Jeff Lemire’s Essex County explores numerous aspects of rural Ontario life, but perhaps none more than the ways that masculinity separates men from one another and prevents them from experiencing healthy relationships with one another. The examination of masculinity is particularly important to book 2 of Essex County, “Ghost Stories” which follows the diverging lines taken by Lou LeBeuf and his brother, Vince. Lines take two forms: first as a positional unit the brothers share when playing professional hockey for the Toronto Grizzlies, and second in the literal lines the brothers follow or make up on the pages of the graphic novel. This paper explores how these lines signify different meaning for Lou and Vince before connecting these differences to Lou’s isolation in pursuit of a masculine ideal.
It is important to first illustrate how meaningful lines are in “Ghost Stories.” Not only are the literal lines drawn by Lemire significant in the story, but the associated values imbued in lines mirror the characters’ drama in important ways. For one, even though most of “Ghost Stories” is an embedded narrative told in analepsis, Lou’s present events and the retelling of his youth are told linearly, with little reference to the past and almost none of it spoken directly. Framing time as a moving line implicitly suggests inevitability and given that Lou repeats his sense of isolation (204, 212.2, 228.1, 241.2, 319.1-4, 326.4-5, 331.2-5, 332.1), his discursive narration frames time as an inevitable, direct path to loneliness. Lines are also important to Lou and Vince in their later occupations as, respectively, a streetcar driver and field farmer because both demand that they move in clean, straight, predetermined lines. Finally, lines are also significant to the LeBeuf brothers as hockey players, though in a way that breaks from the line of time or the lines of their eventual professions: while the three zones in hockey are divided by clean, established lines that must be respected, the offensive and defensive positions are separated by their own positional “lines.” Players practice and play with the same players, and those players make up either an offensive or a defensive line. A proper line, particularly the offensive line, such as the one the LeBeuf brothers play on, consists of players coordinating in specific roles and working with one another’s strengths and weaknesses: the coordination of a line supersedes the skill of any one player and the cooperation within and between lines makes hockey a deeply team-oriented sport. Lou isolates himself from others because he chooses to commit to the lines that isolate him—the line of time, the streetcar line—rather than to line as a teammate willing to share glory.
Lou is a self-centred person, and even though he admits to being stubborn (239.4), his selfish traits are most clearly demonstrated in his desire to live Vince’s life. Lou plays for the Grizzlies because he missed his chance to play in the NHL (139.2). Also, according to Lou’s focalizing, Vince’s strong play for the minor league Grizzlies could yet lead to a career in major league hockey (139.3). Lou declares that he would “give anything” to play at the highest level of competitive hockey (159.6), which establishes Lou’s dream to play in the NHL in spite of his acceptance of that dream’s failure. The possibility that Vince could achieve Lou’s dream illustrates, if not jealousy, at least a desire to possess Vince’s talent and opportunity. However, Lou does not only seeks to occupy Vince’s life as a hockey player, he also desires Vince’s relationship to Beth.
Just as Lou would do anything to play in the NHL, in analeptically reflecting on a dance with Beth, an elderly Lou declares “I’d do anything to touch you again” (165.1.). This paradigmatic substitution of Beth’s body for the NHL equalizes Lou’s desire to play hockey at a professional level with his desire for Beth’s body. It is pertinent that Lou does not want to be Beth’s husband or even her friend, his desire is purely to touch her. Vince embodies both of Lou’s desires: he is a better hockey player and he is Beth’s eventual husband, thus he has perpetual dominance over Lou (at least according to the values Lou espouses in his focalization of the story). In Lou’s understanding of the world, Vince is naturally the dominant through his larger body, his physical skill at hockey and his access to Beth’s sexuality. However, one must remember that these are Lou’s terms for dominance, so as earnest as his loneliness may be, it is through circumventing this order that he relates to his loved ones and naturally pushes them away. Lou wants to be Vince, and in the face of failure he will settle for taking what he understands as Vince’s.
Lou embodies Vince by capturing his desires in two ways, most obviously in his sexual tryst with Beth (201.5), but also in brief moments of superior play on the ice. In the specific games Lou reflects upon, he never passes to his brother. It is relevant that Lou recognizes his brother as the better player, yet there is no instance where he helps Vince on the ice: Lou does not respect his line enough to pass the puck to its best scorer. Lou instead capitalizes on one of Vince’s failed goals, a shot off the post (187.8). Lou’s quest for personal glory is conveyed most clearly in his post-goal celebration: a dive through the air mimicking Bobby Orr’s celebration following “the goal,” an iconic championship-winning overtime goal in game 4 of the 1970’s Stanley Cup Final. Lou inserts himself into a particular moment in hockey history as one of the sport’s most celebrated athletes to associate himself with that glory. Yet he does so at the expense of one of Vince’s rare failures.
Finally, Lou’s desire for both Vince’s athleticism and his lover are captured in 152.5, when he explains that “the fans had a new hero.” This panel focuses on a smiling Beth with a tear running down her cheek surrounded by howling Grizzlies fans. This image encompasses all of Lou’s desires and it is placed immediately after Lou, not Vince, scores a final goal. Vince earns an assist for passing the puck to Lou illustrating that, unlike Lou, Vince is willing to pass and share glory. But, the text—narrated and focalized by Lou—declares that the fans had a new hero, one celebrated by the gaze of Beth and the howling Grizzlies fans, which is to say by Lou’s own self-gaze: this declaration of heroism is prompted by Lou’s goal, not Vince’s, illustrating that, for this brief moment, Lou is the hockey hero the object of Beth’s adoration framed by Lou’s telling. Ostensibly, Vince is the hero because he is the best player on the team, but in the moment the hero is declared, Lou captures the admiring gaze of both the fans and the woman he desires. This again speaks to Lou’s quest for individual glory at the expense of the team’s glory.
Lou’s desire and ultimate failure to live Vince’s life is not only demonstrated in the important differences between them as players on the same line, but in the way their images align or diverge from one another. Throughout the story, the LeBeuf brothers are frequently placed together, but usually their co-appearances are marked by a split, either as they stand in diverging angles or travel along diverging lines. In 197.6, Lou in his elder form leans to the left while a sleeping Vince leans right: the literal divergence between the LeBeufs is emphasized by the vertical parallel lines of the wall paper in the background. This is the first of many similar images, and it occurs the night that Lou sleeps with Beth, indicating that this is the irreconcilable schism between the brothers. Taken syntagmatically with the surrounding events, this event marks Lou’s separation from his brother and the moment that his desire for both Beth and hockey escape him. It also demonstrates that Lou chooses this divergence. In the scene, Beth races to the roof to watch the snow, inviting Lou to follow. As Lou follows her he looks back to Vince sleeping and slams the door loudly (196.6). This illustrates that Lou expects his visit with Beth on the roof will be sexual, not only in subtle connotations, such as Lou’s sexually loaded remark to her “I’m coming, I’m coming…” when he rushes to catch up with her, but in his slamming the door, perhaps in an effort to awaken Vince. These events are punctuated by the image of Vince as he is in that moment and Lou as he will become, breaking away from one another against the parallel lines in the background.
The image of Lou failing to align with Vince is repeated enough that it is a rich paradigm colouring the meaning of several events in “Ghost Stories.” The image of the brothers as diverging lines speaks most clearly to their relationship when Lou cuts himself off from Vince. After suffering a knee injury, Lou takes a job as a streetcar driver for the city’s public transit commission (225.2). The iterative event of Lou driving the car is punctuated by his remarking “…I liked having the same route each day…no surprises. Only one path I could take” (227.3). Here, Lou literally comments on his chosen “path” or line, and while he seems grateful to it, this path alienates himself from others, particularly Vince, when travelling on this line. When Lou remarks “It was kind of neat sitting behind the glass watching the city go by” (227.1) he traits himself as an observer: just as one observes a game of hockey from behind a layer of glass separating audience and participants, Lou becomes an observer of others’ lives after his hockey career is over. Lou’s job as a streetcar driver for the next 30 years keeps him “behind the glass” and perpetuating his role as an observer along the same predictable paths. Like Lou, Vince also spends the next 30 years of his life driving a tractor along crop rows, but where Lou’s path drives him away from people, the images of the page gradually separate the brothers, leading Lou away and Vince toward other people
Vince’s tractor is depicted immediately after Lou’s streetcar, associating them with one another even while the schism between them widens (229.1-2). Each vehicle is positioned in the same manner but tilted in diverging angles, implying that the lines these two men live on will direct them further and further apart regardless of their common starting point. Moreover, in this scene Lou and Vince share a rare alignment in posture. Given that this is one of the many segments where Lou reflects on his loneliness, their aligned posture implies that, like Lou, Vince also misses playing hockey with his brother. But as Lou admits that Vince could not be as lonely as he is, each frame depicts Vince along a different line, edging away from Lou’s posture and toward Beth and his daughter, Mary. If the lines of Lou and Vince match, it is only temporary, and Vince gradually breaks away from Lou and forms his own line that matches his family (228-233.1). Lou’s posture is nearly always skewed left of the page’s y axis, splitting him away from Vince. Where Vince parallels with other people, Lou is separated from them, paralleling with an unusually lonely Vince or with his nurse, Anne (117.8), herself an isolated figure. These images subtly trait Vince as a family man and reinforce Lou’s self-imposed isolation.
Unlike Vince’s posture, Lou’s more often aligns with open, empty space. Such is the case when he starts his job with the TTC and his image lines up with the November rain (223.1), the empty locker room as he changes into his uniform in middle age (237.2), the unbound streetcare when he driving it back to the farm in Essex County (245.3), and the light escaping the barn and house when he leaves the farm following his mother’s funeral (267.1). In each of these cases, Lou’s body repeatedly matches up with sparse lines along empty, depopulated space: this repetition not only associates him with loneliness, but it implies that Lou’s break from Vince results from his choosing to be alone, in contrast to Vince’s choice to be with others. Unlike Lou, Vince is able to cross lines and realign with broken paths, which is demonstrated after their mother’s funeral as Vince reaches across one panels to offer Lou a beer (258.3-4). Not only does the image portray Vince crossing the literal boundary between panels in the text, but Vince’s panel is on the right of Lou’s: that is, it is read after, miming a reach back in time through the graphic novel’s syntax. As Vince reaches backward through a solid break in the panels, Lou urges Vince to fight with him (263.1), illustrating that Lou cannot accept Vince’s forgiveness. Indeed, in refusing to apologize, Lou implies he does not even need to ask for it. Here Lou demonstrates another instance of his selfishness. Where Vince metaphorically reaches back through time through graphical syntax to come closer to his family, Lou chooses to isolate himself from Vince.
The use of lines to distinguish Lou and his idealized brother, however, only achieve meaning when connected to masculinity. For one, across all the binary lines that separate Lou from Vince—goal and assist, urbane and rustic, spectator and player, single and married—one side of the binary is privileged through Lou’s focalization. Though he was a selfish hockey player, as a coach he emphasizes the importance of passing (283.3, 286.1); though Lou misses the farm (212.2, 265.6, 244.4-6, 295.2, 319.7), he is able to find some happy years in Toronto (276.1); though he can’t play hockey, he still watches it throughout his life. Lou lives each side of these binaries but he only privileges one side as the domineering masculine when it is possessed by Vince. Lou never focalizes Vince as anything other than a hockey player or as a patriarch, two figures referentially tied to masculinity. Lou never thinks of Vince as a father, husband, nor does he think of him in any nurturing role even though he raised a daughter and cared for his ailing mother until she died (249.1). Indeed, the reader never hears how Vince felt about his hockey career or how it forced him to get into fights nearly every game (174-183). Lou only reads Vince as an idealized masculine figure to compensate for his own insecurities. Lou is aware of Vince’s short temper only because he exploits it to force Vince into fighting; either with opponents in hockey or with himself to avoid talking about what went on between he and Beth.
Furthermore, Lou’s insecurity emerges elsewhere in “Ghost Stories.” Lou repeatedly lambasts the Toronto Maple Leafs after their many losses in the story for being an embarrassment (122.2), the coaching staff of the Grizzlies tells the team not to embarrass themselves anymore (143.2), and Lou himself refuses to speak in old age because he’s humiliated by the sound of his voice (131.4). In each of these instances, Lou betrays his insecurity. When he challenges others to fight, he intentionally loses to excite his brother (148.9, 263.1). Here Lou demonstrates a deliberate failure to live up to his own masculine expectations because he sees an unreachable masculine ideal in Vince. Lou focuses on his brother as a masculine figure possessing all of his desires, while never illustrating to the reader any of Vince’s non-masculine-coded traits specifically because Lou fails to address his own insecurities with himself.
Lou is a selfish person, as illustrated in his play in hockey, and he wants to be his brother, as illustrated in the ways he substitutes himself in his brother’s life. Furthermore, Lou’s departure from Vince is emphasized in the illustrations that physically alienate him from Vince’s family-oriented path in life. The signification “Ghost Stories” ultimately reaches is that Lou struggles with his own emasculation and a desire to live the (possibly imagined) masculine life of his brother. However, where Vince’s path of life draws him closer to others, Lou’s only isolates him. Lou remains an outsider interpreting his fantasized life of Vince, ignoring Vince’s gestures of kindness such as his willingness to pass the puck in play or to reach back through past events and offer peace on the farm. “Ghost Stories” demonstrates the toxicity of possessive masculinity and the self-directed isolation one faces in glorifying such a narrow understanding of manhood. By illustrating the different lines traced by Lou’s self-centredness and Vince’s family life, “Ghost Stories” illustrates how the former fosters a slowly self-destructive insecurity for the sake of maintaining a veneer of masculinity. More work is required to fully understand “Ghost Stories” as the middle text connecting the other two stories of Essex County: other paradigms remain to be analyzed—notably in the many hockey games referenced in “Ghost Stories,” where the losing team always loses with a score of 2 goals, suggesting, perhaps, that two is insufficient or too simplistic to achieving or understanding what one wants. On its own, however, in its two major interpretations of lines, the position of teammates in hockey and the physical paths individual lives take, “Ghost Stories” demonstrates a specific, cautionary interpretation of a masculinized ideal.
Lemire, Jeff. “Ghost Stories.” Collected Essex County. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf, 2009. 113-233. Print.