Essex County Is The Toughest Adaptation Of Comic Book Phenomenon Jeff Lemire To Date

Jeff Lemire is perhaps the most famous man you’ve never heard of.

Then again, if you know a thing or two about the comics, chances are you’ve managed to miss his name. The golden boy of superhero stories racked up credits at every major publisher in the first decade of his career — on projects that would eventually find their way into the industrial cinematic juggernauts of the Marvel and DC TV and cinematic universes.

For fans of these, it may be Marvel moon knight, Old Man Logan And Hawk Eyeor DC Justice League, green arrow And super boy that its name evokes; all of the huge names that have found their way to the screen – as well as the comic book series that, for a time, were under Lemire’s creative direction.

If you’re more inclined to follow the original stories, you might be patiently waiting for the project. black hammer adaptation (from Lemire blurred area-esque on the genre) or the second season of Gourmand (the post-apocalyptic drama, stag-boy produced by Robert Downey Jr..)

For the enlightened English crowd, it would probably be his books Thugthe Gord Downie collab secret paththe twin Descender And Blocker series or The underwater welder who stand out. But for Lemire himself, it’s a much older story that he keeps apart from the others.

For him it is Essex County: the book about his hometown, and which really launched him into the industry – and helped him define who he was.

WATCH | Essex County trailer:

“It’s the book, I think, where I found my voice as a creator,” Lemire told CBC News. “I think it’s my first and closest project to my life… It’s based on where I grew up and a lot of people I grew up with.”

Today, this story — among other things — of growing up in Northern Ontario becomes the latest of his works to air on television, premiering on CBC Gem. And while it may not be his first book, and far from the first to find his way to another medium, it may be the adaptation most authentic of Lemire to date.

Evocative, minimalist

Watch any review of Essex and you will probably come across one word: calm.

The graphic novel is actually a collection of three separate volumes, the loosely related stories of 10-year-old Lester (sent to live with his reclusive uncle after his mother’s death), brothers Lou and Vince Lebeuf (as an elderly Lou remembers a failed hockey career) and local nurse Anne (struggling to serve and care for others while balancing an ongoing family crisis).

We are introduced to Lester in the Essex County graphic novel. (Jeff Lemire/IDW Publishing)

All of these stories are told as sparingly and delicately as possible in what the adaptation’s co-writer Eilis Kirwan described as “evocative and quite minimalist imagery” – it’s a style that intentionally leaves more unsaid, no more suggestions and large pages without any dialogue.

Kirwan and Lemire (who, unlike Gourmand, gets a credit from one of the lead writers on the show itself) worked to keep that sentiment going. Effort, for the most part, works – Essex County works and feels more like stretched film than television writing, even in the miniseries-laden present of the streaming era.

But there were also the necessary changes. To make the story work, Lester (played here by 11-year-old Finlay Wojtak-Hissong, whose mother herself is from Essex County) takes up more room in the back. The stories of Lou (Stephen McHattie from Nova Scotia), Anne (Molly Parker from British Columbia, probably the show’s best-known star) occupy the same place here, while Ken (Brian J. Smith, Essex County(the only non-Canadian lead role) whose character, according to Lemire, consisted of “almost sketches in the book” is fleshed out.

A woman is sitting in a car.  She is looking away from the camera.
Molly Parker, who plays local nurse Anne, appears in an Essex County photo. (Peter H. Stranks/CBC)

At the same time, instead of being shown sequentially like in the book, the series has all the storylines happening simultaneously. This may have led to a cramped story with so many complex relationships and small-town dramas that I need a spreadsheet to track them all, but it’s something Lemire said that l adaptation was necessary.

“For me, it was just realizing early on that I had already done the book exactly how I wanted to do it. I didn’t need to do it again,” he said. “[I decided] I was doing something else and working in a different environment – and I needed to accept that.”

Canadian Orientation

The changes don’t stop there. Instead of being set in the Essex County of Lemire’s youth, it’s firmly, and perhaps a little awkwardly at times, in the present; here Lester has a cell phone and at one point blows a cloud of dust on an old cassette tape – only for him to play Broken Social Scene Hymns for a seventeen year old girl.

Also new was Lemire’s decision to adapt something so distinctly Canadian and build on the performances of the Canadiens. Almost the entire cast hails from Canada – including Tamara Podemski (sister of producer and actress Jennifer Podemski), Rossif Sutherland (son of iconic Canadian actor Donald Sutherland and half-brother of Kiefer Sutherland) as well as the performance notable: Bay’s Thunder Kevin Durand as Jimmy.

The reasoning was intentional. After failed attempts to work with an American studio to make the show, Lemire said he learned that for this story to be told, it had to be told here.

“I knew if I was going to do this book, it would have to be done here,” he said. “Because there’s just something inherent in it – there’s a Canadianness that you wouldn’t get if you weren’t from here, you know?”

But even if it is a conscious choice, this effort indicates whether Essex County will eventually sink or swim. While Essex County ultimately shows off Lemire’s singular voice and tone, the show takes more than a moment to draw you in – early episodes are (understandably) slow-paced, as it flickers in and out of self-seriousness and a overworked tone that the graphic novel was so cleverly able to avoid.

Meanwhile, a flurry of shows like Kind of, Letterkenny And Schitt’s Creek proved that the world has an appetite for Canadian content, especially comedy. Wanting to deliver a decidedly more serious story – which succeeded largely thanks to its original medium – while keeping it firmly from this country could be a losing game, or a turning point for television.

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