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The Beguiling bookstore gives us the inside scoop on Essex County

Editor's note: The Beguiling, a comic book store in Toronto, is a long-time supporter of Jeff Lemire's career. We touched base with the shop's owner, Peter Birkemoe, and manager Chris Butcher, to find out their thoughts on Essex County cracking the Canada Reads final five.


Thumbnail image for The Beguiling

The Beguiling in Toronto


Q: When were you first introduced to Jeff and his work?

A: Jeff was a customer of the store before he started producing his own comics. Our first contact with him as an artist was when he dropped by the store in June 2003 with Ashtray #1, his first self-published comic, and we took it on consignment right away. It was an incredibly bold debut which really caught our eye, heavy with ink and very different looking than a lot of material we were seeing at the time. It was certainly memorable, and we paid close attention to his subsequent releases.

Q: What has your relationship with Jeff been like throughout his career?

A: At The Beguiling we try to be supportive of local talent, and with Jeff it was no different. We've enthusiastically supported his work from day one, right up through last week when that new issue of Superboy was released, and we'll continue to do so. A couple of years back we started representing his original art sales as well, and they've been strong... art collectors are really beginning to realize that comics art, and especially the art of notable creators like Jeff, is a long-term investment both monetarily and aesthetically.

Jeff's likewise been a great supporter of the store, designing one of our most popular window displays — a hockey-themed tie-in to the middle chapter of Essex County, and debuting books with us through book launches at The Beguiling and at The Toronto Comic Arts Festival, an annual event that we sponsor here in the city. He even comes by the store on new comic book day and signs books for his fans every time he has a new release. He's a great guy, and it's easy to see why he's developed such a solid following.

Q: The Beguiling has been around for a long time. With graphic novels going mainstream, has the comics community evolved in recent years?

A: We've always had a more diverse clientele than people associate with a comic store, in terms of the age range and the gender balance. That trend has continued as comics have surged in popularity over the past seven or eight years, and with us about to celebrate our 25th anniversary next year the most interesting change has been our customers bringing their own kids in to buy their comics!

Q: What makes Essex County unique?

A: Hockey.

Just kidding. Honestly, Essex County, his current work Sweet Tooth, they all have such a fully realized sense of place and character to them, I think that's what really appeals to them. Yes, he's drawing on his childhood in Essex County and the people he knew, but he's also created spaces and people that his readers feel like they know — a farmer's field and windmill they've driven by, a great uncle they can just barely remember. His works are deeply evocative of a place and time, nostalgia but without the saccharine sentimentality that often accompanies it.

The hockey certainly doesn't hurt, though. How his can be the only Canadian Hockey graphic novel in a country of 27 million people is beyond us.

Q: How do you feel about a graphic novel competing against regular or traditional novels in this year's Canada Reads debates?

A: I feel that in any given year there's likely to be a Canadian graphic novel that will measure up to anything on the top Canadian novels of the year list. At least one. Canadian creators produce a lot of wonderful, wonderful work. Essex County in particular may not have been the Canadian graphic novel that first came to mind for people for a best of the decade list, mostly because Jeff is such a young creator. But the book's popularity has crossed genre lines within the medium, and it engages and is enjoyed by comics readers of all ages, from teens to zoomers, and regardless of whether they consider themselves superhero fans or alternative comics fans or just comics fans. It has enormous potential to reach people regardless of what kind of reader they consider themselves.

Q: What would you say to those reluctant to give graphic novels and comics a try?

A: Why, I can't imagine anyone as literate and intelligent as a Canada Reads participant would hold any sort of prejudice against certain kinds of books, particularly such distinguished works as comics.

On the off chance that someone does hold such a prejudice, however, I'd say that the Canada Reads competition itself is the perfect opportunity to step outside of a reader's comfort zone. That reader would discover that comics and graphic novels can be just as challenging, thoughtful, inspiring and nuanced as prose, with the added bonus of being an entirely unique reading experience as the reader stretches their visual literacy muscles.

Q: Do you have any advice for Sara Quin, who will be defending Essex County in this year's debates?

A: Our best tactic when suggesting a graphic novel to a customer is to find out what other media they consume — books, movies, television that they enjoy, and the compare our graphic novel suggestions to those works. Grounding a recommendation of a work in terms that anyone can understand — comparing it to other great works — is a great way to communicate a book's strengths.

Also, one of the other defenders is a hockey player, get his book knocked out right away and he'll have to get on board with Essex County because of all of its hockey scenes. Play to win, Sara!

Q: For those readers who liked Essex County, can you recommend a few other comics titles to read?

A: First and foremost, we'd probably recommend Fun Home by Alison Bechdel as a powerful and engaging memoir, with a largely small town setting that is contrasted with some amazing city scenes.

We'd similarly recommend George Sprott:1894-1975 by Seth for its similarly strong evocation of small town Canada, its depiction of actions of characters playing out over decades, and for being a thoroughly conceived and beautifully produced work.

Charles Burns's Black Hole is another series with a very developed sense of place, a period coming-of-age story set in the 1970s and early 1980s, genuinely unsettling.

Finally, we'd recommend the wonderful graphic novel Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks. It's an under-appreciated gem of a graphic novel that really communicates why people of all ages love comics, and it's impossible to finish that book and not love comics a little bit more yourself.


Thanks to Peter and Chris for taking the time to talk to us!

Image of The Beguiling via the store's website.

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