The history of Essex County, some remembered, some forgotten

by
The Essex County Boxing Club
The Sad + Lonely Life of Eddie Elephant Ears
By Jeff Lemire
2 minicomics @ $3CAD

THE ESSEX COUNTY GRAPHIC NOVELS HAVE BEEN OUTSTANDING, thanks to Jeff Lemire’s beautiful, quirky art and wistful portrayals of haunted people. Their fictional yet familiar setting seems capable, like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, of producing an endless supply of characters and stories. The appearance of these two minicomics––at least one of which is a deleted sequence from the upcoming final book in the “Essex County Trilogy,” The Country Nurse––confirms that Lemire has more stories to tell than can fit in the books, and they make welcome standalone additions to the series.

And standalone they are, mostly. The Essex County Bowing Club was first seen on Lemire’s blog, where it included the pages that transitioned from The Country Nurse into this story. Here the first page is recomposed to present an opening separate from that larger story. The mini traces the history of the titular boxing club from its founding by “Punchin’ Patty” Papineau and “Thunderpunch” Diemer in 1976 to the present. Within this framework, Lemire sketches an outline of their friendship and the impact tragedy befalling one of them midway through has on the club.

Memory and its ghosts have been a recurring theme in the Essex County graphic novels (the second is actually called Ghost Stories) and the same is true here. The history of the club goes by very quickly in only 16 pages, but Lemire excels at picking out key moments to stand in for different eras and a couple pages are successfully laid out around “photgraphs.” Meanwhile, Lemire finds time to take the fight that bookends the story a bit slower. The gag that surrounds the founding of the club is charming, advancing an action across three different versions of the tale and using mittens as perfect visual stand-ins for boxing gloves. Where it doesn’t quite work is that Lemire is more skilled at developing empathy with characters over time rather than in a few quick scenes, so the emotional climax doesn’t hit as hard as in the graphic novels. It’s interesting if you’re not familiar with the Essex County Trilogy, but it’s more successful as a supplement to the series.

The Sad + Lonely Life of Eddie Elephant Ears is the better of the two, in part because it stands on its own better, reading as well by itself as it does a part of the series. It also offers a clever reversal on the series’ theme of memory, presenting a character who was in a car accident at the age of nine and in a coma for 10 years, awakening with almost no memory at all (making his otherwise accurate nickname, “Eddie Elephant Ears,” particularly ironic).

In this context, the story’s exploration of the few things Eddie does remember, and his worry that they are not real memories at all but dreams, is deeply touching. The memories aren’t terribly substantial, but revolve around small pleasures, the kind that Lemire has always slipped into the Essex County stories. Eddie Elephant Ears is also the more formally interesting of the two, making greater use of visual metaphor, and employing more unique design elements, like the icon system that signifies Eddie’s four memories.

As the minis were originally drawn as chapters of the Essex County trilogy, the art matches the graphic novels, with sketchy, textured backgrounds and endearingly homely characters. Whether Eddie is getting off a bus or an ECBC fight is in progress, the tone is reserved, quiet, and builds slowly to sudden emotional peaks, inviting the reader to linger over them and take in the atmosphere. They’re a nice package for a minicomic, a little smaller than the graphic novels, each with handsome, glossy color covers. The physical mincomics were limited to 300 each and are now sold out, but are available to read free at Top Shelf 2.0 (the images in this review come from the digital version). They’re definitely worth the click.


PS: Buying these minis from Lemire online was my first experience with US currency being worth less than Canadian currency. With shipping, Lemire was charging $9CAD for the two comics. This cost me $9.18USD. Not a lot more, but this is not what I’m used to. Ouch.

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