Royal City #1
Jeff Lemire: artist/writer/creator
Steve Wands: letterer
Published by Image Comics
Alternative Covers: Jeff Lemire
Women History Month Cover: Emi Lenox
Royal City, it's a town haunted, a town one can feel lonely in if they stay too long in. Nobody is more alone than the Pike family. Despite living in the town together, their personal issues and strife keep them emotionally a thousand miles away from each other. Except for Tommy. He is the glue that keeps them together. Or is he? Peter Pike, patriarch of the family, has fallen ill and hospitalized. The rest of the family come to show their support, even Patrick who lives in the city. It does not make them any more a family, and Tommy is still the one they lean on to. But Tommy has had enough. He is tired of being the emotional lean-on. What comes next is a tale of loss and regret as the Pikes face a truth they don't want to admit, plunging into a surreal realm of introspection where what they thought they knew will be challenged. Can they face those challenges and change, or be consumed?
WARNING: POTENTIAL MAJOR SPOILERS
I've been eagerly awaiting this series, yet I had no idea what was in store. Sad thing, I don't keep up with much industry news. There are a lot of reasons: 1) Distractions, 2) Life, 3) More distractions, and 4) Uh, more distractions.
The first thing I heard about Royal City is that it would be a return to Lemire's early work, The Essex County Trilogy. He has always been a master of drama: dysfunctional families, community strife, failing loves, and the struggles to fix them. These themes were present even in his genre work, but I missed his stories featuring down-to-earth characters with no super powers and relatable backgrounds. Look, robots with feelings will always be interesting, but I'd also like to read a story about the drunken fat dude moping in the back of the bar. No, really. Especially if he has a maple syrup-thick Canadian accent.*
Royal City is a triumphant return to Jeff Lemire's early years. It has his trademarks of family drama, small town politics and history, plus an added bonus of magical realism that makes the series his most ambitious project to date.
Usually, this is the section where I talk about covers. I'm going to skip that and go straight to the art. It's not because the covers are bad (in fact, the Emi Lenox variant is delightfully haunting), but I wouldn't say these are flashy covers either. That's the thing about Jeff Lemire's art. It's appeal has never been on an eye-catching level. It's the emotional sincerity.
I have talked to people that aren't big fans of Lemire's art, and their usual argument is that they don't like the stiff and sketchy way he draws characters. I will admit these are accurate descriptions, but I don't consider them negative. The way he draws characters like flat stick figures amplifies their poignancy. Their facial expressions ache with emotion, causing the reader feels whatever they feel. Sometimes, the emotion is so visceral it's unnerving, and even when the character is happy, the reader feels sad looking at them. This is because the stick figure anatomy not only strips away the details that could hide emotion, it also gives characters a frail appearance. They look ready to fall apart. As a result, there is both a love and fear for the characters as they go on their journeys, their fragile states always threatening to destroy them. Depending on the ending, these emotions either make the reader sigh with relief or cry with crushing despair.
In Royal City, this emotional frailty is further amplified by the choice of watercolor. In much of his recent work, Jeff Lemire is fascinated with watercolor, as evidence by After Death. Here, Lemire is doing watercolor again with added gray and red on character faces. The gray of facial lines are realistic and signs of stress; red on the cheeks and nose makes them appear flustered by their personal issues. Looking at these features in context of the story, you get the feeling years of tension have marked their faces. It's excruciating to look at, but strangely beautiful.
Complaints of Jeff Lemire's lack of details seem to ignore how he brings a lot of it to settings. The town of Royal City is fully realized like an early 20th-century landscape painting; blades of grass, the outlines of a brick wall, are drawn simply yet expertly. The choice of watercolor adds a a gothic atmosphere, as though the town itself is haunted. Gothic elements have always been present in Lemire's work, but watercolor gives it a softer, subtler tone that feels like being lost in a mist. You're caught between feeling the world is quiet while something is watching you.
A feeling that something or someone is haunting Royal City and the main cast is consistently present, both in the art and the story.
The series is centered on the Pikes, an estranged family that have lived a long time in the small Canadian town of Royal City. They do not get along and are caught up in their own personal problems. Patrick Pike is a struggling writer late on a deadline; Tara is a realtor that wants to bring prosperity back to town but has to destroy the factory her husband and family worked in for years; Rick is the black sheep, a reckless drunk that can't keep a job and shames his family; Peter and Patti are the patriarch and matriarch, and they can no longer stand each other, hassling each other over their unhealthy habits (Peter eats too much while Patti smokes). This is a family that avoids each other so much they might as well be on distant planets.
Out of all of them, Tara is the most interesting to me. Tara's desire to get rid of the old factory might seem selfish because she's destroying an iconic building of Royal City's history, not to mention potentially ridding her husband of work (he is a manager in the factory's assembly line). However, Royal City is failing financially and many young people are leaving for greener pastures. Tara's hope is that the new condos she wants to replace the factory with will bring prosperity back. It is an interesting gray line she walks, and so far my favorite scenes are with her.
As said before, Patrick is a writer late on a deadline, but that isn't his problem. It's his inability to connect with his family. In the scenes where he interacts with them, Patrick doesn't feel like a family member but a stranger in the middle of their bickering. This lack of family ties also gives Patrick a lack of personality. On the surface, he is the least interesting character, but at the same time, I think this lacking speaks to his waywardness.
The one character I haven't gotten to yet is Tommy Pike. I'm almost scared to talk about him because it could give away the twist in the story that really makes it an interesting read. I'm going to discuss it as vaguely as possible. However, if you want to read the issue #1, leave now and come back later. It will be worth it.
For those of you sticking around, here we go.
Tommy Pike is the one member of the Pike family that everyone likes. While the rest of the family hate each other, they all love Tommy, except for Patrick who doesn't know how to connect with people. They all see him differently, aspects of Tommy, or rather aspects they want to see in him, that they like. However, Tommy feels smothered by them, and he can't be himself. The only one that sees him as an individual and not a glorified persona is, ironically, Rick. In fact, Tommy brings out Rick's better qualities such as kindness and generosity. This is true of the rest of the family such as Tara's sisterly love or Patti's piety (although, piety is also her biggest flaw, given her self-righteous attitude).
As for Tommy, he suffers a crushing sense of loneliness. He can't explain it other than it's an intuition that something is haunting Royal City and making him feel this way. Tommy's dream is to leave town and be free of loneliness. Unfortunately, he is in a situation that prevents him from leaving.
It is this situation I cannot reveal because it would give away the twist. It's a brilliant twist that plays around with the concept of ghosts and haunting. So, um, I think I just screwed up and let the cat out. But hey, I did give ya a warning first. Can't go throwing rocks at me now.
It is important to keep note that although ghosts exist in this story, it is not a ghost story. There is haunting in Royal City, but it is not a horror story. Instead, the comic is magical realism. This genre isn't new at all, not if you're familiar with the works of Flannery O'Connor or the Bible itself which often put historical figures next to religious experiences. Basically, magical realism expresses a primarily realistic view of the real world while also revealing magical elements.
Yes, I did just rip off that definition from Wikipedia. Sue me.
Again, not giving away the twist, but Tommy and his relation to the concepts of ghosts and haunting is tremendous and plays around with expectations. Furthermore, this element of magical realism does not conflict with the drama. Instead, it explores issues of how family members have misconceptions of each other which can lead to dysfunction and distance.
The best part are the dream sequences executed in the most impressive displays of art. While it can feel like dream sequences are overdone in fiction, they are a great way to develop a story while keeping the reader's attention with stunning visuals. Jeff Lemire is a master at this trick, and it's no different here in Royal City. The two major dream sequences involve Rick and Peter. Both seem to suggest a number of things without being certain. Either, they are glimpses into the events that caused Tommy to be stuck in Royal City, symbolic representations of their personal problems, or events that will happen later in the city. It's still too early to tell, but I personal love looking at the imagery and guessing what it all means.
The magical realism, in all its unpredictable and experimental glory, is fantastic icing to what is a straight forward story structure. Like any first issue, Royal City #1 introduces the setting and characters, develops some history and personality, establishes conflicts and goals, and a hook at the end to motivate the reader to wait for issue #2. By no means does this diminish the story. It might be a familiar set up, but one executed in a unique, exciting fashion that has me eager for next month.
Also, Jeff Lemire provides a playlist in the back, songs that he listened to while working on issue #1. I have noticed several comic creators doing this, and I honestly want it to become a regularly feature. I like imagining a soundtrack to each scene, something that I feel enhances the reading experience.
Best of all, none of this is spelled-out to the reader. Jeff Lemire writes and draws the story in a way that allows you to contemplate. This is especially true of characters. They may be judgmental of each other, but Jeff Lemire casts them in a non-judgmental light to allow both their good and bad qualities to be shown. Even if the author has a point to the story, you're allowed to interpret it on your own terms.
Royal City #1 is one hell of a debut. It takes a familiar family drama and throws in amazing, surreal art plus magical realism that plays with reader expectations. It is a true return to Jeff Lemire's earlier work, and while having fantastical elements, focuses heavily on drama and family complexity to engage the reader. If you love comics like this, if you're looking for something experimental, beautifully haunting, and achingly human, go out and buy Royal City. It is Jeff Lemire's most ambitious project to date, and you will love every page of it.
*The Outhousers apologize for Scary Cleve's stereotyping of Canadians. In no way do we believe all Canadians are fat drunks that speak as though they have a mouthful of syrup. As punishment, he will be forced to shovel moose poop and drink an entire bottle of Canadian Royal. Thank you, and have a good day.