Whenever I read some new work from Jeff Lemire, it seems eons away from Essex County. When the first volume of that trilogy appeared 12 years ago, it was intimate, dark, quiet, and surreal. It didn’t follow conventional narrative structures, and was more concerned with diving into the interiors of the characters and relating those to the exteriors, rather than more standard comic book storytelling.
The two books that followed continued in this vein but Lemire has built a huge career in comics by doing the exact opposite. Books like Sweet Tooth and the Black Hammer series, as well the multiple mainstream superhero titles he’s written for both Marvel and DC, all have plenty of reasons to recommend them, but works that resemble his Essex County books are much more scarce.
Frogcatchers is one of those rarities that follows the Essex County tone, and it leads me to believe that Lemire is wonderful at compartmentalizing, though it also makes me wonder how fascinating something like Justice League Dark or The Terrifics would be if he brought the Essex County aesthetics more into his superhero work, and that includes his beautiful, ragged, devastating artwork that helps the despair hang on the surrealism like a needy cloud.
At its heart, Frogcatchers is immensely simple, though it starts out in a mysterious way. A man, apparently displaced, find himself in a sewer tunnel hunting for frogs, but encounters something strange under the stream of water. He awakens in a hotel room, as discombobulated here as he was previously, but when he leaves the room, he’s whisked into fleeing by a boy who claims that a frog is out to get them. Taking refuge in a safe room, the man discovers the strange position he’s woken up to be in and, with the boy, begins to formulate a way out.
I won’t tell you where things go from there, but I imagine that once you get around that point in the book, you’ll have a pretty good idea yourself anyhow. I do know that despite the standard narrative way that I laid out the plot, Frogcatchers is much more complicated than I make it seem, in that Lemire places layers of perception and consciousness on top of strange action, implying more to what unfolds both in story terms and emotionally, and injecting a melancholy in narrative terms that Lemire’s art keeps alive throughout the story regardless of what is actually happening in the panels.
In some ways, this feels like a brief exercise for Lemire, in that some of the emotional details of the characters aren’t as filled out as the could be, say in terms of the Essex County stories, where very specific circumstances are attached to the characters. But Lemire takes the opportunity to get to the core of his themes, and Frogcatchers ends up being more like a visual poem than a character drama.
That’s okay, because this choice opens up his mood piece to wider embrace — it’s easier for any of us to identify with what transpires, and in that way, it strikes me as personal, though not necessarily in a revealing way, but more in a manner where Lemire is trying to express something universal about his personal feelings. And with his artwork as the main source of communication, the message of Frogcatchers, even if it’s general, is going to take on textures that haunt the reader’s eyes.