Essex County by Jeff Lemire

Winner of the 2008 American Library Association’s Alex Award

Winner of the 2008 Doug Wright Award

Winner of the 2008 Joe Shuster Award

Selected for Canada Reads 2011

I have strong feelings about Essex County being included in Canada Reads 2011. On Twitter and Facebook my strong conviction that a graphic novel shouldn’t be in this competition has been misconstrued as being “against” the genre; I will admit that this type of book is something that I never reach for, but I am not against this as an artistic form. My objections to its inclusion simply stems from the fact that I do not see the graphic novel as a literary genre; graphic novels are primarily a medium for the visual arts. The cartoons are the star. Now with that out of the way I can get down to business.

As a youngster I was a huge comic book fan but the idea of a “novel” told through comics was a little strange to me. No matter what your feelings on this medium it is hard to deny that graphic novels have exploded in popularity. Many bookstores, including larger independents, have sections dedicated to them. I am not going to attempt to know anything about the big players in this world but with the little bit of research I did before I started Essex County I learned that Jeff Lemire is a very well respected man in the industry, working with DC/Vertigo Comics. Essex County is not one cohesive novel, it is a collection of three smaller books and two short comics that make up the Essex County mythology. I have to admit, I really enjoyed this book. Lemire is an incredibly talented artist.

I loved the artistic style in this book; it has a roughness to it that could be described as gritty. Even on stretches of 5 or 6 pages that do not have a single word of text, Lemire was able to display a wide range of emotions, internal torment, and family strife with a simple subtle change to an illustration. The way the author ties together the three “books” of the collection is masterful; it really does create what feels like folklore. I was amazed at how clearly complex themes came through in this type of book.

After the three main books are finished there are 2 small comics included in the collection. While these were well done I don’t feel like they added much to the overall work. I think that the essence of what Lemire was going for is best represented in the longer works. The “Bonus Materials” section really bugged me. I am one of these people that do not like DVD extras, simply because I do not want to see the wizard behind the curtain. I found seeing these bits and pieces was just that, the magician revealing his secrets. It could be argued that I didn’t have to read it, but, it was in the volume, so I felt I owed it to Mr. Lemire.

Will I be rushing out to buy more graphic novels? No. Is my opinion changed about this book being included in Canada Reads? No. Did I enjoy this book? Yes, absolutely. I was surprised by how much I liked it. This is an entirely new form of storytelling that I was completely ignorant of. With Canada Reads right around the corner I wanted to start (re)reading the titles far enough ahead of time that I would be able to get through them all before the show; Essex County being the behemoth of a book that it is was my first choice as I figured it would take me a long time to get through, I was wrong. I managed to rip through this 500+ page book in only one Sunday. I think this book will be eliminated early from the competition (I am predicting it will be the second to go); I have a feeling that the debates will be centered around the arguments I made above. With all of my prejudices aside I would like to thank Canada Reads for putting a book in my hands that I would otherwise have never even heard of.

One response

  1. I like many others have never found my niche with graphic novels, however the course I am currently enrolled in is all about them. I was not impressed at first to have to read this mamoth of a book, but i was pleasently suprised at how much I loved it. I mean it! I love this book. Not to mention that i read it in a matter of less than 3 hours, and I am not what one would call an avid reader if you catch my drift.
    It was a great compellation of all three comics and I believe that as a future teacher it will teach me to be less judgemental about graphic novels of this nature. Perhaps we have found a dimond in the ruff, but I do believe that there isn’t a single Canadian out there that if given the opportunity to read this book, would find it boring. Especially all of the ties it has to southern Ontario. Come on even the peanutbutter is the same on that is in my cubboard right now.

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