The following is a guest post by Eric Federspiel
Eric Federspiel is a former teacher who has a soft spot for all-ages comics. Find him on Twitter: @e_federspiel.
I needed color. It sounds silly in retrospect, but I distinctly recall a period early in my comics-reading life (which, granted, was less than ten years ago) when I couldn’t wrap my brain around black & white comics. For some reason, when I tried to pick up Strangers in Paradise, The Walking Dead, or even Bone, I’d look at the scenery and clothing and half-expect to see numbers within the lines and a corresponding color legend at the bottom of the page. Ridiculous, right?
I mean, I love Casablanca. I read a lot of prose, and that’s all black & white. Miracle on 34th Street is one of my absolute favorite movies, and the mere thought of the colorized version they sometimes run during the holidays (or the modern version, for that matter) gives me shivers. But for some reason, I avoided black & white comics like the plague. That was, however, until I followed the advice of a certain comics podcast (which now features Panels’ esteemed managing editor) and picked up Jeff Lemire’s Tales from the Farm.
So what was it, specifically, about Tales from the Farm that allowed me to look past my strange aversion to black & white comics? Quite simply, it was (and is) Lemire’s unique ability to say so much with so little. “Tales from the Farm” (and the rest of Lemire’s creator-owned work) is so cinematic that at times you feel like you’re looking at a film’s completed storyboards. Often without so much as a hint of narration or dialogue, Lemire is able to set a scene with subtly changing sequential panels that gradually zoom in on a particular landscape, character, or even a bird (the bird being a clever narrative device he uses in multiple stories). Lemire’s storytelling allows scenes the space they need to breathe, even as his characters seem to feel suffocated by their own lives. It’s this dichotomy that holds particular appeal to a writer such as myself, who often feels he says so little with so much.
I’m also insanely jealous of Lemire’s ability to create dialogue between characters that reads the way people actually talk. Since comics, as a medium, relies so heavily on dialogue, many writers tend to try and cram lines and lines of exposition into the mouths of their characters. Lemire, on the other hand, often uses unobtrusive narration boxes of no more than 20 words or so to move the plot along. He’ll pepper these narration boxes within a full-page spread of his deceptively simple landscapes, or include them in panels that zoom in on a central character who seems to stare directly at the reader. In that way, the reader is forced to examine the impact of the advancing plot on the wrinkled, distorted faces of the story’s characters. Simple, yet powerful.
Lemire’s characters are often not only physically broken (in terms of artistic rendering), but emotionally broken as well. Escape and loss are pervasive in Lemire’s stories. A young boy creates an imaginary world in which he’s a superhero in order to avoid the complex emotions of having recently lost his mother. A husband and soon-to-be father buries himself in his work in order to avoid his misgivings about become a fatherless parent. An old man struggles with his diminished physical and verbal capacities. Lemire creates characters with whom the reader has to sympathize, if not empathize. These characters push others away — both physically and emotionally — only to eventually surrender to the unavoidable need for human contact, thereby rewarding the reader’s sympathy.
The land on which his characters live and walk is vital to the stories, communicating that sense of distance that echoes in his characters’ interactions with one another. I could go on and on about why the creator-owned work of Jeff Lemire is my kryptonite. When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter whether his story is set in a small Canadian farming town or a faraway planet being visited solely for mining of resources before being destroyed, I’ll follow Lemire just about anywhere. It’s that black & white.