"Essex County" & Blurring the Lines
The unlimited visual and storytelling potential of comics allows for a variety of effects to work seamlessly when non-realistic storytelling elements come into play. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of comics is the ability to “go wild” with visual and storytelling concepts and, unlike other visual mediums such as film and TV, not be limited by budgetary concerns when it comes to getting the look and setting you want. As long as you can draw it, it can be done.
That ability to blur lines has made comics one of the best formats for telling stories from the point of view of younger protagonists, utilizing the trope of childhood imagination both as a vehicle to move the story along, for humorous takes on mundane everyday life rituals, objects, and occurrences, or to act as stand-ins for difficult and hard-to-understand concepts considered “adult” that sometimes children are forced to confront. Bill Watterson blurs the lines between the adult world and Calvin’s world as a means of escapism in his comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” and Richard Thompson’s “Cul De Sac” utilizes this skewed childhood interpretation of the world around them for comedic effect.
Watterson expresses this blurring as an absolute visual shift in setting and design, illustrating the absolute immersion of childhood visualization to fantasy by his character Calvin and sidekick “stuffed” tiger Hobbes. Thompson’s characters like Alice and Dill are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Their identifications and fantasy view of the world around them as they try to define it is in direct contrast to reality. The humor is in that contrast. It also stems from a childhood inability to comprehend time and existence before yourself, such as Alice’s identification of people who came before her in daycare as “pre-Alicians.”
In between these two ends of the imagination spectrum is Lester, the protagonist from “Tales From The Farm,” part 1 of Jeff Lemire’s ESSEX COUNTY. A boy who loves superhero comic books, he wears a mask and a cape, thinking himself a superhero. Struggling with living with his uncle, never knowing his father, and still mourning the death of his mother, Lester escapes into comics and superheroic play around the farm to help distance himself from difficulties in reality.
However, Lemire doesn’t portray Lester’s imagination as any different visually from the rest of the story’s overall setting, the small Canadian territory that’s a fictionalization of his own hometown of Essex County. Nor is Lester overlaying his own identifications over reality. Despite his denials, the character is cognizant of what is real, and what isn’t. What’s fascinating is that as Lester struggles to find comfort in this non-traditional new family setting and come to grips with never knowing his father (though as a reader you’re arguably led to believe that he knows who Jimmy really is), he processes it as a struggle against alien invaders. Alongside his new friend, Lester feels like he’s transcended reality to actually be able to fly and have the power to not only fight, but also defeat them.
Lemire, "Collected ESSEX COUNTY" | p. 95 | 2009
It’s in this temporary total immersion that Lester is coming to terms with everything. His mother’s death, his uncle’s role as his new guardian (evidenced later on in the story and collection through their shared love of hockey), and his relationship with Jimmy, a father figure he wants but ultimately cannot have, at least not right now. Who knows what really happens when “the aliens invade.” Do Jimmy and Lester talk? All we know is that Lemire portrays it as to heroes waiting to intercept an invading force, with Jimmy “dying” (but not really) to spur Lester to advance. Is Jimmy’s death in Lester’s eyes a way for him to explain that he can’t be a father figure to Lester?
I would argue that indeed that is what it’s meant to be..