Pow! To the People 08.29.08

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essex-header.jpgThis week, Eddie Argos takes a look at a batch of titles from indie publisher Top Shelf: Alex Robinson's Too Cool to be Forgotten and Jeff Lemire's Essex County series. Who knew comics about farming, hockey, and high school could have such appeal to an unabashed superhero fan?

 

Last week, after writing about Batman, a lot of people wrote to tell me that I should REALLY start reading the current run of his book (including, coincidentally, M.J. Hibbert, whose album had been on in the background whilst I was reading the comics I'd written about). I am going to eventually read the current run, but I'll probably wait till it comes out as a trade paperback in January—the last time I checked in with Batman (Batman: The Resurrection Of Ra's Al Ghul) it resembled a rubbish Eastern Mysticism version of the Jerry Springer Show.

I started writing this column because I was promised free comics. This week, they arrived from the indie publisher "Top Shelf." Consequently, when I was opening the parcel full of graphic novels, my friend Keith joked that I should have insisted on superhero comics only and suggested that if they must give me independent comics, I should ask that they colour them in before they send them to me.

The only independent comics I'd read before were by the artist and musician Jeffrey Lewis—originally stapled-together photocopies bought at his gig and more recently Guff/Fuff (which you can buy from his website www.thejeffreylewissite.com/Comix-Stuff-New.html and should do, as it's brilliant).

The cover to Alex Robinson's Too Cool to be Forgotten. Click for a larger image.The comics Top Shelf sent me were all three volumes of Essex County and a book called Too Cool to be Forgotten. It was Too Cool to be Forgotten that I was looking forward to—I'd actually specifically asked for it as I liked the premise for it that I had read on their website. Too Cool to be Forgotten is about a man who undergoes hypnosis to give up smoking and then ends up having to relive his school days in 1985. What I liked most about this book was that it did really explore how horrible it would be going back to school as a forty-year-old man in a teenager's body: freaking out at how young the girls you're hitting on are, forgetting everything you had learnt as you had ended up not needing it in your adult life, and being pissed off at how terrible your teachers were, at being bossed around and having no one listen to you. I hated being a teenager, and it was nice to have my sentiments qualified by this book. I too shared his relief as he got back to his wife and out of school. There is obviously a lot more to the book than that, but you should pick it up and have a look yourself, it's ace.

As much as I had enjoyed Too Cool to be Forgotten, it was the trilogy of Essex County books that completely blew me away. I find the term "graphic novel" a bit pretentious for describing comic books, but I think if those words were ever truly to apply to a set of books, it would be these three. People write about how Woody Allen used to have such talent as a writer that he could have huge scenes of just dialogue and scenery in his films with the cast not even on camera. Well, in some ways, Jeff Lemire is the opposite of that—two or three pages can go by with the story being told only in scratchy and bold black lines. This is in no way meant to downgrade his ability to write the dialogue; but to admire that these are incredibly beautiful books with the images complementing the stories perfectly. This is why the term "graphic novel" is so apt, as the storytelling does fully utilise every aspect of the medium it's being told in, especially visually.

The cover to Essex County vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire. Click for a larger image.The first in the series is Tales From The Farm. It's about a recently orphaned boy who has to go live on a farm with his uncle (a situation neither of them are happy with) and how he manages to build a friendship with a local garage worker who he lets him into his world of reading comics and playing superhero games. I could see the end of this story coming from about halfway through, but for all I know that could even have been intended as it was such a pleasure being taken there with baited breath - it made it a real joy to read.

I enjoyed Tales From The Farm so much, I was disappointed when I started Ghost Stories since it seemed to be about a whole new set of characters. But, my disappointment passed as I got drawn into a story about two hockey-playing brothers. Hockey playing and farming are not traditionally two things I look for in a comic book, so if I hadn't been sent this I probably wouldn't have read it until it had become so critically acclaimed that I'd have had to pick it up out of curiosity. Which would have been a shame, as it is now one of my all-time favourite books, and of course now in the future when it gets put onto the national curriculum I can tell people that I read it first, before it was required reading.

The cover to Essex County vol. 2 by Jeff Lemire. Click for a larger image.If you're much brighter than me and have your finger on the pulse of independent comics, or if farming and hockey are actually two of the things you look for in a comic book, you've probably been eagerly awaiting Country Nurse, which is Volume 3 and the concluding part of the Essex County trilogy. Since the end of February, it's been pretty good. It's not as good as a stand-alone comic as the previous two (obviously, as it is wrapping up the two other stories), but it is a brilliant and satisfying conclusion to the three books, delving further back into the history of Essex County and bringing us right up to the present through a nurse doing her rounds. It's full of surprises, and I still can't get over how much I love the artwork.

After reading these books, I was about to give up on superhero books and from now on only read books about small farming communities, hockey, part-time nurses and grumpy old men (which is of course what I now presume all independent comics are about). But then I remembered there is a huge pile of free copies of the Green Lantern and Blue Beetle waiting for me at my girlfriend's house that I'm very much looking forward to reading; and besides, Jeff Lemire is about to start writing writing a book about an invisible man (which is a bit like a superpower) for DC/Vertigo that I can't wait to read. | Eddie Argos

In this edition:

All the comics in this edition of Pow! To the People were published by Georgia-based indie publisher Top Shelf Productions. To find out more about their comics, visit http://www.topshelfcomix.com/ or click on the titles of the books below to be linked directly to a preview on the Top Shelf site.

The cover to Essex County vol. 3 by Jeff Lemire. Click for a larger image.Too Cool to be Forgotten (Top Shelf; 2008)

128 pgs. B&W; $14.95

(W / A: Alex Robinson)

Essex County Vol. 1: Tales from the Farm (Top Shelf; 2007)

112 pgs. B&W; $9.95

(W / A: Jeff Lemire)

Essex County Vol. 2: Ghost Stories (Top Shelf; 2007)

224 pgs. B&W; $14.95

(W / A: Jeff Lemire)

Essex County Vol. 3: The Country Nurse (Top Shelf; 2008)

128 pgs. B&W; $9.95

(W / A: Jeff Lemire)

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