Essex County, Vol. 2: Ghost Stories
by Jeff Lemire (Top Shelf, 2008)

The second installment in the Essex County trilogy opens with the same winning formula, to increasingly wonderful returns. Like Tales from the Farm, Ghost Stories touches on the theme of how people, their lives interrupted by tragedy and bad choices, suddenly find the course of their lives diverted into unfamiliar landscapes. It is a bittersweet, achingly honest view of one man's struggle to find, or more accurately, relocate, his place in life.

Lou Lebeuf is a old man now, long since gone deaf, living his last days on the farm that belonged to his family. As the story opens, nearly all his family except for his nephew, Jimmy Lebeuf (the former pro hockey player from Tales), is gone, leaving him alone and full of regret for the opportunities he's missed and guilt for the mistakes he's made. The story is composed of Lou's remembrances of his early days with his brother, Vince, their time as semi-professional players who almost made it into the big time, and the love that Lou felt for Beth, his brother's wife.

Diminished by multiple losses, Lou leaves the hockey arena to take a job as a train conductor in Toronto. Over the years he drifts away from his family, only to reunite with them after a tragic accident takes the lives of everyone but his nephew and estranged brother. When, in time, he becomes the sole Lebeuf left to mind the farm, he reflects on his life, wondering if there can ever truly be any salvation for him or if he will always be alone.

As he looks back on a past that haunts him, Lou is transported to earlier times in flashbacks triggered by the sensory experiences of smells, sights, sounds and touch. The need to escape is Lou's driving motivation as he disappears into memory the way Lester in Tales tried to rewrite reality by disappearing into fantasy. Both believe the only way to avoid pain is to avoid life, but memories won't lie still no matter where you take yourself. The only choice we as human beings have is whether or not to accept this fact and continue to live in spite of incredible difficulty, or stay in one spot forever, marking the days as slots on a calendar.

The role of memory is central to the story, depicting through reminiscence the agony Lou feels as his life falls quietly apart at the seams. As his memories seem to flow out of him, he appears to gradually lose contact with the material world around him. But Lou isn't really hanging on to the past; ultimately, he's circling around for a last look, as these flashbacks are actually the beginning of a subtle shift toward resolution.

A large part of the story, naturally, has to do with the nature of hockey and how the game is both a character in the story as well as a metaphor for life in a cold northern climate, where existence is sometimes a fight for survival against the encroaching darkness of winters that go on forever. You don't need to know anything about the game but you will have a much better understanding of the true spirit of it when you are done with Stories. Hockey is the main stage, literally, for life itself. A good half of the action takes place in the arena, which reflects the true natures of the main characters.

As in Tales, Lemire uses the cycles of the four seasons as an emotional compass that marks the changes in the characters' lives: fall is the harvesting of painful memories, winter represents the bleaker period of retrospection, spring the reawakening of hope, with summer bringing the promise of growth and, hopefully, resurrection.

After having been forced to leave the farm to live in a nursing home, Lou slips away from the facility in the middle of the night to return to his family's farm. There, Lou's journey through time comes full circle as he discovers that in spite of the deaths he has endured and the sorrow he has suffered (and created), life, even at the very end, can get better if we let it. He cannot eradicate his past but he can be free of it. Having tried, for most of his existence, to circumnavigate pain by isolating himself, Lou realizes that perhaps he can try, at last, to actually live.

Once again, Lemire's astute and compellingly detailed art is a stylistic triumph. His lines seem to physically capture the almost unbearable pain and turbulence of the Lebeuf brothers and their love-hate relationship, tracing the scars of old age on craggy, worn-out faces, and the raw emotions of youth in the midst of terrible internal struggles. As sparse as it is humanistic, Lemire's simple style contains hidden depths that are buried beneath layers upon layers of taut emotion. The use of plain black and white allows the eye to focus completely on the characters and the expressions they convey. Lemire uses white space the way other artists have used black, but with the exact same sense of depth, making brilliant use of what is virtually not there.

Sensitive, sophisticated, and highly poetic, Stories is easily among the best graphic fiction of 2008. Don't miss it.

review by
Mary Harvey

30 May 2009

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