- The Chance of Life:Jeff Lemire’s Essex County Trilogy, Canadian Identity, and the Mythos of Hockey
Ghost Stories, the second book in Jeff Lemire’s Essex County trilogy, opens with an epigraph from Stephen Leacock that could well stand as an epigraph for the entire work: “Hockey captures the essence of Canadian experience in the New World. In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold, hockey is the chance of life, and an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive” (112). While the whole of Essex County reflects life in one corner of Southwestern Ontario and is filled with references that would be recognizable to many Canadians (such as Captain Canada, Canadian beer, and Canadian settlement history), it is the mythos of hockey that is at the centre of the text. This mythos permeates Essex County, mediating communication between characters, shaping their identities, illustrating tensions between isolation and community, and informing the choices that Lemire makes in using the comics medium to tell his story. If hockey captures the Canadian experience as Leacock asserts, Essex County explores that experience by drawing on a wide array of the medium’s rhetorical possibilities. This essay examines the ways in which hockey is essential to the Canadian identity constructed within the comics medium in Essex County in general and Ghost Stories in particular.
Since he is working in comics, Lemire has access to more rhetorical strategies than he would if writing a strictly word-based text, just as the reader must negotiate meaning from this larger rhetorical palette. In comics, meaning is made not only linguistically, but across a variety of modes, including the visual, the gestural, the audio, and the spatial.1 Words are certainly important in comics, but meaning is also made from the visual mode—the way people, objects, animals, settings, and other elements are drawn, including the use of perspective, shading, depth of field, line, coloring, white space, and panel composition. Visual elements are also used to represent facial expressions and body language (the gestural mode), as well as the [End Page 75] audio mode (through lettering, sound effects, punctuation, and the shapes of word balloons and caption boxes). Finally, the way these elements are arranged on the page—the spatial element—is highly important in the medium of comics, in terms of both overall layout and linear sequencing. These elements combine to encompass the available means of making meaning at the level of the page. However, it is not only at the level of the page that meaning is made by comics creators and readers, but also through the connections that are made between various panels within the comics text (arthrology) and between the comics text and external texts (intertextuality).2
An example from the first volume of the trilogy, Tales from the Farm, will allow us to illustrate the central role hockey is afforded in this creation of meaning. As the first book, Tales from the Farm introduces how problematic communication is by focusing on the relationships between Lester, his uncle Kenny, and his friend Jimmy. The beginning of the book focuses on Lester and his relationship with his uncle, as he uses his imagination to break away from his feelings of isolation. In the sequence we will discuss, we see Lester beginning to let Jimmy into his imaginative world. This sequence occurs at the end of several pages in which Lester and Jimmy have been sitting in the shack by the creek, lacing up their skates, talking, and reading a comic that Lester had made. The first two panels depict a close-up of Lester followed by a close-up of Jimmy and are positioned as the last two panels of a right-hand (recto) page (67). In the first panel, Lester gazes, both masked and wide-eyed, out of the frame, at the reader and Jimmy (as is understood through interpreting the gutter between panels) and says, “You and me get along okay, and you never had any kids.” The second panel shows Jimmy, cigarette dangling from his lip, staring at Lester and the reader. No words occur in the panel, and since it is...