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Jeff Lemire gives us a tour of Essex County

It's been a while since I left Essex County. By that I mean both the fictional version of the place as well as the real Essex County where I grew up. Yet I keep getting pulled back.

I finished writing and drawing the last chapter of my Essex County graphic novel, The Country Nurse, in early 2008. The process of bringing all three chapters to life, almost 500 pages of comics in all, had been a long and often challenging one. I started the winter of 2005, not really knowing where it was headed. And it just grew and grew until it pretty much took over every aspect of my creative life.



An Essex County barn, courtesy Dani Couture


At the time I was still working a day job as a line cook at La Hacienda restaurant on Queen Street West in Toronto. I'd work the night shift, which left me with my days free to draw. Generally I'd try to get a page a day drawn. Some days I'd do more, some days less. Doing comics is a marathon, rather than a sprint. It takes time...hours upon hours to render the same fictional moment that a prose writer might dash off in a few minutes. But to be consumed by something as big as Essex County was full of rewards as well.

The Essex County books all started when I decided to do a book set in the tiny Canadian farming town where I grew up. I'll admit the rusted old farm equipment, teetering windmills and concrete grain elevators that littered the wide open fields of Essex County meant little to me growing up there. I couldn't wait to move to the Big City. But, 10 years after leaving EC, and living in said Big City, the sparse lonely landscape of my childhood started to evoke a strong, almost visceral pull inside me.

Moreover, they seemed like a natural fit with the jagged, expressive inking style that had become the earmark of my cartooning. And, as soon as I sat down and started scratching out drawings, all of those lonely roadside power-lines and rickety old farmhouses quickly became equally lonely and rickety old characters. The "rural decay" of southwestern Ontario became the rural decay at the heart of inhabitants of my fictional Essex County.

And from there plot and narrative structure sprang up. That's when the characters really came to life for me. They walked around in my head telling me their stories and I was lucky to be a part of their lives for that short three-year window.

People presume Lester, the lonely boy growing up on the farm, is most like me. But the truth is that I've always felt closest to Lou Lebouf, especially old, deaf, cranky 70-year old Lou. We're the most alike. (It's true — ask my wife, and she'll confirm that deep down I'm a cantankerous 70-year old man in a 34-year-old body. But she's really a stubborn 80-year-old worrywart, so we're a good match). And if I were to tell the truth, I miss Lou the most, even now years after writing his last line and drawing his last panel, he's always with me. He really became a part of my life. As real and as important to me as any person I've ever known or cared about in the flesh.

I don't really miss the real Essex County. I'm happy here in the city with the life and family I've built for myself. But on occasion I do miss the fictional place. I seemed to fit in a lot better there than I ever did in real life. And the book keeps calling me back. I first had to revisit it about a year ago when it was collected into one big volume. And now it's a part of my life again with its selection as a finalist in Canada Reads. I'm so grateful that people keep discovering and responding to the book. To me it means that Lester, Lou, Jimmy and the rest will stay alive inside other people now too. They'll never fade away; their story will never end as long as there are people out there who still want to visit Essex County.

Did you miss Jeff on The Next Chapter? Listen to his conversation with Shelagh Rogers here.

Join us for a live chat with Jeff on Thursday, January 27, at 2 p.m. ET.

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