Hey gang! It seems like every time I blink, 2019 slips away – by the time this column is in your hands, we’ll be about a week into December, which means that the next edition of Pulp will be the last one for the year. I swear, the older you get, the quicker time slips away! Funnily enough, this week’s comic, Jeff Lemire’s Royal City, captures that feeling perfectly, with a hefty dash of melancholy to just hammer home that sense of existential dread. The first volume, titled Next of Kin, came out back in 2017, and captures the slow decline of a city and family unit that is both enthralling and confronting.
Patrick Pike is a successful author, coasting after a hit novel and desperately trying to claw back a sense of creativity after publishing a manuscript that wasn’t his. His family life is no better; his marriage is falling apart, and his ageing father, Peter, is in hospital after suffering a stroke. His mother, Patti, is domineering, critical and slowly breaking down. His sister, Tara, is developing a massive real estate complex in place of a crumbling factory that threatens to put 1400 of her neighbours – including her husband – out of work, and her marriage is barely holding together under the strain. His younger brother, Richie, also works at the factory, when he’s not getting hammered or high in the local bar, or running afoul of a local gang. The Pike family is barely keeping it together. They’re also firmly tied to the past; each member of the family is being haunted by a different version of the Pike family’s youngest son, Tommy, who drowned in 1993. As Patrick returns to his hometown – the titular Royal City – after his father’s stroke, he realises that his life is at a crossroads, and no matter what decision he makes, there will be no going back.
It’s difficult for me to really describe the scale of a story like Royal City. It’s both epic and intimate at the same time; there’s a strong sense of inter-connectivity and depth, while showing a deeply intimate view of the various members of the Pike family. It also seems very personal for Lemire, too; there are a number of aspects to Patrick’s story that feel like they might’ve been direct commentary from Lemire himself.
I’m no stranger to Lemire’s work, but Royal City seems different to any of his other works I’ve read in that it’s far more grounded than the likes of his space opera Descender, or his forays into superhero-dom with the likes of Green Arrow or Moon Knight. The effort he has gone to in order to make a cast of ultimately unlikable characters so, so relatable and complex is probably one of the highlights of the book for me. Each member of the Pike family has their own set of problems, nuances and personality flaws, but you can see flashes of who they used to be coming through as they interact with each other and Tommy’s ghost. The exact circumstances of Tommy’s death are left deliberately vague, and given that I know that volume 2 (Sonic Youth) deals with that backstory I’m very tempted to pick it up and continue the Pike family’s story.
It’s hard to accurately describe how Royal City made me feel, but the Pike family saga is like watching a train crash in slow motion, and it’s a truly fantastic mess. Give it a read!
Written by Alastair McGibbon