In Royal City #1, Jeff Lemire has created one of the most pure distillation of his evolution as a comics creator, using similar themes and tropes from his more personal early work like Essex County and infusing that with the sharp economy of style that he’s learned in the intervening years. It makes for an engrossing debut of the series with a haunting portrait of a small town North American family in crisis.
Royal City is a difficult comic to write about in any type of detail without giving away a lot of the surprise in the books central theme so I’ll spare you that. What it does is profoundly play with the readers expectations and perception for the duration of the issue until it’s final reveal, which is what makes the comic intriguing, but that only works because the family it’s portraying is so absorbing. In that way, Royal City is a deep dive into the dysfunctional family dynamics of the Pike clan. An aging couple with adult children in various stages of estrangement and personal struggle, Lemire captures the maladjusted family is their cutting dialogue with one another. There is no rose colored glasses here, almost every member of the Pike family is on edge from interpersonal turmoil and more often than not, they take out their frustrations with that on one another. Through that, Lemire is able to touch on so much of modern American life from the current economic reality for traditional small factory towns, substance abuse and the shifting power dynamic in traditional male and female relationships. It’s a brilliant examination of how our personal lives interplay with the outer communities we inhabit, while creating a family dynamic that should be familiar to almost anybody who reads it on some level.
As an artist, Lemire has always had a distinct style but it’s subtly sharper in Royal City. Anybody who read his Scott Snyder collaboration, A.D, could easily attest to his improvement as an artist. There, Lemire’s illustrations had a wider range of subject matter and style. From one page to the next, he could be going high concept science fiction with a traditional panel structure to a single illustration of a house or tape recorder to the side of the books textual prose. Royal City is considerably more grounded than A.D or many of Lemire’s more recent ongoing series that he illustrated like Sweet Tooth or Trillium. It’s about a family in a small factory town and for the most part, that’s exactly what you’re getting here. Yet as an artist, Lemire’s distinct character acting and design of his extended cast is marvelous in how it engages the reader to the mundane and familiar. Lemire has long excelled in landscapes and cities, with Royal City being no exception in the way it captures the unusual beauty in the town’s slow industrial decay. And while Lemire may be telling a much more grounded story this time around, he still manages a few spectacular forays into surrealism that represents some of the artist most astounding work as a comics illustrator.
Readers familiar with Essex County will find clear similarities between that and Royal City. But where as Essex County is Jeff Lemire in his first breakout comic, Royal City is the creator almost ten years later, having since created comics about alien robots, a time travel love affair, human/animal hybrids in the post apocalypse, a future of humanity that’s post death and many, many superhero comics; he’s worked on significantly more comics since Essex County and that experience shows in his maturation of style on Royal City. Though his artistic aesthetic remains unorthodox and the stakes are uniquely grounded, Royal City is undeniably affecting. It’s not only the type of comic only Jeff Lemire could make, but it’s also only a comic that Jeff Lemire could make right now, at this particular moment in his trajectory as a comics creator and our shared moment in history and that, by definition, is something special.