From Essex County to Outer Space

  • Dale Jacobs (Editor)
    Jeff Lemire: Conversations. University Press of Mississippi (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Dominick M. Grace

The Conversations with Comics Artists series published by the University Press of Mississippi includes over thirty volumes. The thirty-first, edited by Dale Jacobs, covers Jeff Lemire, the fourth Canadian to be so examined. Lemire’s importance in comics over the last quarter century is significant, but strangely, Jacobs does not spell out what makes Lemire worth a volume like this. It may be that the likely audience for the book—academics working in comics studies—does not need to be told why Lemire is significant, or it may be that Jacobs thought that the interviews themselves would make Lemire’s importance clear. Regardless, I would flag this as the book’s one significant weakness: at 222 pages, the volume is about average length for this series, so there would have been room for a more comprehensive introduction than the nine pages Jacobs provides. Nevertheless, readers interested in hearing directly from Lemire will learn a lot—especially if they have followed only one side of his career.

 

Though the divide between so-called mainstream comics (mainly superhero books from Marvel, DC, and others) and alternative comics has been blurred in the last three decades, Lemire is one of the few creators to manage long-term success both with creator-owned independent work and with mainstream work-for-hire projects. Most comics creators remain primarily in one camp or another, and many shift from the independent world to the mainstream when they are able; although one loses autonomy and a degree of artistic freedom, one gains exposure and often greater financial reward. Lemire’s career and success really began with Essex County, a magical-realist narrative anchored in Essex County, Ontario, and playing on both overtly Canadian themes and topics and conventional comics tropes (e.g., one character imagines himself as a superhero). Essex County became the first (and to date only) graphic novel nominated for Canada Reads; it was also the first book eliminated. Lemire continued to work in the field of independent comics but drew the attention of DC and Marvel and has produced multiple series and graphic novels for both, to general critical acclaim and commercial success. He has won or been nominated for multiple awards, including two Shuster awards, one Doug Wright award (both Canadian awards), and an Eisner award. Thus he merits inclusion in a series such as this.

 

Jacobs collects twenty-nine relatively short interviews from an array of sources ranging from print media to websites and blogs. The earliest is from 2007, before Essex County was completed, and the most recent is from 2019; the book covers the range of Lemire’s career. Much of interest is covered, notably Lemire’s influences (David Lynch especially, but other filmmakers as well, which probably won’t surprise those familiar with his independent work or who knew that he studied film), his working methods on solo and collaborative projects, and his straddling the independent and mainstream comics worlds. The interviews suggest some ambivalence on Lemire’s part about, on the one hand, enjoying working with iconic comics characters he loved as a child and getting the exposure and financial reward mainstream work can bring, and, on the other, the extent to which mainstream work can be artistically constricting, in part because of corporate demands. However, Lemire is rarely pushed on this topic, mainly because most of the interviews are from sites and sources that are primarily fan-focused. Many interviews function, in effect, as promotional pieces, designed to be press for whatever project Lemire had on the go. This does not mean that they provide no insight, but many cover the same basic territory, and few hit Lemire with challenging questions.

 

One subject on which he is challenged more than once, albeit usually gently, even by Dr. waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy in the arts quarterly Maisonneuve, is his work representing Indigenous peoples. Lemire gained increased recognition when he created the superhero Equinox, touted as DC’s first Cree superhero, and for his graphic novel collaboration with Gord Downie, Secret Path, which adapts Downie’s song cycle about Chanie Wenjack. (Indigenous characters also feature elsewhere in Lemire’s work.) Lemire dutifully acknowledges that these may not have been his stories to tell but also points to his research and the support he received. For instance, he notes that Wenjack’s family endorsed Secret Path. For readers of Canadian Literature especially, Conversations may be of interest for how it allows Lemire to recount his engagement with culturally sensitive material, which risked accusations of appropriation.

 

Readers working through the entire book will note that certain points and stories are repeated, sometimes several times, but will also be able to track interesting shifts in Lemire’s thinking (e.g., about TV or film adaptation of his work, which goes from being something he has no interest in to something in which he is actively involved). The book would have benefited from (at least) one in-depth, probing career-retrospective interview, but apparently no such interview exists.

 

Scholars interested in Canadian comics and in the changing landscape of the comics field (especially the mainstream/alternative divide) should find this book useful, as Lemire is one of the major figures who has navigated that territory this century. However, they probably only need to read the selections that address their particular interests. Beware, though; Lemire has been so productive, and is so good at teasing and enthusing about his projects, that you may be tempted to track down something other than Essex County, perhaps even travelling as far as the edge of colonized space in the year 3797 (in Trillium).



This review “From Essex County to Outer Space” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 15 Aug. 2022. Web.

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