ROYAL CITY by Jeff Lemire
ROYAL CITY, with its wealth of interesting characters and potent narrative elements, is one of the strongest comics on the shelves right now. Do yourself a favor and buy this book!
97 %
Small Town Success
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Rural towns are some of the strongest settings in storytelling. Characters can’t keep hold of any secrets in these settings, nor can they easily escape the things or people they most fear. The borders of these towns work to trap in all of that tension and drama. Sadly, though, stories set in a small town have become a dime a dozen. Writers have used this once great setting to craft stories that never quite break free of the many tropes. Every story has a young girl, depressed and wanting nothing more than to leave, and an unassuming family that hides a great secret. Thankfully, Jeff Lemire‘s creator-owned series ROYAL CITY is a breath of fresh air. Interestingly, though, he doesn’t shy away from these tropes. Lemire leans into them and twists them into his own beast.

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Welcome to Royal City

Royal City
Courtesy of Image Comics

Royal City is your typical rural town. Built around Royal Manufacturing, a plumbing supplies depot, the town has faced a decline. Actually, that’s an understatement. Royal City is on its deathbed. The youth of the town have dreams of the big city. Those who have stayed are in no shape to save it. It is a river town, filled with memories, heartaches, and ghosts.

In Lemire’s ROYAL CITY, the reader follows the Pike family. When a stroke sends Peter Pike into a coma, his wife and three living children slowly find their way to his bedside. Tara Pike, the only daughter, has plans to save Royal City by converting the factory into a golf course. This would effectively force her husband into unemployment. Tara’s brother, Patrick Pike, moved to the big city as soon as he could and became a writer. With his latest book a year late, his dreams may be crumbling around him. Robert Pike lives at the bottom of a bottle, only coming up long enough to find his next drink. And the mother, Patti, has turned to God to forget her own sins and fears from throughout her marriage.

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However, the Pikes carry a great secret. There used to be a fourth Pike sibling, a young man named Tommy. And though the cause of Tommy’s death isn’t clear, his ghost quite literally haunts his siblings and parents. Each member of the family sees a different version of Thomas Pike. Patti sees her late son as a priest, perfect in holiness, Robert sees his brother as the textbook party animal, Tara sees him as the child she has never raised, and Patrick pays witness to a teenage writer uncertain about the world. As Tommy’s appearances become more frequent, the Pikes’ many secrets rise to the surface.

A Picturesque Town

royal city
Courtesy of Image Comics

Jeff Lemire’s work on ROYAL CITY is monumental. It is a massive undertaking, with Lemire playing the role of writer and artist for the entire volume. The story is both parts whimsical in its visual design and tonally serious in its narrative. In fact, this inherent whimsy helps to balance the harsh reality, giving readers a sense of hope instead of dread. I thoroughly enjoyed every page of ROYAL CITY and wanted more when the first volume had ended. Lemire does a fantastic job capturing the tone of the rural town life. From the beating heart of Royal Manufacturing to the Pike homestead to the dive bar on the corner, it all felt so real and visceral.

Helping this sense of reality is the Pike family. Lemire goes into painstaking detail with this family, capturing their personalities and secrets from page one. However, Lemire is a patient writer. Many of these key secrets only begin to unravel halfway through this story. Before that point, a certain tension lies just behind Lemire’s textured storybook art style. Things are obviously wrong with this family. When Patti and Peter enter into a shouting match on page two, you understand that this story will hold some harsh truths. Luckily, Lemire isn’t afraid to explore these truths in vivid detail. The old adage “Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong” holds very true for the Pike family, and it is entirely a sight to see.

Hints of the World Beyond

royal city
Courtesy of Image Comics

Surrealist fiction has hit a literary high in recent years. With books like A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness or I KILL GIANTS by Joe Kelly, the presence of the supernatural is often a fallacy. Supernatural monsters stand in as metaphors for real-life fears and events, cancer in both of these examples. Writers often intentionally leave the existence of these creatures ambiguous though. Interestingly, Lemire seems to play into this literary trend with Tommy’s ghost, utilizing the totally opposite assumption. Lemire openly has each of his characters see Tommy as a means of reinforcing that this event of seeing the ghost actually happens. It isn’t a hallucination or a storytelling element; it is a true-to-God ghost living amidst his former family.

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Why does this matter in the context of this review? Because the use of the supernatural is subtle. It doesn’t openly overpower the underlying narrative elements. In fact, it doesn’t even entirely interact with them. Tommy’s spirit acts as a poignant B-storyline while the Pike family’s devolving relationship takes center stage. Lemire doesn’t slap you in the face with the supernatural. Instead, he slowly builds it into the world, fleshing out the struggles they all go through. This subtlety of strange is a brilliant storytelling move, and it never feels like a gimmick. It holds its own as a necessary backdrop to the emotions of this ailing family.

Final Thoughts: ROYAL CITY

ROYAL CITY is a strange story in a lot of ways. However, I found myself more and more drawn into this masterwork as time went on. The small town story is masterfully constructed by Lemire, and the large cast receives its due spotlight. None of the characters feel underdeveloped, which is necessary for such a grounded story that has a lot of positives and very few negatives. Having grown up around small towns for most of my early years, ROYAL CITY hit very close to home in its realistic setting. As a longtime fan of fantasy, though, I fell in love with the subtle portrayal of supernatural elements. This is a story full of life and power. Do yourself a favor and catch up as quick as you can.

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