place in Essex County in southwestern Ontario, where Lemire himself grew up. In this first chapter of the trilogy, readers meet Lester, a young boy who enjoys comic books and dresses up in his own makeshift costume to battle invading aliens in the back fields of the farm where he lives. Though not immediately evident, it is his Uncle Ken with whom Lester lives on the farm, and their relationship is strained at best.
Lemire, thankfully, does not spoon-feed his audience, allowing the narrative to reveal itself at a measured pace while keeping readers engaged in the story. Soon enough, one discovers that Lester recently lost his mother to cancer and does not remember his father. This, as much as anything, explains the divide between the boy and his uncle. It’s heartbreaking and authentic, and Lemire’s choice of imagery and spare dialogue convey this emotional chasm masterfully.
Through the course of this first chapter, readers follow this new family of two through a year on the farm, slowly learning more of their history. Lester befriends a local celebrity – Jimmy Lebeuf, who played a single game in the NHL for the Toronto Maple Leafs, wherein he suffered a career-ending injury – and finds the companionship he needs, at this time in his young life. Lester is comfortable with Jimmy, who enjoys discussing comic books with the boy and even dresses up in his old hockey uniform to help Lester battle his alien invaders. It’s a touching friendship, one made more sympathetic when Lester’s uncle warns Jimmy off, hinting at something more than just familial responsibility.
Lemire paces this first volume of his Essex County trilogy so beautifully, teasing out information, allowing readers to make the connections between these characters. His deft use of silent and repeating panels – all utilized to provide narrative beats or accentuate an emotional tenor within the story – help create an engaging graphic novel that had me enthralled from page one. And, when this volume reaches its climax, it is presented in such an understated manner that it will resonate with readers long after the book is closed.
Lemire’s raw, almost scratchy, brushwork adds an emotional layer that elevates this story. His work exemplifies the difference – and, in my opinion, the superiority – of cartooning over photo-realism, the current trend in “mainstream” comics. Lemire’s stark, expressive inks pull readers into this story, enveloping them in the raw emotions he is sharing through these characters. It’s a wonderful melding of art with words, showcasing what is possible in comics.
I understand, fully, why Essex County has received such widespread accolades, and I eagerly look forward to the next volume sitting on my to-read stack. If you haven’t read this book before, you need to seek it out. Now.