There are a lot of comics out there, but some just stand out head and shoulders above the pack. With “Don’t Miss This” we want to spotlight those series we think need to be on your pull list. This week, we look at a deteriorating family in the vanishing town of “Royal City.”
Who is this by?
Jeff Lemire is in complete creative control with the script, inimitable artwork, and dreamy watercolors. Steve Wands provides the lettering.
What’s it all about?
(Warning: contains spoilers)
“Royal City” chronicles the lives of the Pike family and their tumultuous relationships in the fading town of the eponymous city.
The Pike patriarch suffers a stroke and brings the family back into each other’s orbit. Patrick Pike is a struggling novelist whose career success seems all but behind him. His sister, Tara, is negotiating a real estate deal that will raze the manufacturing heart of the city to the ground. And their ne’er-do-well brother, Richie, is a factory worker in debt to the town’s ruffians. Tying them all together is the ghost—for lack of a better word—of their drowned brother Tommy.
The story so far has “Royal City” split into two arcs. The first five issues are an introduction to the adult lives of the primary characters and their mysterious relationship with Tommy. The second arc flashes back to 1993, during the final week of Tommy’s life.
What makes it so great?
“Play the music you like playing. If you dig what you’re doing, chances are someone else will too.” – John Totleben
In a letter at the end of issue one, Lemire reflects on this above quotation, the best advice he’s ever received. It became a mantra that inspired him to leap into working on his first graphic novel. Works like “Essex County” and now “Royal City” are Lemire’s solos, one-man band albums. This is the music Lemire was born to play. Sure, “Black Hammer,” “Descender,” and his work for the Big Two are often critical and commercial successes, but Lemire truly shines when he sheds genre trappings and existing characters, when his words and art combine into a stunning literary vision.
To continue with the aforementioned musical metaphor, readers can check out the Royal City playlist on Spotify. At the end of every issue, Lemire compiles a unique playlist, songs that he was listening to while drawing. A Canadian indie band from the early aughts—included on the first playlist—inspired the very name of the series. The second arc contains only music recorded before 1993 to reflect the time period and the Pike kids’ musical tastes.
Lemire’s cartooning has always had a rough and scratchy appearance. It’s unpolished, yet complete and immediately identifiable. His inking first appears so simple, yet conveys the complexities of emotion needed for the Pike family’s fractious interpersonal relations. The most effective panels are free of word balloons or caption boxes: a hand wave or smile, an infectious yawn between two tired commuters, a father’s realization that his son is destined for so much more. These are illustrations that value the little moments in life, going against the grain of most action-oriented comics. A gentle use of watercolors assists in that emotional complexity by adding depth and cascading color to every countenance. The amorphous quality of watercolor further distances “Royal City” from its digitally-colored comic brethren.
The specter of Tommy appears different to each of the Pikes. To Richie, he’s a gruff blue-collar worker like himself, a true brother and friend. To Pat, he’s exactly as he was at the time of his drowning, perhaps a personification of guilt. To Tara, he’s the sweet, innocent pajama-clad kid of their youth. There’s a sort of background mystery concerning the true nature of Tommy’s afterlife personas in radio waves and ear-splitting migraines. Tommy’s spirit gives “Royal City” a subtly supernatural flavor. Brilliant watercolor work further adds an oneiric quality that aids the story in its most surreal moments.
From past to present, Tommy narrates the Pike family’s story from the pages of his diary. This framing device sets Tommy into the center of everything, reminding readers that this story is his, past or present, alive or dead. Pages from Tommy’s wide rule composition book occasionally bleed into the panels themselves (typos and all).Continued below
“Royal City” feels deeply personal and full of pathos as it exhumes the past of a dead teen and the remnants of his family. It’s an exploration of the horror of aging, the enigma of personal change as it relates to age, how tragedy alters the course of life, and the struggles and failures of human connection. But through all the existential dread, Lemire exposes the heart in the center of it all and the love that will guide us forever through.
How can you read it?
Volume 1, “Next of Kin,” collects the first five issues and is available now. Volume 2, “Sonic Youth” isn’t due out until April 24. Next month, Lemire will wrap up the second arc in an oversized issue (#10) where readers will likely learn the truth behind Tommy’s death. Whether you prefer the crisp feel of paper pages a la Tommy or the cold swipe of digital screens a la Pat, go to your local comic store or purchase online for more “Royal City.”