The Complete Essex County (Top Shelf)

Feelings of loneliness and isolation are captured with striking beauty in this multifamily, multigenerational saga from Jeff Lemire (The Nobody, Sweet Tooth).


512 pgs., B&W; $29.95
(W / A: Jeff Lemire)
Essex County, Ontario is as far south as you can go and still be in Canada. The county seat, Windsor, is connected to Detroit, Michigan, by the aptly-named Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, the second busiest crossing between the U.S. and Canada. And yet you (and I’m speaking primarily to Americans here) would probably never give Essex County a second thought were it not for the work of native son Jeff Lemire, who based his award-winning trilogy, recently re-released by Top Shelf as The Collected Essex County, on his experiences growing up on a farm in that locale.
Essex County tells a multifamily, multigenerational saga that plunges you into the story and skips back and forth in time but is deliberately light on explicit transitions and connections. There’s a handy genealogy chart included but only near the very end of the third volume, and my advice is not to skip ahead but just let the intertwined stories wash over you. We’re programmed (whether biologically or culturally I’m not sure) to make sense out of stories and work out the connections, and you’ll have no problem doing so in this case. In fact, once you start reading Lemire’s 500-plus-page opus, you’ll probably find it hard to put down.
A quiet melancholy pervades Essex County, and the dominant emotion is neither love nor rage but loneliness and separation. As one character, transplanted from the country to the city, muses, "there are only two ways to be completely alone in this world…lost in a crowd…or in total isolation." He’s managed both, feeling just as alone in the big city of Toronto as he did back on the farm, only to be visited with even more isolation as he loses his hearing. This is not to say that reading Essex County is a grim slog: in fact, it’s quite life-affirming because you feel like you’ve been granted a window into a real world where characters fall in love (not always appropriately), families bond and squabble, there are tragic deaths and joyous births and children grow up to find their place in the world while adults grow older and find themselves losing their capacities. The emotional impact of these ordinary lives is magnified because the characters seldom express passion or anger openly, preferring to keep their feelings internal and just keep soldiering on.
Lemire’s art is as expressive and individual as the stories he tells. He works pure black and white ink (mostly: in flashbacks, he uses grays) with a very strong graphical feel and includes things like maps and news articles set into the frames to provide information about the characters. His basic style is semi-realistic, but he bends it to express the characters’ psychological realities: for instance, when one character muses that he’s becoming just another tiny part of an immense urban system, the frames mimic a camera pulling away in a series of overhead shots until his body has become part of the city’s road network. Lemire has a feel for straightforward presentations of the rural environment as well: fields seem to stretch on forever, telephone poles provide the only landmarks on long stretches of empty road, and you can feel both the isolation of the farm houses and the crush of the city as experienced by different characters at various points in their lives.

Besides the three volumes of Essex County (Tales from the Farm, Ghost Stories, and The County Nurse), this edition includes two additional stories ("The Essex County Boxing Club" and "The Sad and Lonely Life of Eddie Elephant-Ears") and a variety of promotional and other extra materials. You can see a preview on the Top Shelf web site ( | Sarah Boslaugh


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