Review by Tess Tabak
In Royal City volume 1: Next of Kin, a new graphic novel by Jeff Lemire, a family grapples with the ghost of their dead son. Tommy died in 1993, but he left an indelible presence on the Pikes.
Royal City starts when Patrick Pike comes home to visit his father, who’s just had a stroke. It slowly becomes clear that each character is seeing a different version of Tommy’s ghost. Patrick grapples with guilt about using his dead brother as the inspiration for so much of his writing. Patrick’s mother sees him as the priest he could have grown up to be. His sister sees him as the child she desperately wants to have. In this volume, Lemire doesn’t cover much ground in plot. He’s laying the latticework for future volumes, developing a rich family history and taking his time to set up the mystery of what happened to Tommy in 1993. Lemire is known for his literary, quietly plotted graphic novels, such as the award-winning Essex County.
The most striking thing about Royal City is the artwork. Illustrated by the author, Lemire uses watercolor to add to the note of magical realism. Tommy feels very ethereal. Lemire uses clean linework, drawing just enough of a scene or face to suggest realism, with the watercolors adding a touch of a dreamlike quality.
Royal City felt a bit like a grown-up Catcher in the Rye with elements of magical realism. 14-year-old Tommy Pike channels Holden Caulfield in the opening narration: “there is something different here… something only I can see. And maybe that makes me special and not fucked-up?” Patrick Pike feels like a fraud or a phony, having apparently used all of Tommy’s notes in his critically acclaimed novel, Royal City. I think the author was aiming for a messy, complicated adult version of Catcher in the Rye. For me, it just slightly missed the mark. Tommy’s notes of adolescent ennui felt a little more heavy-handed than profound. (To be fair: I did not enjoy Catcher in the Rye, and I’m aware that I’m in the minority on that one.)
However, there’s a lot about Royal City that is promising: the complicated family relationships, the artwork, the slowly unfolding mystery. I’m interested to see where he goes with this in the next volume.