First aired on The Next Chapter (20/12/10)
The public perception of comics has changed dramatically over the past few years. No longer are they relegated to their own tiny specialty stores and associated solely with superheroes in tights. Instead, the comics medium has exploded into the mainstream, with several acclaimed artists making a mark with touching trilogies, mesmerizing memoirs and chilling characters. Jeff Lemire is one of these artists and his collection Essex County is the first-ever graphic novel to take the Canada Reads stage.
Canada Reads isn't the first time Jeff's work has been put on a pedestal. Despite his status as an indie artist, he's received plenty of recognition in his field. In 2008, he won the Joe Shuster Award for Best Canadian Cartoonist. That same year, Essex County won the American Library Association's prestigious Alex Award, which celebrates books for adults that also have teen appeal. He has also won multiple Eisner Awards, which are regarded as the Oscars of the comics world.
Jeff grew up in Essex County, Ontario, and he brings a fictitious version of his hometown to life in this poignant book. He started drawing comics as a young boy (some of these comics make an appearance in Essex County's Tales from the Farm), but never gave it serious consideration as a career. After moving to Toronto to study film, he found his way back to the medium he loved as a child.
"It didn't take me long to realize I would never make a film. The idea I would have in my head, it was so hard to get it out because I had to filter it through actors and filmmakers," Jeff admitted to Shelagh Rogers in a recent interview on The Next Chapter. "With comics, it was so direct, it was no one else. It was just me and I could create really clearly what I had in my head."
While he returned to comics not long after moving to the big city, it took nearly a decade for his hometown to become an inspiration for Jeff's stories. "When I was growing up there, I couldn't wait to get out and couldn't wait to move to the big city and live the exciting life I imagined as a kid," Jeff said.
However, time and distance can change an artist's perspective on pretty much anything. Jeff became intent on telling the stories of his hometown (and it didn't hurt that his drawing style lended itself nicely to depicting open, rural areas either!). "The distance and the time gave me a new perspective on where I'd grown up and I started to see the things I didn't appreciate when I grew up there," he said. "I wanted to make a statement about where I grew up before I forgot about what it was like."
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Essex County will be defended by musician Sara Quin in this year's Canada Reads debates, which will air on CBC Radio One on February 7, 8 and 9 at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. (2:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland).
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