Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"Sometimes I wonder if it was hard growing up in Royal City... just hard growing up.
"I mean, there's just something different about this place.
"I swear you can feel it late at night, a weirdness creeping around the edges of things.
"Keeping you awake and making you feel even more alone.
"Or maybe that's it. Maybe I am all alone.
"Maybe I'm the only one who thinks stupid shit like this all the time."
Oh, I very much doubt that.
Following on from his recent barnstorming original graphic novel ROUGHNECK about a former ice hockey enforcer on a search for redemption, Jeff Lemire is remaining firmly grounded in the realm of straight fiction for this series set in the titular Royal City. Well, that's if you don't include the ghost of youngest brother Tommy haunting the remaining Pike family members since his death many years previously, that is... It's a curious thing, though, how Tommy appears as a completely different age to each of them...
Patrick Pike, nominally our central character, is a successful writer, though he's rapidly heading into the past tense in that respect, crippled as he is by writer's block with a frantic agent demanding the whereabouts of his long overdue second novel, plus a failing marriage to a minor movie starlet to boot. The only one of the family to ever make it out of Royal City, Patrick's back in town to visit their ailing father Peter in hospital following a severe stroke, which was at least partly brought on by his relentlessly browbeating nag of a wife Patti. Patrick's siblings, hard-nosed developer Tara and drunken layabout Richie, make up the dysfunctional Pike family brood.
Over the course of this first volume I gained the distinct impression that the spectre of Tommy, as comforting a presence as he seems to be for all of the family members, is in fact the very thing that is holding them back from progressing with their current lives. Each are most definitely stuck in very different ways.
It's most pronounced in the case of Richie, who sees Tommy at a contemporary post-passing age, another strange point in and of itself, and who talks to his late brother about the weekend booze benders and casino trips he want them to go on... future tense... Their mum sees Tommy as an older teenager, Patrick sees him as a young teen, Tara a slightly younger pre-adolescent boy and their father as a very young boy. Each of them converses with him as though it were the most normal thing in the world.
Though there is a very... perturbing... moment where Patrick does appear to momentarily glimpse all five incarnations, having been led by Tommy from the motel where he is staying to Tommy's graveside. Were seeing the ghost of your dead brother not disturbing enough, surely seeing five different versions of him all stood together like they / he were posing for the oddest family snap ever would have you beginning to doubt your sanity? Tommy in turn does have his own voice, he's certainly no silent presence, providing us with some very insightful narrative commentary regarding his family and the nature of their individual attachments to him.
I read an interesting interview recently where Lemire was being quizzed as to the significance of him returning to contemporary fiction and whether, like his career-breakthrough ESSEX COUNTY, there were any autobiographical elements he'd recycled into the ROYAL CITY story. He said he liked to think of the character of Patrick as following his life story up to a point, that of achieving a degree of success with his first publication, then promptly, unlike himself, making every bad life choice he possibly could and having pretty much everything go wrong for him. He is the master of the melancholic, isn't he, our Jeff?
The entirety of volume one is in many ways simply establishing the characters and setting their various, respective scenes of personal engagement, their familial points of connection but also their very distinct differences, of personality, opinion, pretty much everything. Lemire has commented that he is hoping this series could run from twenty to forty issues, and it's easy to see how, because he's given absolutely nothing away as yet, unless I've missed some vital clue, as to what is really going on. That is also the reason he chose to do ROYAL CITY as a series, rather than an original graphic novel like ROUGHNECK, to give the story and the characters chance to breathe and develop as he was writing.
Artistically, it's back to full colour, exactly like the subdued yet surprisingly spectacular colour palette he employed in AFTER DEATH as opposed to the much more emotionally bleak primarily pale blues of ROUGHNECK, albeit dappled as they were with the very occasional splash of highly significant pigmentation. Also, and it's something I've probably noticed before but not commented on, Lemire's art style really is perfect for making people look haggard and haunted, both metaphorically and phantasmagorically. But are they really being haunted...? I genuinely have absolutely no idea. Volume two will, I suspect, bring some answers as to the true status of our deceased Pike, and I fear, considerably more conflict amongst the living ones.