Xeric-winner Jeff Lemire's Tales from the Farm was published to literary acclaim by Top Shelf last fall. It was followed by Ghost Stories, the second book of a trilogy, which is coming to be known as the Essex Country trilogy, because much of the story is set in the semifictional Essex County in Canada. The third book, The Country Nurse, will be available at Comic-Con and released widely in early fall '08.
The trilogy focuses on interlinked stories about a farming family and uses hockey as a metaphor for unfulfilled promise. Lemire's depiction of farming life and the lonely, vast open spaces has brought attention to the series, which has great tenderness and depth. PW Comics Week spoke with Lemire about his work.
PWCW: How did you come up with the idea for the Essex County trilogy?
Jeff Lemire: I started with the Ghost Stories as a stand-alone book. It’s actually set in the town where I grew up, this small farming community really close to Windsor, Ont., which is right across the river from Detroit.
PWCW: How did the story grow? Tales from the Farm and Ghost Stories don’t connect that much.
JL: It sorta grew from one character into a family tree. The first book is a peek into that family. In the second, you see their past. The third connects them.
PWCW: Is Essex County real?
JL: It’s really a series of towns where I grew up. I tried to be realistic, but it became a fictionalized town called Essex County, although most of the locations are real.
PWCW: So the bridge with the frozen river where the kids play hockey exists?
JL: It’s real. One of my childhood friends, his father’s property is right behind there.
PWCW: Tell me about the importance of hockey.
JL: I’m a hockey nut. So I decided to do a really big graphic novel about hockey because no one had really done one. It’s a pretty key part of the Canadian psyche, so I wanted to use hockey as a metaphor for family and for the identity of the town.
PWCW: Visually, you have this pervading sense of lonely open spaces.
JL: I think my childhood was pretty lonely, growing up in a small town and not being interested in farming. It led to a certain amount of isolation. The nearest neighbors were barely visible down the road.
PWCW: You grew up on a farm?
JL: Yes. My dad still grows soybeans, wheat and corn. His father farmed, and my mom’s parents as well. Farmers at least three or four generations back.
PWCW: Are you haunted by Essex County?
JL: I wouldn’t know if I was haunted by it, or if I was trying to paint a kind of weird love-letter to it. When you’re growing up you can’t wait to get to the big city, then when you get here you look back at your home with a different perspective. I drew the first Essex County book, then after TopShelf bought it, I explained that I wanted to do the trilogy, and Chris and Brett were onboard.
It’s been almost a familylike situation; once you get in with Chris and Brett, things work out. They’ve pretty much told me I can do anything I want, and I plan to be with them as long as they’ll have me.
PWCW: Any spoilers for The Country Nurse?
JL: She looks after the two older men in Ghost Stories. It’s a day in her life as she checks in on her patients. It also juxtaposes with some stories set in the turn of the century, around 1901, when Essex County was founded.
PWCW: How do you approach writing and drawing comics?
JL: I tried to make the dialogue as understated as possible. I just kept rewriting it and paring it down and down until it was only the essential words. I thumbnail everything out and go through a lot of drafts to get the pacing.
In Ghost Stories, I learned to control my line a bit more, control my brush and my pen. I found the best way to express the landscapes I liked to draw. I use mostly a steel-point dip pen with a brush to accent it, which suits that sparse, stark landscape—all those lines that show the ruggedness of the people, how hard work and time have worn them down.
PWCW: Lou, the main character in Ghost Stories, does some reprehensible things. And yet the artwork has no condemnation, only sadness. Was that deliberate?
JL: Any life lived is full of regret. And here’s this guy who’s made dozens of mistakes, but he’s still like this lonely old man. I could not help feeling sorry for him.
PWCW: Who are some of the artists and writers you admire?
JL: It’s a wide range. A lot of indie guys like Dan Clowes. Chester Brown and Seth are two Canadian artists. Also some European artists, like Hugo Pratt (who drew Sgt. Kirk and Anna della Jungla) and Igor (Don Fausto). And Dave McKean was a big influence on my first book, Lost Dogs.
But John Steinbeck’s one of the biggest influences on the Essex County books. Especially Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. He brought a small, raw community to life—I love those books. Also Russell Banks’s Affliction. That passing on of guilt between generations of men, that story stuck with me, that devastation. The movie, with Nick Nolte and James Coburn, was one of my favorites for a while. Real devastation.
PWCW: You have a lot of men in devastating situations.
JL: Definitely. I’m not sure where that comes from. I think there must be some personal stuff that I’m not fully comfortable with or aware of yet. I think some of it probably comes from personal experience.