Volume Two Of The Essex Country Trilogy
Written and Drawn by Jeff Lemire
Top Shelf Productions
Cover Price $14.95; Available Now
Present-day life for withering-away Lou Lebeuf has become too confusing for him as he deals with his fading memory and inability to hear. At any moment, a distant name, an image, or a location could send him spiraling back across a life that has spanned eight decades. At other times, he forces the triggering of these memories, as he tries to relive his life one last time before it is gone forever. Lou’s most often returned to moment in time, and the one that he keeps safely secure in a scrapbook, is his time playing with the Toronto Grizzlies, a now-defunct semiprofessional hockey team, alongside his brother Vince. For that one brief season, nothing was impossible, and his dreams of playing for the NHL were closer than ever.
But then with one lapse in judgment, followed by a blown-out knee that would end his career, Lou finds himself isolated and seemingly forced down a predetermined path of mediocrity as the city of Toronto engulfs him. Lou’s elderly memory slips back to these gloomy times as well, recalling the early pains of his deteriorating health, his monotonous but fulfilling job driving a streetcar, and how he finally had to return to the family farm and face his brother once again for the first time in 25 years, unaware at the time that even though it was painful to see Vince again, the most painful experiences had yet to come.
Artist and writer Jeff Lemire returns again to his fictonalized Canadian hometown of Essex County for the second volume of his planned interconnected trilogy. While his first volume, Tales From The Farm, dealt with a single year in the life of a young boy, Lemire’s much more ambitious and solemn Ghost Stories chronicles an entire life in regretful hindsight.
Lemire opens his book with a quote from Stephen Leacock that states “In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold, hockey is the chance of life, and an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.” Lemire takes this quote and uses it as the backbone of his entire story. For his characters, there is a spiritual connection to hockey and subconscious desire to be out on the ice. This is their holy land, a place where life and death itself is chronicled one period at a time. This is not some silly fanaticism to be pawned off on t-shirts that read “Hockey is life and everything else is just details,” but a deep and primal connection to the ice.
It is here on the ice that Lemire creates a safe haven for Lou. Lou’s happiest memories of his youth are spent on the ice, and in his darkest times as a withering adult it is where Lou returns to reconnect with himself. It goes beyond just playing a sport, beyond fame and glory, and evolves into something akin to a state of nirvana.
Lemire taps back into the same art style that was used for his Tales From The Farm book, utilizing again a stark use of black and white to mirror the high contrasting good times and bad times of Lou’s life, as well as light gray ghosting sketches to emphasize the loss of details in the memories and a fuzziness to their actual truths. And once again, his use of a character’s book, this time in the form of Lou’s scrapbook, provides the most intimate and vulnerable look inside his protagonist. On these ten pages, which Lemire lovingly details through life-like newspaper clippings, photographs, and handwritten letters, Lou’s entire soul is laid bare. It is imagery not soon forgotten.
Lou’s vision of his world, as it filters between past and present, transitions slowly one piece of furniture and one person at a time. It is not unlike John Sayles’s movie Lone Star, as past and present effortlessly merge with the simple panning sweep of a camera. Here, Lemire sets up parallel panels that mirror one another as Lou loses focus and shifts from one part of his life to another, and not truly belonging to either. It is these returns from memory back to present and vice versa where some of Lemire’s best work is most painfully evoked, and Lou’s disconnect from everything is most evident. You can almost feel that if Lou was just able to hold on, in both past memory or present for just a single panel more, he’d finally find the closure he was searching for.
With Ghost Stories, Lemire has firmly planted himself in a unique circle of creators that can confidently be called graphic novelists. This is work for those that need deep substance in their literature and need to walk away from their literature feeling touched or for those that do not necessarily read comic books to begin with. This is by no means light material to be treaded through to idly pass a lazy afternoon. Lemire is out to touch the very center of his reader’s core. Tissues will be needed. And call your brother, he misses you.