Lost Dogs and The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire (Top Shelf Productions)
Animal Man: The Hunt by Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman (DC Comics)
Canadian graphic novelist Jeff Lemire zoomed to success with his "Essex County Tril ogy," and he's consistently brought out great work ever since. This summer saw three titles appear that highlighted not only his storytelling powers, but also his mastery of a variety of narrative styles and types and the craggy depths to which he can take them.
A reissue of his self-published first graphic novel ever, "Lost Dogs," is a grim, rough affair, but of such intensity, both visually and emotionally, that it's a stunning debut. The story involves a gentle giant who visits the big city with his wife and child, at which point everything falls apart. Lemire works with the themes of innocence and corruption, how they are related and influence one another, and of mercy and forgiveness.
But it's rough going, and I don't mean that in a critical way -- it's just a harsh, devastating work that unfolds in black, white and red artwork that hammers in the starkness of its emotional impact.
Lemire's foreword to that book adds a lot to the story, recounting his life at the time of its creation, including his efforts at cartooning leading up to it. It's a fascinating and personable account of life as a struggling creative person, even more so since it covers experiences that are still so close to him in years.
Family connections are also at the center of two more recent works. "Animal Man: The Hunt" is a collection of six issues of the Animal Man comic book, and though it is technically a superhero genre story, Lemire has taken it about as far away from those trappings as anything can get. Buddy Baker has the ability to take on the abilities of any animal he chooses, and in Le mire's hands, the character's story becomes more of a horror story about invasion and the spiritual side of the natural world.
What unfolds is the realization of kindred properties with his young daughter, which reframes his own superheroics into a far more personal role -- protector of his own family against the dark, elemental forces seeking to rot the Earth. The bigger picture relates to the natural order, of decay and growth and what happens when one overtakes the other. It's a warm and alluring work that isn't common in the superhero genre.
In "The Underwater Weld er," Lemire's latest, the same family darkness that winds through the other two works are in full form, as Jack Joseph negotiates his own psyche onboard an oil rig off the coast of Nova Scotia. Jack finds it hard to face his home life -- a wife with a baby on the way -- and it's squarely due to his inability to come to terms with the death of his alcoholic father and the abrupt end to a dysfunctional relationship that wasn't always awful.
The fantastic mixes with the psychological to create a situation where Jack has to live his haunted life with nothing else to sway him from a trajectory of sorrow. The question arises -- is redemption even possible for someone so determined to refuse it? Or can stripping everything away reveal the pow er of the connections he does have?
"The Underwater Welder" recalls Lemire's earlier "Essex County Trilogy", which won acclaim and awards for its evocation of the stark inner life of Canadians and how the landscape reflects that. With his renderings of a maritime village, Lemire furthers his own brand of Canadian Gothic and cements his place as a graphic novelist of immense depth and still further promise.