First Works: Jeff Lemire's Lost Dogs

Long time readers of this blog know that I have an abiding admiration for Canadian cartoonist Jeff Lemire. When, at the end of my freshman year of college, I picked up Tales From The Farm, the first volume of the now-classic Essex County trilogy, I found in the subtlety and the thick black line what I always knew I had wanted my comics to be, even if I hadn't been able to articulate it quite as well as Lemire had. Soon after, he made it. First, Vertigo announced what turned out to be a kind of mediocre original graphic novel, called The Nobody, and then they released slow burn apocalypse fantasy of Sweet Tooth. In the midst of that, Lemire started doing some very well received writing for DC proper, including the pre-New 52 relaunch of Adventure Comics and the more recent Frankenstein and Animal Man.

Somewhere along the way, though, despite several rereadings of Essex County and a fondness for Sweet Tooth, I just sort of stopped reading the stuff that Lemire was writing. It started when I missed a couple of issues of Sweet Tooth about a year ago, and in typical fashion, I refused to read what I had without finding what I was missing first. With everything else that was going on in my life, not least with all of the other comics I was reading, I just sort of forgot to catch up and, now, I'm more than a year behind and unsure of the best way to regain ground.

With last week's release of a new original graphic novel, called The Underwater Welder, however, I'll have a good place to pick back up, and if it is, in fact, "equal parts blue-collar character study and mind-bending mystery," than maybe it'll have some of the sparse feel and deep characterization that makes Essex County a keystone for those interested in the state of contemporary comics. In the meantime, however, I've been doing a little pre-reading, a selection from Lemire's that I had never even heard of, much less encountered, until it was rereleased some weeks ago. This early effort, Lost Dogs, once upon a time won the prestigious, now defunct, Xeric grant, which allowed Lemire to self-publish 700 copies before moving on to projects that had bigger print runs and which earned him a larger payday.

Accordingly, this is mostly a book of interest to the Lemire completist, perhaps even to an aspiring one like myself, or to someone who likes their comics a little less than polished, because Lost Dogs is about as raw as comics get.

Actually, that's technically true if a little misleading-- the best of the art in here is a beautiful as Lemire's ever done. The landscapes are marvelously ink heavy and impressionistic, reminiscent of sumi-e and suggesting as much a kind of place as a particular one. Looking at those pages, and the others in which he chooses to work with a few large panels rather than many small ones, his talent is evident, as are some of his quirks. Unlike some artists' early work, Lost Dogs is distinctively Lemire, mostly recognizable because of his blocky characters and the simple geometry of his line. Of course, those characteristics of his art are how he gets himself in trouble here; and what's lacking is refinement rather than a distinctive character. The art is too busy, his panels, when he isn't working on a large scale, are often too small and too full, that is, too heavy.

The most serious flaw in the book's art, however, is a distinct lack of story telling power, both in terms of art and of writing. While the plot itself, a kidney punch story of a man who loses his family and tries to get them back, "pure pulp pugilism" says the blurb on the back, is pretty good, Lemire didn't yet quite understand how to tell a story sequentially: there are several completely unintelligible passages, often portraying something, say, a fight, without giving any real idea of the people involved or the progression of the event. Even when the panels fit together a little better, Lemire relies too heavily on his dialogue, so much so that, in the middle, the art sometimes feels superfluous, mere adornment for conversation. Giving such a priority to words over pictures not only means that the book is stilted but often also suggests that a cartoonist is going to rely too heavily on dialogue to tell his story and, sure enough, Lemire's prose is often laughably bad, failing to show and never adding to the emotional shading that, in its best moments if not usually, the art does well.

The brilliant, subtle, Essex County was only a few years removed from Lost Dogs, with these flaws mostly eradicated, so its clear that Lemire knew where his strengths lay and worked to giving his writing the same sort of emotional depth that his best art sounded. Interestingly, though, while his refined work is better all around, I'm not sure that, even at its best, it reaches quite as high as the best moments here. Jeff Lemire's admirable effort to better his craft between this first work and his first classic, therefore, not only raised the bottom of his talent but smoothed off some of the top edges. If you can stomach the book's lesser moments, its worth a look, particular considering where Lemire's been since, and where he might be headed next.