Revisiting Essex County

 Okay, I promised last post to pick up where I left off, talking about process, but I really want to go in another direction this month and talk about this book.

I had shared on my Mordecai Crow Facebook page that I was watching and very much enjoying the series adaptation of Jeff Lemire's Essex County (you can watch it here). This was an adaptation that felt very true to the original book, and small wonder as Lemire was closely involved in both the writing and production of the series. (I'm only guessing, but wonder if this was in reaction to seeing what happened with Warner Brothers adaptation of Sweet Tooth, which I have also watched and enjoyed - to a point - but that has not felt much like Lemire's work!)

Seeing the series inspired me to get out my own copy of The Complete Essex County (2009, Top Shelf) that I had last read when it first came out. Around that time (2010) it had been chosen as a Canada Reads selection and I remember hearing some of that debate on the radio. One person was generally trashing it as a selection, saying that they couldn't accept the title "novel" attached to something they could read in an hour. 

First of all, clearly this person did not get it and if you are "reading" Essex County in an hour or two then you are not reading it at all. It is like saying you watched a film by fast forwarding though it. I was blown away all over again when I re-read Essex County, swept up in the quiet, deep and at times painful story that Lemire magically produces with his pen and brush (guessing there, but it feels like pen and brush work). This book is a collection of stories, all taking place in the flat farm country of Essex County in southwestern Ontario where I am assuming Lemire grew up. The stories interconnect somewhat and that inter-connection was woven into a more cohesive version for the screen play, using the two main stories Tales from the Farm and Ghost Stories as the framework on which the series is built. Some of the collected stories don't even make an appearance in the screen version, but many do and those are effectively worked into a succinct narrative.

But what I really wanted to talk about is Lemire's artwork. It's probably impolitic of me even to mention this, but I'm not really a huge comic book fan. More on this later, but suffice to say I read a lot of comics as a kid, but I never had a superhero collection. And I have read quite a few comics and graphic novels since, and enjoyed some, but mostly it is the artwork that draws me to them, with Euro comics being my favourites. Most of my reading is traditional novels. 

However, to my mind, Lemire's work is transcendent, showing the true possibilities of the medium and how it can grab you on a very deep and emotional level. I have read a few other graphic novels that have done the same but very few.  I love how he can draw a page and you will just sit and stare at it and think, wow, how did he do that? Like so much great cartoon work, his line looks deceptively simple and even child-like at times, but I know it is something I could never accomplish. It is more like music in that it bypasses the rational mind completely and engages on a deeper, more emotional level. He has an almost cavalier disregard for perspective and his cast shadows sometimes make no sense at all technically. Children's faces at times appear as those of an 80 year old. But somehow it all works and as you look at it more closely you realize that Lemire doesn't really care if things are wonky - he draws what needs to be drawn to communicate what he needs to say. The pain and suffering etched into the faces is palpable, the darks and lights create a mood that takes you deep into the story and series of pages pass by without a word of dialogue, but speaking volumes.

I thought I would go out on a limb and share a coupe of images from the book here to show you what I am talking about. These were included in a posting by the defender of the book in Canada Reads 2010 (sorry, it is one of the twins Tegan and Sara and I don't know which!) and can be found here so I think I am safe in re-posting them. Interestingly enough, it is the exact same sequence I had in mind when I started this post.

Two images from Ghost Stories. This is an imagined sequence as Lou disappears into his memories. Lemire's use of darks and lights here, the brushwork in the underwater light, the tears streaming from his eyes as he descends into the water. How can you not be moved by this art??

There is so much more art I would love to share from this book, but my best recommendation is for you to go out and buy your own copy or borrow it from your local library and see for yourself why this book is a masterpiece. Re-read it if you haven't lately. Just please give the time due to each panel and let yourself soak it in on a deeper level. And experience the power that can reside in visual story-telling at its best.

Newsy bits

Now available in bookstores!

I almost forgot to add that Secrets of Jarrow is now available at bookstores and can be purchased online! And if you have enjoyed the book, please feel free to leave a rating and maybe even a review through the Goodreads link at the bottom of this page.

TCAF 2023

Signing Secrets of Jarrow at the Renegade booth at TCAF, with publisher Alexander Finbow.

In other book-related news, I attended the Toronto Comics Arts Festival at the end of April and had the pleasure of meeting face to face with Alexander Finbow, the publisher at Renegade Arts and Entertainment. Alexander lives in Canmore, Alberta, and up until now, we had only spoken though Zooms and e-mails (many, many e-mails!) Turns out he is as nice a person in person as he has been in all my dealings with him online.

The festival was terrific fun and I was excited to have the chance to share my book with so many indie comic book fans.

From the Archives...

 Back again...

So, picking up where I left off last month, I thought I would continue with the story of Mordecai Crow's development. Or more accurately, go back to some of the stuff I was talking about last time, but this time with pictures!

In my last post (you can see it here) I had incorrectly identified the first crack at Crow as being in 2015 (now corrected - fortunately no one had read it!) I have been digging through the archives and realize now I was off the mark by about 8 years - my earliest files are from 2007! I've been going around saying the book was a decade in the making but now realize 16 years have passed since I started thinking about this project. Yikes! Sadly, the over-arching context for the story, climate change, has only gotten worse.

In the last post I  also mentioned taking an early attempt at the art and thought I would share that here. These are from 2007, the story wasn't even written yet, but I was eager. I was mostly drawing in pen and ink at the time (had yet to discover the Pentel brush pen that changed my life!) and was colouring it digitally on the computer. Yes, in colour - the images will look familiar as they were the basis for my second go ten years later. My working title at the time was The Survivor, and it looked like this...

My first 2007 crack at Crow. You can see that I based the final version of the book on these images - if you click on the page above it will take you to a pdf of all of the first seven pages I completed.

I had also talked last post about the thumbnailing, most of which was done a decade later when I returned to the story. My process has changed on subsequent books (I am now well into Book 3), but you can see here that I wrote the text in the margins as I thumbnailed it!

Thumbnails for Book 1 with text written in margins.

I honestly can't remember if I was actually writing it as I went - judging by the fact that there seem to be few corrections, I think not and at this point was following a script, but I'm pretty sure the first few pages I thumbnailed back in 2007 were written straight into my sketchbook in conjunction with the art. Unfortunately I can't find those first 2007 thumbnail pages!

I eventually pulled together all my thumbnails into a single document and input digital text. As with all of the work I do, those thumbnails would serve as my road map for the next few years of creating the final art. More on that next time.

Thumbnail scanned in with text added digitally afterwards. Much neater! I'm almost positive these thumbnails were done after the first colour pages were done, but I dunno. It has been a long process.
Again, if you want to see what the entire book in thumnails, click on the thumbnail.

And some newsy bits

I will be at the Renegade table at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival this year, signing copies of Secrets Of Jarrow and just generally hanging out, from 2 p.m. onwards on Sunday April 30. If you are in the area drop by and visit - I would love to see you! This is a free event, held in the Toronto Reference Library just north of Bloor on Young. It's packed to the gunnels with indie comic book publishers from all over and with a full schedule of exciting workshops and panels. 

Changing things up...

I'm changing things up a bit here, bringing this site back to being a bit more blog-like so that I can keep my posts current with news and hopefully a bit of interesting back story stuff. 

A bit of history

Some of you may know (most probably don't) that I have spent the big chunk of my professional career illustrating kids' books. But my first love has always been comics, and over the past few years I have been going back to that. My very first professionally published comic was in a Canadian publication by Potlach, the 1980's Comic Annual (I know, I'm dating myself - you can do the math!) My contribution was a few pages of goofy Goscinny and Uderzo-influenced knock offs, a spoof on the Arthurian legend and something called Sir Rolaid and the Black Knight (forgive me, I was young).

The first and only Canadian Comics Annual with cover art by the editor, Ian Carr

I will spare you my pages, but that was pretty well the beginning and end of my comic career for the next long while. There really wasn't much of a comic industry outside of the big two anyway at that time and I drifted into doing kids' books, a close cousin in so many ways, and stayed there. I'm doing a fast forward through that as well - if you are interested in seeing some of my kids' book work you can find it through the navigating links at the top of this page.

So what about Mordecai Crow?

My first crack at Mordecai was in 2007. I had mapped out a bit of back story and some character ideas and even took a crack at a few pages of finished art (way ahead of myself, I know, but I was excited!) but then all that went on the back burner for the next few years as I got busy again with another project, my Elephants Never Forget trilogy, a comic series for Kids Can Press (I blogged about that process extensively back then - you can still read about it here).  On completion of the Elephants Never Forget (Otto) books, I did a few more kids' books, including the second picture book I ever wrote and illustrated, Who Broke the Teapot?! (Interestingly enough my kids' book shelf of over 100 books is more or less book-ended by the only two stories I both wrote and illustrated, The Stone Lion (1996) and Who Broke the Teapot?! (2016), both of which were received with a huge amount of critical acclaim and glowing reviews, and both of which tanked in sales - go figure.) These last few books would be my last picture books in a very long and gratifying career - I was ready to move on and so was the industry so we sort of parted ways.
I had lots of time on my hands so I pulled out my old sketch book with some of the early thumbnails and notes I had made for Mordecai and began to more seriously plot out the story. I spent the better part of an idyllic summer on my back porch, thumbnailing the story and doing character sketches, and things started to take shape. This was something completely different from anything I had done before but I was excited as to where it was all taking me. 
More of this next time...

And some newsy bits

Doing comics is a whole new gig for me, pulling me way out of my comfort zone. But Alexander at Renegade has been great, lining up some interviews, getting the word out as we approach the pub date. 

Super-pleased to have had Secrets of Jarrow included on this list!

And it was fun to do this interview for Comic Beat