Essex County by Jeff Lemire

This book broke me. And then it fixed me.

essexcountyWith Jeff Lemire’s name and this bright artwork on cover, I was expecting something heartwarming. It was warm, in fact a bit too warm that my heart got melted away.

Like the title says, it is the story of Essex County, of it’s people and their lives spanning over generations. There are three separate volumes, that subtly segue between various characters and time periods. There is a prevailing sense of loneliness and longing in every character, be it the introvert boy ‘Lester’, one hit wonder ‘Lou’ or the Nurse. Jeff easily characterizes these emotions through art; through fonts, shadows, inanimate objects, snow and even the eyes of characters. The artwork here is more or less sequential, strictly minimal and monochromatic. And it was impressive how the concatenating narrative unraveled complicated relations in sheer simplicity, evoking strong emotions in the process. To each person Essex means something different, and they all have their passions to hold on to when the world around them slips.

212I found a lot of my confused childhood in ‘Lesters’ eyes, the awkwardness and loneliness and escapism in comic book reality. Even in the absence of colours and detailing, little incoherent circles that formed his eyes, and single line that formed his facial expression, conveyed a lot to me than usual words would. Like brightening of the circles and downward curving of lines, when ‘Lester’ was running around in the farm, in his red cape.

CaptureThe second story was too intense for me, it hit me so hard in my feels that I had to close the book more than a few times. Though it is a singular story line, the sequence is jarred, and we are switched through povs and timelines, almost effortlessly. As depressing as it sounds, I somehow identified myself the most with ‘Lou’ in his loneliness, nonchalance and melancholy. Jeff was honest in his literature and artistic depiction of guilt and loss, and their aftermath. There was a lot of similarity between Lester and Lou, mostly on the pleasant side, and for more than once in the surreal business of flashbacks I suspected the latter being the elder version of former. The simultaneous loss of love and friendship drives Lou to strong guilt, the kind that doesn’t allow you to move on or be happy. He tries to make sense of my his lonely life by holding on to the only thing that matters- Hockey, to which he was a one hit wonder of; yet his life somehow finds its way back to the focal point of tragedy.

Picture1.pngThe subtle difference between grief and guilt was addressed in surprising detail here, like how others move on with their life and you are left with a perpetrator guilt that runs simulations of ‘what if’ scenarios in your head over and over. And even after eons, the first thing that gets to your head about a broken friendship would be that focal point. You will be looking for excuses, trying to fix something that is permanently broken and that no one anymore cares about. Guilt keept Lou in a state of perpetual ‘Merlin Sickness’; shrinking him mentally towards the traumatic past, and physically away from it.

xczscfdasfThe last story, involving the Nurse was the one I connected least with even though it was the most communicative among the three. Yet, in a way, it was the story line I needed most. The whole book is predictable, occasionally surreal and even melancholic. But there is an element of magical realism in it, an unreliability in the narration that bends reality between characters, time zones, dreams and memories. There are moments that make you smile, moments that make you ponder even if it’s something as insignificant as the appearance of a crow, and moments that make you sad, but fills you with hope. Jeff does a great job in making characters as real as possible, they age, they feel and they respond like a normal human being than someone sketched out on a paper. And above all, it is beautiful.

22310023._SX540_As I was nearing the end of my reading, the book had left me devastated, badly in need for a hug. And surprisingly, by the time it all ended, the book itself became the very hug that I badly needed.

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This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, Jillian Tamaki

18465566This beautiful graphic novel is a slice of life in its literal sense; the whole thing seems to have been sliced off from a bigger plot. Artwork is dream like, its overall cheerful, monochromatic and yet somehow very colourful.

Book vaguely deals with family drama, depression, teenage angst, love, friendship and the likes. But none of them forms the main theme, they are just there, laid out in open. The characters, happenings, premise and the illustrations, feel very natural and thereby are refreshing to a great extend. Story has nothing compelling to offer, in fact, the sense of more to be said and done prevails during the narrative. Still, somehow, I didn’t want to let go of it.

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In artwork and paneling style, the book reminded me of Craig Thompson’s Blankets. It was very cinematic in depiction; some pages were solely dedicated for character sketch and in that black and white environment, absence of colours didn’t handicap it from transferring emotions. If you like those feel good simple movies, which revolve around silly incidents, roughly toughing through complex topics, this may be for you. If you are a reserved person with inclination for a well structured work with proper pacing and conclusion, prepare to be disappointed. Whatever be the case, artwork will be compensatory for the effort.

Book in itself is the ‘summer’ vacation, that one has to part with in time, with the takeaway of experiences and memories to cherish. And that act both as critique and praise for this novel.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

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‘Beautiful’ would be an overused adjective for this magical visual narrative. There is literally nothing to read in the graphic novel, no written words, no colours, no page numbers; but each panel speaks a lot more than what a conventional paragraph would do.

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The graphic novel opens and closes with detailed portraits of people from all over the world, celebrating the diversity and harmony of magical world of immigrants in story.

It is the story of a man immigrating from his strange world to another in search of job and livelihood, leaving his family behind. New beginnings can be scary as well as exciting; the gorgeous art effortlessly conveys conversations, passing of time, flash backs and emotions through our man  and people whom he encounters. Migration and multiculturalism are recurring themes in this book, with every character being like the protagonist sometime in their life, an immigrant looking for a new home, with his/her whole life and dreams in a suitcase. Worlds illustrated in this graphic novel are strange and steampunk-y, with monsters and pokemon like creatures. And everybody speaks distinctly different languages, but it is barely a barrier for the ‘melting pot’ they live in, like how the absence of wordings in the book isn’t a barrier for readers in following the story.

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Four pages that capture ‘time’ through simple sequences. This belongs to the flashback back story of one of the character our hero meets, who was the sole survivor of an old war.
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Titanic reference, in one panel somewhere after the first arrival. Other similar inspirational throwbacks are there in the book, undecipherable for me though.

In the artist after note Shaun directs to various immigrant anecdotes as his thematic inspiration. There were subtle artistic throwbacks as well towards some of the world’s most famous pictures, like the panel of newsboy announcing Titanic catastrophe. Another aspect I noticed about the art was the meticulous attention for detail, for every time I revisited the book it offered something new, something that made me smile. The panels often panned out into a birds eye view, thus reminding reader of all others who follow protagonist’s same plight and insecurities. Analyzing even from a primitive artistic pov, the sketches are definitely nothing easily reproducible, and the usage of inanimate objects and single focuses to convey passing of time is rather phenomenal and unconventionally cinematic.

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This panning out panes are a recurring occurrence in Tan’s visual narrative. First page is from protagonist’s first journey away from his family, the zooming out of perspective represents the departure. Similar usage in second page is a bit more interesting, it captures the similar plight of other immigrants around him, in that apartment complex.
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Though this leaf/flower/plant is alien to readers, this single page brightly conveys the sense of time that has been passed through over seasons.

This extensive work of 4 years could easily be completed in 10 minutes, or one could dwell into the side quests for long absorbing it’s cycles of departure, alienation, fear, assimilation and growth. No matter which path you take, you are bound to revisit for the beautiful feels.

/Above video provides a good insight into the mind and artwork of Shaun Tan./