“The older I get, the less I feel that there is any place for me here.”
–Peter Pike, “Royal City”
Jeff Lemire (Essex County, Sweet Tooth, Animal Man) is probably one of the most underrated and prolific creators in comics, simultaneously able to consistently put out work from the big publishers and keep the integrity of his work intact in the process.
Royal City, an ongoing series from Image Comics, is one of Lemire’s most recent projects. It’s a timely story of the Pikes—torn apart by tragedy, living within a factory town that has seen better days. The one “constant” in their lives is Tommy—a mysterious member of the family who truly means something different to each person.
Lemire’s gorgeous ink-and-watercolor art perfectly compliments this story of grief, loss, decay, and the bleak-but-tantalizing possibility of redemption. The washed-out palette is reminiscent of old magazines and photos left out in the sun; and everything about the Pike family compound and wider Royal City has that feeling to it.
Patriarch Peter Pike gets a stroke after hearing what sounds like his young son coming from one of his antique radios. Daughter Tara is in charge of the family business, struggling to attract new investors and make the factory change with the times. Pat is a successful author who reluctantly comes back to Royal City after news of his father’s stroke. Richie, the “black sheep,” is a bitter unemployed drunk. And Patti is the mom trying to hold everything together—while at the same time, keeping secrets of her own.
The “high-concept,” if you will excuse such a crass term, is the identity of Tommy—or rather, all the males called “Tommy” of various ages and types who seem to associate with separate members of the Pike family. At the end of issue 1, they are all revealed to be the same person—Tommy Pike, aged 14, who died in 1993.
Such a “twist,” in the age of Mr. Robot, can feel really hackneyed and “gimmicky”—unless done “right.” And Lemire does it “right.” As each issue moves on, these different Tommys seamlessly interact with the Pike family…one a rough-and-tumble drinking buddy for Ritchie, another a priest for Mom, and yet another an innocent little boy for Tara.
But who is/was Tommy, really? We only have his old notebook, now in the possession of Pat; one of the pages “reproduced” in the first issue. And Tommy’s struggle for “identity” is mirrored in the lives of each of the Pike clan, against the backdrop of fading town who has seen better days.
I do have to come back to the art here, which is exquisite; it is still visually “Lemire” and yet stylistically it has evolved and grown so much since his earlier works. I don’t usually “push” the purchase of separate issues over trades (and I would imagine since 1-5 is considered “Book One,” a collected edition is on the way), but Image Comics has done such a great job packaging these and presenting his art in as close to the original form as possible that each issue is really cool to own and look at.
Royal City #5 ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, as we find out some more crucial information regarding the family that could literally “change everything.” If you are looking for a smart, poetic comic book comparable to some of the good stuff you’re watching on cable or streaming, give Royal City a try.