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Essex County Volume 3: The Country Nurse

Posted: Wednesday, August 13, 2008
By: Tom Waters

Jeff Lemire
Jeff Lemire
Top Shelf Productions
Iíve read great graphic novels from some talented Canadian writer/artists (Joe Matt and Chester Brown spring to mind), and Iíve read a hell of a lot of great black and white slice-of-life comic fiction. However, The Country Nurse by Jeff Lemire didnít quite measure up to those other efforts.

The artwork is stark, cold, and sprawling with its cold Canadian winter landscapes and the pervasive silence and sadness of everyday human life. The story covers the trails, travails, and tribulations of a country nurse while paralleling the troubles her mother (a nun) has with an orphanage. The dialogue seems real, but it left something to be desired.

Slice-of-life comics can be tender, funny, touching, and downright bizarre at times. The Country Nurse feels like a displaced John Irving epic. Think A Prayer for Owen Meany meets Setting Free the Bears without the Dickensian scope and reach.

For a large story with an ensemble of characters--see also David Foster Wallace, Robert Altman, Wes Anderson, and Charles Dickens (hence the Dickensian)--I get what Lemire is trying to do. However, the story is too subtle for its own good. It lacked the emotional wallop that the measured pacing was supposed to be leading up to.

Plus, a lone black bird or crow appears before each key plot point in the story. Yeah, we all get that, too. Great. Not my cup of tea.

If youíre going to tell a story with an ensemble of small town folk and try to get a message or a feeling across, itís vitally important that you finish with a strong emotional impact. For stories of that kind, Iíd rather re-read Mark Kalisnikoís Mail Order Bride or Neal Shafferís Last Exit Before Toll.

The Country Nurse fizzled out at its conclusion. As the third book in a trilogy, I would expect a bit more--and, as a first time reader of the series, this volume didnít pull me in enough to warrant further investigation into the prior two books.

I suspect that Lemire relied too heavily on autobiographical elements. Call it a hunch based on re-printed panels that were obviously from childhood drawings. I just felt that this content would have been better as a short story in a collection instead of a comic.

Perhaps Lemire will go on to produce better work (the potential is there), but heís not functioning at the top of his game just yet. If youíre browsing in your local comic shop, you might want to look through The Country Nurse a bit to see if itís your kind of kooky.



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