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Essex County Vol. 1: Tales from the Farm

by Jeff Lemire

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a young boy on a farm discovers he can fly.

That the boy is only daydreaming is where Jeff Lemire’s Tales from the Farm departs from more familiar comics territory and instead charts its own terrain of family, fantasies, and the realities of growing up in rural Canada.

The hero of this black-and-white graphic novel is Lester, a 10-year-old boy growing up on a farm in southwestern Ontario. Ever since his mom died, Lester has been left in the care of his Uncle Ken, a kindhearted man who is unequipped to deal with his new household charge. Lester has also been wearing a mask and cape as he disappears into the dream worlds of his comic books.

Their lives are transformed after Lester meets a different sort of hero, a former hockey star named Jimmy Lebeuf, now a local gas-station attendant thanks to a head injury received in his first (and only) pro game. Their unlikely friendship forms the heart of Lemire’s story, one that mixes visions of rural life with alien invasions and pond hockey.

Lemire captures the beauty of the rural landscape in his stark compositions. There’s good pacing too, matching the rhythm of the seasons, with whole pages devoted to pauses between scenes. Lemire has a knack for creating memorable characters through both look and dialogue, such as the hoser-mouthed, pug-nosed mug of Lebeuf. A lot of this comes from the drawing style, full of highly distinctive and emotive lines that go from chunky wedges to scratches. For the most part this works, although in some panels more care should have been taken, as the messiness takes away from the effect.

But overall, these tremulous lines pull you into the fragile world of childhood. The end result is a deceptively simple but tightly focused story about imagination and the yearning to be whole.