Fool For The City On The Outskirts of Essex County
Jan 06, 2017
by Vince Brusio
Don’t blink when you’re on that flight, or you might miss a glimpse of Jeff Lemire’s Royal City #1 (JAN170646) from Image Comics. The place is tucked away, forgotten, and most likely on its death bed. Which might be an appropriate metaphor since strange things are happening. Cue the Tom Waits soundtrack. Notice how the ghost of Heath Ledger’s Joker has appeared over your shoulder (Tom Waits being the inspiration for Ledger’s Joker). Yes, stranger things are happening for literary star Patrick Pike, and in this PREVIEWSworld Exclusive interview with creator Jeff Lemire you’ll discover a bizarre ensemble that is life in Royal City should you, too, get stranded on the dark side of the moon.
Vince Brusio: Jeff, is it safe to say that the book’s title, Royal City, can be taken as tongue-in-cheek humor, given the tone and direction of this project? One would tend to think of a shining city on the hill when “Royal City” is uttered. Yet this ongoing series seems to be far away from a descriptor that would imply people with privilege. Your title has a double-meaning, yes?
Jeff Lemire: Yes, I suppose the name of the book, and the town is ironic. This was once a thriving industrial town in North America, but now it is very much on the decline. All the factories are closing, the youth is moving away to bigger cities, and the town is dying off.
The title itself comes from two places: it was partially named after a Canadian indie-band I used to listen to about ten years ago called Royal City, and it is also the “nickname” of a nearby city to where I live called Guelph, Ontario, where I spent a year at art school when I was 19. But at the end of the day, it really is more for the irony, and for having a title that contrast the actual setting.
Vince Brusio: Royal City seems to have the rust belt as the backdrop. Flyover country. We’re focusing on a community that’s a factory town. John Cougar Mellancamp for a soundtrack. Can you give us some perspective on what topography and demographics are awaiting Patrick Pike when he rolls down Main Street? What personalities do we see? What conversations do we hear?
Jeff Lemire: I’m more of a Tom Waits or Bruce Springsteen man myself, but Royal City is very much one of those rust belt “flyover” cities that are on the decline. I purposefully don’t identify where exactly Royal City is located. I wanted it to be a bit of a world unto itself.
And Royal City definitely has another side to it. This is by no means just a “slice of life” comic. There is also a lot of mystery and strangeness going on in Royal City.
Vince Brusio: Patrick Pike is a “fading” literary star, which means he’s hasn’t quite bottomed out yet, correct? He’s in the process of becoming irrelevant, right? This is funny, given that your success in the comic industry continues to grow. So how does one who’s climbing up the ladder tell the story of a guy who fell off the ladder, and landed in a mud puddle? What emo bands did you overdose on to put you in the mood to write about Patrick Pike?
Jeff Lemire: I sort of think of Patrick as my “opposite doppelganger.” His life and backstory mirrors my own in many ways. But Pat is sort of what I would be had I made all the wrong decisions in life. It’s been really fun to explore my more self-destructive tendencies without actually indulging in them.
Having said that, I think there is a little bit of me in each of the characters in the family — either exaggerated versions of me, or extreme versions of me. And yes, Pat is the easiest to draw comparisons to. He’s the same age as me. He grew up in a smaller town and moved to a bigger city, like I did. It will be revealed later that his career path followed very closely to mine. He was a cook in kitchens in the city and was writing all of the time and finally wrote this one breakthrough novel called “Royal City” that was set in his hometown, just like I did with “Essex County.” And that made his career.
But then his career took a nosedive and, thankfully, my career hasn’t yet. He made some bad creative decisions once he “made it,” and got lost in the whole fame thing. When we meet him now, his career is really on the downturn and he’s desperate to turn it around. He’s got money issues and marital problems and lot of things that I’m not dealing with. It’s like me if I had made of all these wrong decisions after making “Essex County” and my life had fallen apart and thankfully, my life has gone the opposite way. But it’s kind of fun to explore those “what ifs” and the dark side of things.
Vince Brusio: Patrick’s family sounds like their straight out of a Dropkick Murphys’ Christmas video. Or a Saturday Night Live skit. Any way you can fill in some more of the blanks for us and let us see more of the warts and sweat-stained t-shirts? Do any of these folks resent Patrick coming back into the fold? Were they better off without him? Does he intimidate any of them as he (in their eyes) “made it” while they got left behind?
Jeff Lemire: In addition, to Patrick, the rest of the Pike family will star in the book, and I will explore a different part of the world and of Royal City with each of them.
Patti Pike is very much the matriarch of the family She has a very strong and very dominant personality. Her kids can never really seem to live up to her expectations and neither can her husband, Pete. She may seem very unlikable at first, but as the series progresses we will start to unravel the sins and guilt that have driven Patti to become the person she is and we will see that she is a very complicated person.
Peter is Patti’s browbeaten husband. He is sheepish and quiet and lets her take the lead. He is content to shuffle off alone to his garage, which he has converted into his own workshop/refuge where he repairs antique radios. Unbeknownst to anyone else, these old radios may be a gateway to Royal City’s mysterious other side. And, as our story begins, Pete suffers a stroke, pulling the family back together, at least physically.
Richie Pike is his own worst enemy. He is a total screw-up, and constantly makes the wrong decisions. He’s self-destructive and flirts with the darker criminal underworld of Royal City.
Tara Pike is the responsible one. She stayed home and made a life for herself in Royal City, becoming a successful real estate developer. She sees a new future for the town, but it may mean putting the final nail in the coffin of Royal Manufacturing, the town’s fading industrial core. And this puts her at odds with Patti and her own husband, Steve, who still works in the factory. Tara and Patti are both strong personalities and are always clashing.
And then there is Tommy Pike. There’s not too much I can reveal about Tommy. He was the fourth Pike sibling, who died mysteriously back in 1993. He now appears in the series as a different person to each member of the Pike Family.
To Patti, Tommy is the town’s Priest and the perfect son she never had, but to Tara he is still the little brother she used to babysit when she was a teenager. To Richie, he is his best friend and his drinking buddy who raises hell around town, but to Pat he is still the fourteen year-old boy who mysteriously drowned back in 1993.
But who Tommy really was, and how he died is very much the mystery that will drive the series
Vince Brusio: This book has you switching gears from surreal works like A.D.: After Death and sci-fi fare like Descender. Image Comics refers to your previous work, Essex County, as a reference for how you plan to tell the story of Royal City. How does this latest story compare to previous published work like Essex County? What’s different?
Jeff Lemire: Royal City feels like coming home in a lot of ways. For a few years now I’ve been longing to return to the kind of stories I began my career by telling. To be blunt, I wanted to return to the territory of Essex County. I wanted to get back to telling more grounded stories about “real people”. It made me wonder what would happen if I tried to do something like Essex County not as a stand-alone graphic novel, but rather as a serialized monthly comic book?
A graphic novel is a great thing. It allows you freedom to go off and create a story in a vacuum, free of the monthly deadlines and pressure. You can tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. To use a film analogy, doing a graphic novel is more like making a movie, but a monthly book can offer the same benefits as a multi-season television series. And, as we are now seeing with the golden age of television we are living through, longer serialized storytelling allows for exploring characters, themes and ideas across a greater amount of time and space
As much as I want to tell grounded and human stories about “real people,” I also don’t want to do a straight “slice of life” book. The comics medium is so rich in its ability to visually communicate ideas and emotions it would be a shame not to use that. So I love having this really grounded story, with a very realistic cast of characters, but also having this strange and mysterious other world just below the surface that our characters seem to be tapping into.
The book has no overt or outright “supernatural” elements, but there is a lot of magical realism, mystery, and wonder in Royal City and it all seems to center around the character of Tommy Pike, and his mysterious death in 1993.
Vince Brusio writes about comics, and writes comics. He is the long-serving Editor of PREVIEWSworld.com, the creator of PUSSYCATS, and encourages everyone to keep the faith...and keep reading comics.