The Dissenter’s Notebook: On Essex County [and by extension, comics]

 

I Think You Meant, 'Saskatchewan'.

Every year the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation holds its Canada Reads competition, where selected Canadians of note recommend a book that they think Canadians should read.  For the next week a book a day gets voted off until the winner is crowned, gathering all the glory and spike in sales that results.  Past winners include Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals and Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes. On the one hand, it’s wonderful that our national broadcaster supports the arts with such dedication.  On the other hand, it’s sort of unfortunate that the Canadian reading public needs to be told what books to read by a government organization.

 

Anyway, the 2011 edition brought a change in the format, as Canadians were asked to vote for a group of 40 ‘essential Canadian novels of the last decade,’ which the jurors then picked from.

And among the selected was Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel Essex County, the first graphic novel ever nominated for the event.

It was eliminated immediately.

Such brusque treatment elicited no small amount of online hand wringing and pinched-nose exasperation from newspapers to the country’s largest retailer, bemoaning the continued lack of respect graphic novels receive from the literary community.

So, all right, look.  I’m not disagreeing that GNs don’t get their propers from the establishment.  I’m not disagreeing that comics can be works of transcendent art.

I just don’t think Essex County is the book for everyone to be throwing themselves on the fire over.

Ooooooh friends, I was amped to love this book when I first saw it!  Finally [FINALLY!] my hood was going to get its due.  Finally we were going to get our stories told, finally someone was going to illustrate what a unique experience it is growing up in Canada’s armpit!

Not so much. Lemire’s title is misleading, given that the book’s setting is an afterthought.  Farmfields?  Hockey?  Toronto? Toronto?!?! That’s an insult. I grant that the story juxtaposes the desires of one brother who goes home to the EC and another who stays in the city, but anyone who lives in Windsor/Essex knows the ambivalence Toronto generates. Aside from some Francophone surnames and a few mentions of the local newspaper and AM radio station CKLW the story could be set anywhere. Naming the book after the setting suggests the setting will play a relevant role.  Maybe I just missed it having lived there for so long, but the location never felt like an important element.

And I know Lemire’s book captures some people’s experience of growing up there [notably The Lady during her childhood], but it wasn’t mine, and it damn sure isn’t a unique narrative.  And that’s a shame, because as I’ve said before, growing up down there is so weirdly frustrating and unique, it’s disappointing Lemire went traditional route.

Lemire’s book is a fine work for what it is.  It meditates on loneliness, and the tenuous bonds of family, blah blah blah; it tosses in doses of magical realism in that way that only comics can do. But it’s not a new story.  It doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been said before by dozens of dreadfully Canadian novels.  But, as is usually the case, comics get a pass for telling old stories in a new form.  I’ve gone on about this before, and frankly it’s getting tiresome.  Some do it better than others [and I would slot Essex County in the ‘better’ category], but they’re still unoriginal.  If you place summaries of all the books on the 2011 Canada Reads list side by side, I’d go for Carol Shields’s Unless first and stab myself in the eyes before reading Essex County. Really think about that before you flame me, fanboys.  A series of thinly interconnected stories set in some rural farmland?  *wails in pain*

Comics belong in competitions like Canada Reads.  They deserve consideration on every best of list published at year’s end.  But I’d even rather hold up Lemire’s current work Sweet Tooth as a better example of what makes comics great and interesting than EC.  I guess it’ll fall to someone else to write the great story of growing up along the Detroit River.

I know just the guy…

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