Jeff Lemire broke into comics by offering himself as a complete package, a cartoonist with style unlike anything currently around also capable of breaking into the mainstream.
From his first critical success in Lost Dogs to the refinement of his artwork in even bigger commercial successes like Sweet Tooth and Underwater Welder, Lemire defined himself by his own terms. That makes it interesting to observe how much of his work in the past few years has been collaborative in nature, including a slew of work at Marvel and DC Comics as well as some creator-owned work at Image in which he has been the writer or artist, but never both. Royal City marks the return of Jeff Lemire the cartoonist, and it is most certainly a Lemire comic.
Royal City is the tale of a fractured family in a small Canadian city coming back together over a recent tragedy and reflecting on older ones. It’s melancholy, purposefully paced, and defined by its setting.
These are the fingerprints of Lemire’s cartooning and stories, and no part of Royal City could be mistaken for the work of someone else. For whatever flaws might be present, Lemire reminds readers he is an auteur. And for those readers who adore his work, there will be nothing to object to here, but Royal City #1 is far from ready to be deemed a “return to form”.
It’s not just the aesthetic and setting of Royal City that is familiar; the plot is easily recognized in many parts as a cliche. The narrative of a family coming back together in order to confront their problems, new and old, is far from original, but what’s worse is how many of the characters fit very comfortable roles. Parents that squabble about weight and being told what to do introduce the story with dialogue that could be found in a creative writing course. The “drunk” and “failing artist” are also present.
The one narrative thread that comes to a life of its own in this first issue is that of the sister who addresses issues of urban redevelopment and glass ceilings in business. She has a story that is not being told elsewhere and her connections to Royal City and her own family enhance that narrative in interesting ways. How the characters progress remains to be seen, but in this debut issue, it’s easy to ignore the majority of the family.
What should not be undersold is Lemire’s ability to present these ideas in an engaging fashion. That ability is the lifeblood of Royal City #1 and makes many of the too familiar aspects much more palatable. Lemire’s watercolors alone make a comic worth considering and his ability to craft the plains of Canada and grim urban environments of an industrial city are stunning. The fashion in which he builds the history which this family must inevitably dig up is the single best aspect of Royal City #1 though.
This is a comic that addresses the ghosts of our lives in a somewhat literal fashion. The various appearances of one character establish what is happening to readers before the final page states the obvious, and this is to increase the effect of realization. Whether it as metaphor or literal haunting, the presentation of one family member is incredibly effective. It is the exploration of this idea, just established as a visual concept here, that will raise Royal City or fail it by not fulfilling its promise. In either case, Lemire is engaged with the work at hand and is trying to rediscover the spirit of previous work like Essex County. Royal City #1 is a mixed bag of elements that land or fail to, but it has potential to rise above the latter.