Picking up steam and recognition has been Jeff Lemire’s epically beautiful comic series Essex County and it’s climb up the ranks of rating as a potential winner of the Canada Reads literary debate, which was aimed at essentially picking THE Canadian literary work of the decade.
Lemire is the writer/artist of Essex County, and is from Essex County in Ontario, Canada. The now-collected (into a really beautiful single massive tome) graphic novel series about the intertwining lives of various (fictional) inhabitants of the real Essex County is one of my favorite comics ever, highlighting Lemire’s sketchy and almost-ugly-but-still-beautiful black and white artwork, his personal and personable writing, and his innate storytelling skills as a cartoonist overall.
Despite making it into the top 5 of Canada Reads, the committee has ultimately eliminated the comic from moving on to the next round, ultimately citing, among other things, the fact that it’s a comic book.
And you know what? That’s a shame.
While it is a really amazing thing that Essex County made it as far as it eventually did, the fact that it was partially eliminated due to the fact that it’s a comic is a little disheartening. As a literary-minded academic, I can say bullshit to that, and that the book’s up there in terms of literary characterization as well as storytelling (both linear and non-linear) as other members of the literary canon of Western composition and literature.
While it is arguable that graphic storytelling’s a different literary medium from straight literature (A] I’m not calling it “regular literature because that implies that comics are “irregular” and B] it is impossible to deny that the visual elements are a key part of the reading experience), the conclusions drawn about books like Essex County not “counting” because they’re supposedly too immature (as comic books are OBVIOUSLY just for little kids with spandex superhero obsessions) is just unfair. Frederic Wertham’s dead, everyone, I think his arguments about comics and their connections to the minds of children can be let go and we can think about graphic storytelling as simply a type of storytelling, and an effective one at that.
It is really unfortunate that it’s so hard for people to let go of preconceived notions about comics, what comics mean as literature, and who they’re “meant” for in terms of a reading audience. While a Superman or TMNT comic might be something for a younger kid (arguments about kids/YA comics notwithstanding), I wouldn’t necessarily give something like Burns’ Black Hole to a kid that age. If anything, that’s a book that’s for an older reading audience. Not just as a more “mature” comic with sex and drugs and violence and swearing or whatever, but more as a multi-layered work of literature.
Essex County‘s the same way, a piece of literature that, regardless of the graphic storytelling elements (as amazing as they are), is a subtle and amazingly-written piece of work with multiple layers and themes not only for the main overarcihing story, but also for each character, each storyline, each tangent.
Regardless, I wish everyone in the running for the rest of Canada Reads good luck, because god fucking knows books need all the help they can get period these days.
Oh, also, don’t read comments sections of news stories about this because your illusions about Canadians being nicer versions of Americans will be totally shattered.– Thanks to Robot 6 for the tip.