In this week’s evergreen review, we’re taking a look at the vastly underrated and overlooked Jeff Lemire written and drawn series “Royal City.” This a comic that’s pure Lemire and deserves a second glance for its raw emotion and gripping character drama.
Written, Illustrated and Colored by Jeff Lemire
Letters by Steve Wands
In his most ambitious and most personal project to date, JEFF LEMIRE spins the captivating and engaging story of a family from the small factory town of ROYAL CITY and the ghosts that haunt them.
In a return to the literary and thematic territory of Lemire’s breakthrough graphic novel ESSEX COUNTY, ROYAL CITY follows Patrick Pike, a fading literary star who reluctantly returns to the once-thriving factory town where he grew up. Patrick is quickly drawn back into the dramas of his two adult siblings, his overbearing Mother and his brow beaten Father, all of whom are still haunted by different versions of his youngest brother, Tommy, who drowned decades ago.
As each member of the family struggles to keep themselves above water, it quickly becomes clear that Tommy’s death isn’t the only dark secret tearing the town, and this family, apart at the seams. Can each member of the Pike family come to terms with their own guilt over Tommy’s death, and make peace with the many versions of Tommy that still haunt them, or will they all be dragged down below the river along with his lingering ghost?
Comic books are a lot of things. Sometimes they’re big, action spectacles starring larger than life almost godlike people. Sometimes they’re full of monsters and the undead and sometimes they focus on the smaller things, the more personal things. “Royal City” is a story about a family. The Pike family is a family not unlike many of our own. They’re a middle class family just trying to get through this thing called life in the wake of a huge tragedy that impacted every single member of the family for decades. “Royal City” is not the fastest comic book, it’s not even the most exciting thing you’ll read this year but it is one of the most poignant and raw. It will stay with you and that’s what all comics should aim to do.
“Royal City” tells the story of the Pike family. The focus of the family is on Patrick Pike, a novelist who had one big hit and hasn’t been able to write a thing since. His writing career is hurting and his marriage is going through a rough patch. He returns home because his father has suffered a stroke and is in the hospital. When he comes home, he has to confront the sadness that exists in his family and their relationship to this town. The Pike family, years ago, suffered a huge loss when youngest son Tommy drowned. As the story unfolds, we learn family secrets and watch how this town changes and this family learns to get through the loss they never recovered from and create new lives for themselves.
My favorite part of “Royal City” is the way that Lemire keeps Tommy around. He’s not just a spirit lingering around. He’s multiple ideas depending on who’s perspective we’re looking at. For his mother, he grew up and became a priest and that’s who she sees. For his sister, he is the kid she never had. For his older brother Richie, he’s an enabler and another addict he can go further down the rabbit hole with. Everyone sees him as the person they wanted him to be and it’s a really interesting way to illustrate the sadness and lack of understanding any of them had for Tommy. Tommy wasn’t quite a black sheep but he was an introvert who kept to himself. He felt really alone and his family never really understood him. In their mourning, they’ve mentally assigned these lives to him and none of that was ever truly him. Lemire’s handling of this is not something I’ve ever seen before and it never becomes a distraction. It says a lot about grieving and how families are often destroyed by things like this when they don’t come together and tackle it together. When we suffer loss, it’s easy to place blame to make things make sense. It’s easy to get in our own heads and not allow anyone else to grieve with us. Lemire gets into that with this family and it’s beautiful.Continued below
“Royal City” has plenty of twists and turns that keep it fresh as the series goes on. We spend a lot of time getting into the personal demons and struggles of each member of the family and this is where Lemire shines. Each conflict feels natural and while the Tommy twist feels out of left field, he makes it work really well in the context of this story. “Royal City” does veer on the side of cliche at times but Lemire sticks to his strengths. “Essex County,” “The Underwater Welder” and “Sweet Tooth” are the books that made me a Lemire fan and this is where “Royal City” sits comfortably in. That’s the kind of work he’s doing here. It’s very stripped down to the characters themselves instead of some of his recent corporate superhero work that at times felt hollow this has all the emotional “stuff” I eat up as a reader.
One of the most special things about “Royal City” though is that Lemire draws and colors his own work. Lemire is an artist with a really distinct style that only tends to work for certain stories and this is one of those stories where it works really well. Because he’s drawing his own script, he has a really good understanding of what he needs to do. He doesn’t overdo it with the dialogue. Much of the propelling action is done through characters talking to each other but he lets a lot of the story be told through his art. The expressions, the moments of quiet all work to tell us more. The pain of the Pike family is very apparent and doesn’t need to be told to us in so much straight dialogue. The best moments of “Royal City” are when characters on their own and Lemire lets us interpret these emotions. The flashbacks with Tommy are so different from the present day and his own emotional journey before his death is very unique to everything else. Lemire infuses a bit of music into these pages and it works so well. Tommy’s loneliness is palpable and real and it makes his death hit us really hard even though we know from page one that he’s been gone a long time. The soft color work shouldn’t work so well but it’s that color work that makes me feel like I’m in this town. I can smell the factory and I feel like I know these streets. It’s beautiful all the way around and I think sometimes we forget that Lemire is such a fantastic artist on his own.
“Royal City” ended at just issue fourteen but it’s a full series that reads beautifully in one sitting. It’s something that I hope will be revisited for years to come when people talk about his work and his impact on comics. “Black Hammer” is the current hit that deserves all the praise it gets but really, it’s this kind of storytelling and this kind of personal emotional story that resonates with me and it’s why I became a Lemire fan to start with.