A few months, it was announced that Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel Essex County has been optioned for some type of TV development. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this, primarily because I think that the complexities of translating literature into television and film I figured this would be a good time to revisit Essex County and talk about why it’s such a wonderful work of literary fiction.
Lemire’s first serious work, it’s a trio of smaller graphic novels combined in one bigger volume about three somewhat-connected lives and stories in the small Canadian town of Essex County, a reflection of the town Lemire himself grew up in as a child. He’s known for his unique cartooning style, which is a visually-unique work that stands out in a stark, scratchy, almost-spindly minimalist way that is anything but.
As a comic book, it’s a great one, possibly even an amazing one. Lemire’s art and flow, the usage of the page layouts and crafting the pages themselves in their layouts makes the richness of the story, even with what would be considered limited dialogue and no real expository writing. So much of what helps tell a story outside of the basic concept in comics is the art, and I really think that Lemire’s art style lends itself to the storytelling he wants to do overall. In specific, his style seems to be matched to the type of story he wanted to tell in Essex County.
Outside of the visuals (a must when writing about comics), what really and initially drew me to the book was the story. I think that you can look at something like Essex County not just as an amazing comic but also a wonderful work of literary fiction, depicting these intertwined lives in a setting that lends itself to the sort of moments Lemire was trying to create. In a case like this you have to look at the story not just as a comic to critically appreciate and be in-depth about, but draw more on the writing, the raw storytelling, and the prose elements (in an abstract sense).
Can you really remember being a kid and playing pretend? How about when you were probably too old for it, but isolation, loneliness, and deep longings for some kind of connection, even if it was the connections you created in your mind? That’s what you can get from Gus from the first story out of the comic, and his struggles slowly unfold about his life. I think the overall brilliance of the story is how Lemire ties what seems like a simple thing into the overall blanket, both metaphorical and literal (read the last book, “The Country Nurse”), of the story of this community. That small slow start that spools out, person by person, fold by fold
There’s this rise in literary awareness through the past few years tied into the rise of crime fiction and crime writing called “rural noir,” which is the acceptance of rural communities being far more complicated than the cliches allow. I think that despite the lack of crime or noir elements in Essex County, the focus on the complexities of living and relationships between hurt and damaged people in this town is very much in the spirit of “rural noir.” Essex County is not a podunk small town, it’s a living character that can, just as much as Mr LeBeuf does, feel sad at the state of relationships between people who should be closer, but aren’t. The language of the way things are described, not just in the abstract non-prose way of the art and cartooning but also in the way that the story is crafted and the dialogue captures the mood of an argument, that to me is just as important in the storytelling.
So much of what I love about literature is crafting the voices of characters and interpreting the tone of dialogue in my own head, which, on a subconscious level, is what makes reading so wonderful. You can mold the tone to fit your own level of interpretation and your own level of how you understand and work on chewing those arguments and relationships and dialogues around, fitting them to your own mental pace. It also helps you very much figure out the rate at which you immerse yourself in the flawed relationships of a story, especially the stories in Essex County. It’s a work that I’ve had to go through multiple times, at multiple paces, to fully absorb.
The thing is, I feel odd about the translation of that network of flawed relationships, personal paces, and of portraying people trying to work on those relationships against the background of this very stark rural Canadian community into the screen. So much of TV and film is tied into action and movement balanced with dialogue and imagery, which is why dialogue-heavy comics or prose are so much more likely to not be as good. Also, the effect of the setting and background are intrinsically tied to the art, something difficult with Lemire’s style to portray on-screen.
Ultimately my weirdness here is part of that level of attachment a fan of work has to the work itself in a weird respect for “purity.” I’ve been trying hard to detach myself from that over the past few years, because ultimately if it’s good for the author of the work, then I as a fan of that author should be glad for that author.
On the other hand though, are all works equally able to be translated to different platforms while telling the same story? I honestly don’t think so, and I think that deep down the prose of Essex County is difficult to translate into other mediums. I think that the words themselves are insufficient to translate into compelling screen-watching, and I think that the art itself as a template for a visual look isn’t enough to sufficiently translate the story of Essex County from one medium to another.