And a good decision it was.
Straight off, if you like his Essex County work you’ll like this. He even slips in a reference to that work in mentioning an opposing football team for the high school four of the characters in the story attend. If you don’t like Lemire’s art, as I know one person who doesn’t, this book isn’t for you.
I’m a fan of both his art and writing, especially when the latter is of characters of his own creation, such as this and Descender, which also just ended (sort of). More on that another day. Whether Essex County or the more fantastic Sweet Tooth, I find his art unique, spare, and wonderfully sketchy.
But on to this show. The story in Royal City is of the Pike family of the titular company town. The story takes place in 1993 and the present of 2017 when the book started. Peter and Patti have four children, Patrick (Pat), Tara, Richard (Ritchie), and Thomas (Tommy).
The 1993 portion of the story is in the fall. Pat graduated in the spring, but his lofty ambitions of being a writer only have him working a drill press at the Royal Manufacturing plant where his father is a floor supervisor who’d rather be back on the floor. Tara is a senior with a boyfriend and is determined to not lead her mother’s life of young parenthood and frustrated ambitions. Ritchie is an outré personality and vigorous imbiber as well as adherent to libidinous habits that leave his girlfriend, Clara, betrayed. Tommy is 14 months younger than Ritchie and a freshman who suffers debilitating headaches that further his preference for being alone with music and his thoughts.
Things happen in 1993 that determine how the family interacts in 2017. In 2017 Peter has a stroke that leaves him in a coma, drawing Pat, now a successful writer under a past due deadline for his next book, back to Royal City. Tara is not her mother, though she's still living in Royal City. Ritchie is a floor worker at the plant. Tommy is the most obviously trapped in 1993, but all of the Pike family has been stuck because of events that happened then.
The struggles among them, spouses, affair partners, and a surprise grandchild are all told with a spectral presence who is perceived how each of the Pike family idealizes him. Each family member, reasonably or not, has guilt associated with the spectral presence.
One of my favorite aspects to the story is that marriages continue or end without over the top dramatics. There are arguments. There is sniping. But there’s also self awareness enough that all of the characters in three distressed marriages recognize there’s no high ground. No one is superior to anyone else in dissatisfaction with how the marriage is proceeding. Each of the distressed marriages is distinct in the causes and dynamics, with each coming to its unique resolution.
A little bonus feature to Royal City is that Lemire throws in a mix tape at the back of each issue. These are songs that influenced him or to which he listened during the creation of the story. Or maybe just enjoyed that day. Anyway, if you want you can compile the songs and listen as you read, if you're so inclined.
The only writing for the Big Two that Lemire has done that I have read has been Moon Knight for Marvel. On the whole I've been dissatisfied with the results of independent voices like Lemire writing characters that are owned by a corporation rather than the creator, but I did enjoy his Moon Knight work. If your only experience of Lemire's work is Moon Knight or another of the corporate cowls, read Royal City, Essex County, Descender, or AD.