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Looking forward, looking back: Royal City #1-5 retrospective

A few weeks ago at my local comic shop, I got to talking to a fellow comics fan, a guy who was looking to dig into a few new titles. He was looking for something with a solid story, sympathetic characters, a sense of catharsis – everything that the traditional cape stories he was taking a break from didn’t provide.

“Jeff Lemire,” I suggested.

“Which titles?” he asked.

I repeated, “Jeff Lemire.”

I am admittedly late to the train when it comes to Lemire’s work; scores of voices louder and stronger than mine have preceded my enthusiasm for his library of stories. There is nevertheless something worth saying about a creator whose entire collection is noteworthy, so much that when a reader inquires about fresh material you only need mention the author’s name to know that anything they pick up will be golden.

My new friend left the shop with a copy of A.D.: After Death, Lemire and Scott Snyder’s fantastic three-issue sci-fi-with-a-twinge-of-pathos epic. His interest in limited series over monthly runs meant a pass on Lemire’s work on Moon Knight, an introspective take on a decidedly offbeat character, and, most unfortunately, a pass on the first story arc for Lemire’s most interesting ongoing project: Royal City.

I’m five issues in at the time of this writing and eagerly awaiting the drop of issue six, what will be the beginning of the second story arc for the series, and not since Ales Kot’s run of Bucky Barnes: Winter Soldier have I had less of an idea of where a story is heading yet been so keenly invested in its characters. Lemire’s way of worldbuilding is at once lush, nuanced and full, and barebones, veiled, and reserved. His characters come into themselves as much through what is left unsaid as through what is known, leaving a great deal of their motivations and pasts up to the speculation of the reader. His environments, owed to his signature art style and washed out, weathered coloring, are bleak in the best possible sense of the word. As in A.D. and Trillium, Lemire balances humanity with fantasy in a way that allows for fantastic events – the voice of a dead boy hauntingly reaching out to his father through a radio, for instance – to occur without a blink.

Like many of Lemire’s works, Royal City plays with the idea of breakdowns in communication and the degradation of relationships in light of significant trauma. The specifics of the Pike family’s tragedy and just how young Tommy met his end are as-of-yet undefined, and nevertheless I am invested in the goings-on of their fragmented attempts to cling to what was.  With patrons as fickle as the comics audience can be, a story like Lemire’s is shaping up to be can be something of a gamble; taking five issues – as many months and then some – on what amounts to the build-up of the impetus  for everything that has come to pass has alienated other works, causing them to fold long before their time because the investment was never-quite-there. Where Lemire succeeds and others fail is I believe in his focus on the journey rather than the payoff, on his attention to the pathos of his characters and all that they experience along the way. We may not know what it is that has caused Tommy Pike to have such a significant impact on those he left behind, but it is in those character’s interactions with his fleeting memory – be it his strung-out teenage self, or the wide-eyed innocence of his youth, or the wizened, pragmatic Tommy that serves as a spirit guide in issue five’s culminating exchange – that paradoxically make those details all the more and less important.

The second story arc of Royal City begins with issue six in a week’s time and promises a trip back in time: into the early nineties, and to a time when young Tommy Pike was more than an agonized projection of his siblings’ guilt. The story promises more of Lemire’s excellent worldbuilding to bring us into a world at home and apace with the titular setting: a town that hasn’t changed much in two decades, and whose aversion to the times seems poised to drag it to ruin. It’s the kind of small town that exists, for me, in my memories: it isn’t my home town but at the same time it is, in many respects, and it’s the kind of place that I can look on with contempt and nostalgia in equal parts – and I’m certain I’m not alone in those feelings.

Like the Pikes, we find ourselves drawn to what was, sometimes inescapably so, be it for the best or otherwise.

Royal City #6 is set to hit your shops October 11th. If you haven’t picked it up yet, you can still catch up.