Graphic novels. Sequential literature. Graphic narratives (which sound a little unsavory). There seems to be a struggle for legitimacy whenever we talk about comics as literature, and I can understand why. As a teacher who uses comics in the classroom, I still wait for the resistance whenever I inform parents that their child will be reading…Spider-Man in my class. And when that resistance rears its head, I have to give the speech about how comics are great for teaching multiple literacies, and they aren’t just for kids anymore (which probably hasn’t been the case since the 60’s), and they truly are well written works of literature. I don’t know if parents are convinced by my arguments so much as they are won over by my enthusiasm and conviction. In most of their minds, comics are still just kids stuff.
Before reading Jeff Lemire’s Essex County, I was content with calling comics…comics. That’s not to say that I never encountered comics that elevate the art form before this. Gaiman’s Sandman, Moore’s Watchmen, Ellis’ Preacher, and countless others are clearly upper echelon stuff. But those titles are still comics. Essex County is a comic too, but it makes me cringe to think that anyone would put this book in the same category as a regular capes and tights book. Lemire is working with some heavy duty writer tools here, using art to communicate in a way that I had not previously experienced. I first discovered this book on iFanboy’s list of “Comics That Will Make You Cry,” and this book earned its place on that list.
Lemire accomplishes more with these eyes, and with shadow and light, than many writers can with prose, and that is what makes Essex County stand above most comics out there. Which brings us back to defining what to call this book. Make no bones about it, Essex County is capital “L” Literature.
So what’s it about? Essex County is set in a fictional version of Lemire’s Canadian hometown, and consists of three connected stories. Story one focuses on a little boy who has lost his mother to cancer and lives with his uncle, who is also dealing with the death of his sister and the new burden of becoming a de facto father. Story two is the tale of two brothers, betrayal, and Golden Age hockey, and story three tells the story of a country nurse charged with taking care of the sick in this small town. All of the stories illustrate the beauty of grief, family, love, and the connections we forge as we live out our stories. Essex County celebrates the ghosts of promises kept and broken, and delves into the heartaches big and small that we all carry with us.
Classroom Rating: 10/10. There is some coarse language here that would only be suitable for more mature readers, but it is not gratuitous. I would recommend this for 11th grade, but I always use the Holden Caufield Rule when it comes to language in a book. If people are ok with their kids reading Catcher In the Rye, then a work of this skill is just as accessible. Please don’t take the scant pages I’ve littered throughout this review as the best examples of what this book has to offer. Instead, READ IT. You will not be disappointed.
What Could You Teach With Essex County? What couldn’t you? Characterization, and inference are the easy ones, but let’s be bold here and talk about author’s intent/purpose. Lemire is a master of using art as diction, and his choices of when to use shadow and light could be explored just as deeply as any prose work. His use of symbolism with the crows in the third tale is masterful, and in that same tale you get a frame story. So much to be explored here.
Highlights: The second story, “Ghost Stories” was the tear-jerker for me. How do you write a story that simultaneously illustrates the beauty of hockey, the bond between brothers, and the agony of love lost without sounding as trite as this very sentence? Only Lemire could accomplish it, and I get chills whenever I talk to people about this story. What are you doing still reading this? Go read Essex County!