If you aren’t familiar with Jeff Lemire’s work, you should remedy that as soon as possible. Ever since his Xeric award-winning debut, “Lost Dogs,” Lemire has produced haunting, powerful, joyous, and tragic tales of life on the outskirts. His stories don’t take place inside the urban maze of ennui, or even the suburban despair so often associated with “alternative” comics. Often set against a bleak rural landscape, Lemire’s tales capture the simple complexity of small-town life, often exploring the relationships that bind people together, augmented by a heady dose of memory and imagination.
From “Lost Dogs” through his three “Essex County” volumes, Lemire subtly exposes the emotional core of his often reticent protagonists. They are like characters out of Hemingway — churning with a passion which barely registers through their expressions or voices. Their stoicism is the only way they know how to handle the tragedy of the what could have been, or the tragedy of the what never will. But beneath the surface, these characters shimmer with life, and Lemire knows how to pace a story to make the emotional climaxes well deserved and anything but schmaltzy.
In “The Nobody,” a handsome Vertigo hardcover, Lemire tells a version of the Invisible Man story. It’s the H. G. Well classic reimagined as Rural Noir, filtered through the bleak but vibrant sensibilities of Jeff Lemire. The characters from the Wells story appear here under similar names — we have a Kemp, a Griffen (spelled “Griffin” in the original), a Marvel — but their roles are more mysterious. Lemire doesn’t simply recast the story in a modern day setting. He reconfigures it, injecting it with a different kind of psychological mystery, and offers no easy answers in the end. Everything resolves by the final pages, but its meaning — and the motives of some the characters — remain slightly elusive.
It’s that haunting quality that Lemire does so well.
I’ve focused almost exclusively on Lemire’s writing and tonal control, but everything I’ve said about the story applies to the art as well. The art is the story, after all, and though we have a curious narrator who guides us through the story, and plenty of dialogue ranging from the mundane to the profound, this is a true graphic novel, with its narrative driven by its imagery. Lemire’s expressive inking style — he seems to attack each page with his brush, not to provide classically beautiful panels, but to give a sense of instability — distinguishes it from the normal Vertigo output. There’s no Vertigo house style, but if there were it would be on the M. K. Perker/Mark Buckingham end of the spectrum (as different as those two artists are), and Lemire is operating at a completely different visual frequency. His use of ink wash and shades of blue gracefully adds to the haunting feel of the book, and helps to express a sense of coldness — in temperature as well as personality.
Ultimately, though, this is a horror story. And though it’s based a Wells story which was turned into a Universal horror feature, this book is more akin to Tomas Alfredson’s vampire movie “Let the Right One In.” It has that same kind of simmering potential for violence amidst a repressed surface, and it’s damn good.
“The Nobody” is a quality work from a creator with a unique voice, and its haunting mystery lingers long after you close the book.