Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Essex County (Vol. 1): Tales From the Farm

Essex County (Vol. 1): Tales From the Farm
by Jeff Lemire
Top Shelf 2007

Hillary Brown: I've been seeing the covers of Jeff Lemire's Essex County Trilogy for a while now, and their intense colors on uncoated cover stock really catch the eye. They've also been getting good reviews all over the place, including from Eddie Argos. So it's not like I was hanging back out of principle or wariness or anything like that. I just sort of hadn't gotten around to them yet. And I have to say... I was a little disappointed with Tales from the Farm, the first in the series. Maybe I'm a jerk about wanting my comics generally to be more adult (see, for example, my Vertigo love), but I tend to get picky about things that are more young adult than adult proper. I know that developing minds need a gentler approach, and Tales from the Farm is probably oriented even younger than that, but I like stuff that pushes my buttons, and that tends to be either pretty deep emotionally or full of sex adn violence, which, you know, this is neither. I am being an ass. It's beautifully drawn. Lemire's line is incredibly distinctive, and he could probably do quite well writing a book sans words, as his characters convey considerable emotion in their faces and body language. And the writing bit isn't bad, either. It's just not as solid as the art. Your thoughts?

Garrett Martin: Well, I disagree! Especially about the sex and violence, but also about this book in particular. It skews young, sure, but I expected that, and thought it was pretty successful on those terms. It's not as broad or cloying as many YA comics, and although it may not be all that "emotionally deep", its handling of certain matters could be a lot less elegant. There was restraint in the flashbacks that explained how the boy came to live with his uncle. Apparently it's hard to be restrained about stuff like that, considering how other, lesser works deal with similar issues. I'm not referring to comics specifically right there, but movies, books, TV shows, etc. Lemire doesn't embarrass himself.

He also doesn't distinguish himself as a writer, though. No particular problems jumped out at me as I read the book, but everything felt just a bit too nondescript. I do appreciate the leisurely pace and lack of hysterics, but the story itself is familiar territory. He kept things simple and straight-forward, which is nice, and knows when to end a scene, but if it wasn't for the book's brevity and Lemire's craggy, expressive art, I probably would've dozed off a time or two.

HB: I think we're coming from the same place here, or at least arriving at the same conclusion, which, to put it bluntly, is that this book is no Skyscrapers of the Midwest, right? I don't mean it to sound like I'm some sort of desensitized fiend who'd be roaming the streets looking for people to assault in a Frank Miller comic, and Josh Cotter's work manages to push those buttons I referred to without resorting to either sex or violence. It just goes deeper, somehow. You're totally right to credit Lemire for his restraint, and it's appreciated on my end too--it's very midwestern in its own way, in its lack of over-emoting. It's not a movie of the week approach at all. But at the same time, being hypercritical here, this book isn't up to Cotter's level, and while that may be (and probably is) because it's attempting to reach a younger audience, that sort of bugs me. I can definitely praise it for its own merits, but I was expecting a little more.

GM: Right, good comparison. That restraint I mentioned is also why Tales From the Farm isn't Skyscrapers. And I don't mean emotional or dramatic restraint, but how Lemire focuses more directly on the story, generally avoiding the surrealism and fantasy found throughout Skyscrapers. I'd call that a good thing if Cotter hadn't somehow brilliantly walked that thin line between poignancy and pretension. It's weird, I thought of Skyscrapers when I read Farm, but didn't consider it again until you mentioned it in this conversation. Maybe because, even though they do bear many similarities, they're also vastly different?

HB: Right. You could group them, curatorially, with Chris Ware's work (midwesternish, restrained, kind of depressing) as well, and it's tough competition for Lemire to put him up against those two. I could also rephrase this as: Even months later, I'm still realizing just how good Cotter's book is, and it's not fair for me to compare everything I read that's at all similar to it as they're almost guaranteed to look bad in that sort of light. Vastly different might be an overstatement, though. Convince me.

GM: Wait - is Canada Midwestern? Doesn't this take place up there? Is Canada just the setting, and not where Lemire actually hails from? Is it dumb to ask this, when the internet could easily divulge this info to me in less time than it's taken to write this sentence?

I'd say they're vastly different in terms of structure and technique, if not theme. Tales From the Farm is a straight-forward story, with an easily diagrammed plot. The fantasy elements are less integral, not narratively, but visually. In Farm there's only, what, one scene that's not clearly set in the real world? Skyscrapers is more surreal, a bit stream-of-consciousness, and those're the most memorable and important parts about that book. Maybe I should've written "these two are vastly different despite having remarkably similar subject matter", much like I'll hopefully be able to say about that Seth Rogen / Jody Hill movie that looks far too much like Paul Blart?

HB: I wouldn't say Canada is technically midwestern--clearly, parts of it exist much farther east and west than that--but doesn't it come off that way? Everyone is so unassuming and polite.

Anyway, fair enough on that last point. They're similar and they're different and people should maybe read both of them, although we agree that Lemire's work skews younger and less complex.

GM: I remembered that guy was a hockey player and realized this had to be Canadian. And it is. Yep!

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