Another in my somewhat daunting pile of goodies from Comic-Con, Jeff Lemire’s book deserves its praise. Essex County Vol. 1 Tales From The Farm, to give it its full title, was published by Top Shelf last year. Ghost Stories and The Country Nurse are the two volumes that followed. All three are set in a farming community in Southwestern Ontario in Canada, and focus on the assorted characters who dwell there. Tales From The Farm is amazingly restrained in its beauty. With autobiographical comics, even loose ones like this, it can be difficult for writers to not thrown in the kitchen sink in order to increase its realism. Thankfully, Lemire knows better. As writer/artist it’s clear that he’s in charge and knows completely what he’s doing.
As for the story, it focuses on 10 year old Lester who recently lost his mother to cancer and is being raised by his Uncle Ken. It’s painfully obvious their relationship is a new and awkward one for both in moments where Lester chooses to watch the hockey game alone in his room rather than with his uncle and where Ken is unsure about how to deal with his nephew’s growing rebellion. Lemire’s skill lies just as much as in choosing what is not shown, as what is. In not over emphasising emotional moments, and giving us the barest of details he allows the characters to speak for themselves. With no narration it is merely the dialogue (of which there is little) to give us a peek into the hearts and minds of this pair. The only other character worth noting here is Jimmy Lebeuf, former hockey pro and man mountain who owns the local gas station and befriends Lester.
An orphan, a strained relationship, a misunderstood faded sports hero. You may be thinking that you’ve seen all this before. It sounds like the perfect ingredients for a independent film that makes critics swoon. However, there is more to it than that. Of course, sensitive comic fans will lap up any story with a comic loving outsider too, but its simplicity is its strength. That extends to the artwork as well. Using broad strokes helps convey the roughness of the two men in the story and the harsh terrain that surrounds them. Lemire sells the isolation of a remote town perfectly, and uses a lighter touch with more grey than black in the brief flashbacks of Lester’s dying Mum. A hand made comic from a 9 year old Lemire posing as Lester’s comic is also a nice touch, from the boy that never takes off his mask or cape. Well, almost never. A touching tale in the midst of tragedy and uncertainty, Tales From The Farm show that a boy’s imagination and curiosity can grow in the toughest of soils.