Essex County Vol. 1

A sense of emptiness, of wide open space, isolation, and loneliness, fills much of Essex County Vol. 1: Tales from the Farm. Those vast spaces are both literal and figurative, suggesting both the farm fields of Southwestern Ontario and the distance between a boy and his uncle. The sheer emotion that Jeff Lemire manages to eke out of a few rough lines can be startling.

There is far more going on between the people in this calm country setting than first glance suggests. But there always is, isn’t there?

It is, on the surface, a very simple tale: Lester, a young boy without a father, is taken in by his uncle following his mother’s early death from cancer. Between the lines is a much larger story about just how difficult it can be for people to truly learn to understand and live with one another.

The differences between Lester and Uncle Ken are obvious. What is heartbreaking, however, is that the common ground between them is equally obvious. They watch the same hockey games on television sets in separate rooms. Both carry the pain of losing the same person, mother to Les and sister to Ken.

Even so, when Lester first reaches out for a father figure, he does not look to Ken.

A shared love for escapism and comic books forges a strange bond between the boy and an injured former professional hockey player, Jimmy Lebeuf, who now owns the local gas station. That bond causes a good bit of trouble with Uncle Ken. It is established that there is history between him and Jimmy, but the reader is allowed space to make of that what he or she will.

The stuff of the world of the comic book superhero permeates this simple tale: the fantasy of flight, sketching out battles between good and evil (staged in a world where one is easily able to tell the difference between the two), and allowing the imagination to transform a frozen creek and snowy woods into a place where a heroic last stand is made against hostile alien forces.

This story speaks directly to those who were both comforted by and isolated by fantasy while growing up. The comic books that Lester reads while on the school bus provoke taunts from his less imaginative schoolmates yet also offer him an escape from their cruelty.

Lester does not understand the world he has found himself in — a pragmatic though peaceful place of early morning chores, young chicks that must be fed, and older chickens that are sold for meat — any more than Uncle Ken understand Lester’s love of escapism. “Jesus! Ain’t you got enough of those things yet!?” Ken asks while digging in his pockets for change at the gas station so that Lester can buy a comic book.

Those who grew up reading comic books will find many a memory stirred in these deceptively simple tales.

Really, anyone who knows what it is like to feel awkward and out-of-place while finding a way to fit into the world (which is another way of saying all of us) will find much to love in this book.