So we’re pretty big Jeff Lemire fans here on the nerd farm. While he doesn’t write the complex, thematically-dense kind of stuff we like the best, he is the King of the Low-Key. The Lord of Quiet Moments. And that’s a tone he applies to a wider variety of genres than just about anyone else in comics. Science fiction, super heroes, adventure, literary naturalism, small-town slice of life… He does it all with aplomb. Sometimes his straight genre stuff adheres a little too closely to formula for my taste (especially when he signs on to do work-for-hire), but for the most part, as I said… We’re big fans.
And, holy crap, does he ever stay busy. We spent some time last week picking apart his latest work-for-hire effort (The Terrifics), so this time around I thought we’d take a look at the rest of our current favorite Jeff Lemire comics, starting with the two number one issues he released last week…
Gideon Falls 1
by Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino
I think this is Lemire’s first foray into outright horror. It’s the first I’ve read, anyway. There were horror elements to Sweet Tooth, I suppose, but that was more in the realm of post-apocalypse fiction, and its horrors were of the “man’s inhumanity to man” variety. In Gideon Falls, he’s delving into pure supernatural horror…
…and the results are pretty compelling.
The series follows two men: Gordon Sinclair, a crazy person who attributes great meaning to random nails and bits of wood that he finds around town, and Father Fred, a troubled Catholic priest who’s assigned to the quiet little town of Gideon Falls after his predecessor dies under mysterious circumstances. That’s the predecessor up above. So, yeah. This assignment won’t be as restful as Father Fred’s been lead to believe. Either that, or Fred’s just as crazy as Gordon. I kind of doubt that, though. Fred’s deceased visitor and Gordon’s random bits of flotsam are connected by one of the more ominous things I’ve run across in a comic recently. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a distinctly rural type of horror.
It’s not horror of the Deliverance school, though, and that’s refreshing. Too often, this kind of horror is born of city folks’ fears of rural spaces and rural people. It’s a xenophobic mess, overflowing with crazy rednecks and inbred freaks. And while those things can certainly be entertaining if done well, there’s far weirder, far more interesting, things to be done with rural settings. And that seems to be what Lemire’s interested in exploring. He grew up in rural Canada, and he’s at his best when writing about small town life. His work in those settings has a verisimilitude that his more fanciful stories don’t always share. So I’m pleased to see him going back there again for this.
On the art in this book is Andrea Sorrentino, who’s worked with Lemire before on corporate spandex projects of varying quality. But that’s not really Sorrentino’s fault. He always delivers striking imagery and imaginative layouts…
…but his super heroes never quite look right, somehow. The spandex looks painted on, and that lends the whole proceedings a ripe, lurid air. A sensual, fetishistic quality that doesn’t sit quite right with heroic tales of derring-do. This book’s a much better fit.
One thing I really like about his work here is the blacks. I don’t think there’s a solid black anywhere in the book. They’re all shot through with lines, like he’s laid all the ink down in rows, and intentionally left little gaps between them all. But it’s not pinstripe precision, either. The lines are rough and uneven, and they lend the book an uneasy quality that adds a lot to the atmosphere of dread.
And that’s Gideon Falls. A low-key tale of obsession and evil in a small town setting. It’s not especially deep (at least, not yet). But I like the mood, and I like the look. So I will definitely be back for more.
Doctor Star and the Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows 1
by Jeff Lemire and Max Fiumara
This is the second mini-series set in Lemire’s Black Hammer continuity, and it is an absolute love letter to James Robinson’s 1990s Starman series (Lemire even named his lead character after the writer). Like that book, it’s a generational tale about a hero with star powers, and the trouble it brings him. Unlike that book, it’s not about a son taking on his father’s heroic legacy. Rather, it’s about an absentee father telling his son about his life, but coming too late to do him any good. In other words, it’s like all the Black Hammer work: it plays as an elegy to the super hero genre, a meditation on sacrifice and regret as much as heroism.
Which is not to say there’s no fun to be had here. There’s the thrill of discovery…
…and a good deal of heroic bravado.
But there’s also an undercurrent of great sadness. The discoveries seem hollow. The bravado may really be arrogance. And neither means anything to Doctor Star now, because he’s thrown away his real life in their name.
So, yeah. It’s not the cheeriest of comics. But it’s still Black Hammer, a world where heroism is seldom truly in vain. It just… seems like it sometimes. So we’ll see where all this regret takes us in subsequent issues. Of course, with a title like “Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows,” it might not be anywhere especially happy.
Which is a great note to end the review on, but I’m afraid I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to praise the art of Max Fiumara. There’s an ornate quality to his work here that I like, but it’s crossed with a gift for strange character design that puts me slightly in mind of Troy Nixey. There’s plenty of square-jawed types running around here, but Doctor Star is more Woody Allen than Superman. His costume is more “pulp hero” than “spandex avenger.” And I like that.
Royal City 10
by Jeff Lemire
We close this week with what might be my favorite of Jeff Lemire’s current work, and his most personal. It’s another small town story, one that I suspect cuts close to Lemire’s own experiences. But this one’s mostly devoid of fantasy.
It’s a story about yearning. The yearning to escape. The yearning to be more than you are. The yearning to correct past mistakes. The yearning to be happy. It centers on the Pike family, who once suffered a terrible loss, and who’ve each been coping with it in their own way ever since.
We’re nearing the end of the second arc now, and this one’s telling us the story of that loss: the untimely death of Tommy, youngest of the Pike children. That’s him on the cover up above, face down in the water. Which we already know he drowned in, at about the age he is now. This issue opens, in fact, with Tommy pondering death:
Ominous, especially considering that cover. All that introspection comes, perhaps, from the mysterious headaches Tommy suffers. But it also goes to show that Tommy died with endless potential, old enough to have some real personality, but young enough that he could have still become anything.
And that’s the one source of the supernatural in this book: in the present-day, Tommy haunts the family. But not in a boo-scary kind of way. It’s more magic realism than horror. Everyone sees him as they’d like him to be. As a reflection of themselves, or to fill a void in their lives. But there’s something wrong. Because of his family’s… I dunno… neediness? Tommy can’t move on. And he needs to. Not just for his own sake, I don’t think, but for theirs, as well.
But none of that’s happened yet, in issue 10. Here, after that opening meditation on death, all the Pike kids go out to a big teenage beer party and get wasted. Each caught up in their own personal drama, Tommy’s older siblings lose track of him, and he wanders off drunk, in the grip of one of his headaches. I assumed this would be when he died. But instead he runs into Clara, the jilted girlfriend of his stoner brother Richie. They’re both pretty drunk, so one thing leads to another…
So instead of dying, Tommy loses his virginity in the woods. Which is a nice twist, sure. But, man. How great is Lemire’s storytelling there? I’m a big fan of his pen-and-ink work, and especially of his coloring. Something about that combination of rough figures and delicate, almost-incomplete color just clicks for me. But the way he goes to the notebook for the kiss is real bravado stuff. Tommy is all about his journal, after all. So to turn to it for what may be the biggest moment of his young life is pretty great.
And he doesn’t stop there. The next page (well, the next two-page spread) also features Tommy’s notebook, and a journal entry about the sex that, as Tommy points out in the entry itself, he would never write. “Because right after this…”
So the dying’s still going to happen. But more importantly… That turns this whole flashback story on its head. We’ve gotten narration from Tommy throughout. But it’s seemed to be of-the-moment. Delivered to us present-tense, as the story’s happening. But that’s not what’s going on at all. With that turn at the end, it’s suddenly apparent that it’s Tommy’s ghost, talking directly to the reader after the fact. But still somehow tied to the moment.
So now we’re being haunted by him, too.
It’s little touches like that… quiet little things that add layers to the story… that make me like Lemire’s work so very much. Especially these more personal, more literary, projects. The ones that, these days, he chooses to illustrate himself. That’s also probably his least commercial work, of course, so I’m doubly glad he does them. And I’m especially glad that he’s doing this one in the long-form, monthly series format as opposed to a done-in-one graphic novel. Good as his shorter books tend to be, I think he’s at his best when he gives himself room to breathe.