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Book Reviews

Frogcatchers

by Jeff Lemire

Agnes, Murderess

by Sarah Leavitt

Two new, disquieting graphic novels from a pair of Canadians who have found success on the international stage explore fears, solitude, and shortened days. Sarah Leavitt’s latest imagines and expands the possibilities suggested by a macabre folk tale, while acclaimed and prolific cartoonist Jeff Lemire turns his eye to big questions of time, mortality, and existence.

Following on the success of her debut graphic novel, Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me, Leavitt’s newest is a wonderfully sprawling, murky fiction based on the long-standing legend of British Columbian killer Agnes McVee. In Agnes, Murderess, Leavitt offers an origin story for this folkloric figure that vacillates between phantasmagoria and gritty psychodrama.

After her disgraced English mother suspiciously succumbs to an injury, orphan Agnes is left in the care of her Gaelic-speaking grandmother, who is commonly believed to be a witch. Cut off from the world on a remote Scottish island where even the other islanders avoid their hovel, Agnes’s childhood is spent either in complete solitude or under her grandmother’s tyrannical – and possibly magical – eye. When a quarrel erupts between the old woman and village boy Seamus, Agnes comes to his defence and unexpectedly stabs her grandmother to death. Seamus and Agnes flee to London and eventually Canada, but Agnes cannot escape her grandmother’s ghost, who continues to school her in petty cruelties, thievery, and violence from beyond her improvised grave.

If the bones of Leavitt’s story are those of fairy tales or campfire horrors, the meat is a grounded and resonant narrative of abuse and isolation in the Inner Hebrides, the slums of Victorian London, and the Gold Rush of Canada’s West. Agnes, Murderess explores and then metaphorizes the ways in which childhood and adolescent trauma can pursue us into adulthood, shaping our obsessions, our decisions, and our actions. Agnes’s drive for self-reliance, for an adult solitude far from the terror of her childhood torments, eventually leads her and Seamus to the interior of B.C. and a remote inn. Once again, a confrontation ends in an unplanned murder; from this point, Leavitt deftly conjures a woman who is simultaneously taking control of her own destiny and losing control of her sanity.

Leavitt’s line work is naive and frequently ugly, and this style serves her story and its characters perfectly. Working in black and white with very occasional greys, the rhythms of her cartooning are stark but effectively moody. And the hard clarity of the images does not detract from the ambiguities, confusions, and sadnesses that haunt – and drive – Agnes. Leavitt has taken a peculiar and particular kernel of legend and expanded it into a world that is immersive and visceral.

While Leavitt spins a wide world from a wisp of legend, Jeff Lemire does the opposite in his latest book, Frogcatchers. Here, the creator of the Essex County trilogy has produced a gestural gem, condensing the course of a whole life into small moments, half-remembered places, and enigmatic emotions.

A man awakens in the Edgewater Hotel, not knowing why he is there. A boy catches frogs in a tunnel under a highway. The man finds a key to a room that isn’t his. The Frog King is coming and they have to hide. The world of Frogcatchers runs on dream-logic – though not the dream-logic of Lewis Carroll, but Franz Kafka. Lemire’s narrative poses many questions – Who is the Frog King? Are the boy and the man father and son? Are these memories? – but there are no pat answers. Frogcatchers comes to life in these competing, ambiguous, contradictory moments, all the more true to life because they defy easy understanding. Lemire illuminates – or at least grapples with – the meanings we might find in our own humanity.    

The book feels fresh, even urgent. The black and grey art moves freely from realistic (and surrealistic) scenes toward occasional expressionist abstractions. And though his line work is loose, Lemire’s precision is evident as he moves us from scene to scene and mood to mood masterfully. The restrained use of colour toward the end of the book at first seems to provide some clarity, but in fact it provides a further layer – a further complication – that refuses to privilege any one here or now over the many possible others.

That Lemire’s art is intrinsic to and inextricable from the philosophical aspects of Frogcatchers is not only a testament to his prowess as a storyteller but also a shining example of the power and range of the comics medium itself. Frogcatchers is vital and thoughtful, challenging and beautiful: a brilliant piece from an accomplished cartoonist who is continuing to explore and grow even while at the top of his game.

Though remarkably different in technique and topic – Leavitt expands while Lemire distills; one is a juicy, linear yarn while the other is an existential puzzle – Agnes, Murderess and Frogcatchers are both smart, unnerving, unique books that engage with the ways in which our childhoods affect, burden, and inform the adults we eventually become.