By Justin McCarty
Jeff Lemire has made a name for himself telling personal stories about real people or at least relatable characters. His breakout hit was Essex County for Top Shelf, an Eisner award-winning graphic novel series. In Royal City, he has managed to circle back around to relatable archetypes that highlight the dysfunction in relationships. Lemire has written a haunting book that imagines what failed and lonely lives look like on a granular level. Next, of Kin collects the first five chapters chronicling the lives of the Pike family as they are forced to come to terms with the baggage weighing them down. Rendered in Lemire's trademark ink and watercolors, Royal City is full of atmosphere.
Chapter one introduces us to the Pike family, wonderfully rendered in watercolor, which gives them a tired, worn down feeling. The weight of time and their actions come through with each brush stroke. There is Peter and Patti, two long-suffering spouses struggling to stay in love. Peter is beaten down by an overbearing wife, Pattie, an adulterer with a lot of guilt. Patrick, their son, is a failing writer. He is more or less the lens through which we view Royal City. Next is Tara, a realtor with a marriage strained by the same changes that have been long killing Royal City. Richie is the family drunk. You know. That guy in the family that just won’t get it together. The fear of failing at starting again and visions of what could have been are keeping him, just like his siblings, locked in time. These characters are all archetypes, and a less capable writer would just fall right into cliche. Instead, Lemire makes these characters relatable but also fresh.
These characters are all held down by the death of Tommy who died some twenty-five years ago. We don’t get to know Tommy that well in the first five chapters. What we do get to learn is that he was loved by all these people and his death has held them back ever since. They are all fixed in time with the idea of what Tommy meant to them when he died. For Patrick, Tommy was the writer Patrick wished he could be, to Tara he was the child she might never have, to Richie the best friend and partner in crime, for Pattie he was a saint and could do no wrong. All of these versions of Tommy symbolizing the arrested development in their own lives. Lastly, there is Royal City, like the Pike family it has seen better days, symbolic of those characters lives, what it has been -- what it could be if it were allowed to change.
Symbolism and surrealism are used so well in this collection to show the inner workings of these characters minds. The watercolors and inking add so much to that surrealist tone. Dreams that take place on the streets of Royal City gives us clues to what these characters might want. Tommy’s ghost appears and vanishes: is this really a ghost or just visions? One of my favorite points of symbolism is when Tommy shows up at his father’s hospital bedside. Is he there to comfort his dad? Lemire renders him in two-dimensionality -- forcing us to see Tommy the way his family sees him: not as a complex person but as their memory of him or what they hoped he would be.
Royal City shows us we don’t need heroes fighting each other in comics to tell a compelling story that fans will buy. Royal City is about changing and how people deal with change. It is also about letting go of the past. When confronted with the need for change we usually run to our past.
Royal City vol. 1 - Next of Kin