Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

November 1, 2010

A Twofer – Skim & Essex County

So my lip service to the Canada Reads Top 40 announced last week was to read a couple of books I already owned. I know, I’m such a pillar, standing here supporting our publishing industry like this.  But honestly, 40 books whose claim to being “essential” is either mass popularity or social media savvy – I’m not going to run out and buy them all, so why buy any of them?  I’m holdin’ out for the top 5, kids.  And here’s hoping they’re not the five I’ve already read.

I was, however, pretty tickled that two graphic novels made the cut – Skim by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki (real-life cousins) and the Essex County trilogy by Jeff Lemire.  I’d long since bought both, since they’ve collectively racked up every award in comics and even a few outside, but I hadn’t actually got around to reading them yet.  And now I have.

Reading Skim made me more irritated than ever about the fiasco surrounding Mariko Tamaki’s Governor General nod.  This is a short book as far as the text goes – I was through it inside of an hour, toddler interruptions included.  What gives it the depth and length of a novel was Jillian Tamaki’s art, obviously inseparable from the words as far as the whole goes.  The graphic presentation is unquestionably Skim‘s strong point; it’s what lends poetry to an otherwise pretty straight-forward teens-coming-to-know-themselves story.

Teens-coming-to-know-themselves is a pretty standard trope for graphic novels these days.  Some of the best (if not all of the best) work in graphic novels now is autobiographical – see Speigelman’s Maus, Lynda Barry’s What It Is, Joe Matt’s Peepshow and Craig Thompson’s Blankets - and to a man and woman, graphic novelists seem to have been drawn from high school’s outcast classes.

I closed Skim thinking, well, that was no Ghost World.  Skim and her friend Lisa are petulant and insecure, “rebelling” against their suburban (Scarberian) Catholic school upbringings via a very mild mid-90s Goth aesthetic, skipping school now and again, and smoking.  They hate everyone else and, of course, increasingly develop a sense of self through art.  Having been a high-school-Goth in 1994, I found Skim and Lisa pretty bland – at the time, I’d have called them wankers.  Their outcast-ness feels forced, a lame attempt at differentness, enforced by stereotyped teen Christian princesses.  See 2004′s film Saved! for point of reference.  But despite the fact that they wear black and cut class, these nice girls are gonna be okay in the end, you can see that from the beginning.

By comparison, Ghost World‘s Enid & Becky jump right off the page with their pop-culture savvy and penchant for outrageous hyperbole.  They’re smarter, hipper, and skirting a more dangerous edge.  My 15-year-old self would have KILLED to be friends with these girls.  But after re-reading Daniel Clowes’ version of the outcast-teen-story, I have to give Skim credit for what it does do rather than what it doesn’t.

Skim isn’t treading any new ground, but the story is gently and beautifully gendered thanks to Jillian’s art.  You just want to lend Skim a pile of books and give her a big hug.  Hers is  a more universal teenage experience, the same sad stuff we all went through to some degree.  The moodiness of the naturalistic landscapes haunted by teenagers all trying to hide from each other will probably resonate with the confused teen in your life, and it’s Jillian Tamaki we have to thank for that.

But it was Jeff Lemire’s Essex County that gets my gold star of approval this weekend.  While invoking familiar Canadian themes of cold winters, small-town hockey dreams and wheat-covered rural life, he manages to avoid comparison to anyone at all.  He gets that Canadian tone just right, without waving flags, sentimentalism, or a tongue in cheek.

Each of the three volumes of the novel tell the story of one or more characters from Essex County, Ontario.  Each character lives a life interlaced with the others (a small-town given – even the faces and names of the Essex County “short stories” included at the end of the Collected Essex County are familiar, being evidently someone’s uncle, grandfather, or neighbour.)  But despite all these connections and overlapping histories the characters are all grappling with crushing loneliness.  If there is a Lemire-ian hallmark, it is surely the stark black-and-white full-length panel of a character, alone at a table in a room obviously intended to hold more people.  The black shadow cast against two or more walls of the room will reveal some domestic symbol in negative: a cross, a clock.  The discomfort of those rooms contrasted with the neutral, trying-to-just-get-by expressions of his (adorable) characters leaves a deep impression.  It’s masterful work.

The loose style of Lemire’s art gives the impression of something which has just occurred to him, dashed off in a hurry.  But the sketchbooks at the back of the Collected volume tell a much more complete story of drafts, rewrites and thought.  The book also does the trick of making you want to spend more time in this world with these – or other – characters.  Essex County – Lemire’s version – is a deep world rich with untold stories.  The three shorts included in the Collected whets the appetite.  That is the mark of a master story-teller.

In other news, is anyone else having a hard time voting for their top-10 Canada Reads title?  My instinct is to vote for the book I most want to read, rather than the one I’ve read and liked best.  I mean, for Pete’s sake, I don’t want anything I’ve read before on that list.  So how could I vote for something I’ve already loved?  But then, how essential can I say something is that I’ve never read?  Oh well, the saga continues.   November 7th (or is it 9th?), you can’t come soon enough.

4 Responses to “A Twofer – Skim & Essex County”

  • Nathalie Foy says:

    My hopes for these kinds of lists are that they will prompt me to read something new, that they will lead me to my next love. But that makes voting a very strange thing–how to vote for something that you have not read?
    I’ve decided to vote for something that I HAVE read and loved in the hopes that it will lead another reader to a new book. If others do the same, we may all come away with a shiny new read.


  • Charlotte says:

    That’s probably very wise! That in mind I will probably vote for Essex County. The only other book on the list I read and truly adored is A Complicated Kindness, but I can’t wrap my head around the idea of a former Canada Reads winner getting to be one again.


  • 4 Thoughts About Canada Reads 2011 « Inklings says:

    [...] of “essentials” ever could have been.  I get to read four books I’ve never read (I read – and loved – Essex County just recently) and three newbie novelists (and one very hard-working graphic novelist) get a kick [...]


  • My Canada Reads Pre-Game « Inklings says:

    [...] I haven’t said a thing about Jeff Lemire’s Essex County.  Well, read on – I have no complaint here.  If there’s any justice in this competition, Essex County [...]


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