Today, Ryan D. and Spencer are discussing Royal City 1, originally released March 1st, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Ryan D: In my first weeks as an English major at college, I learned a lesson which, at the time, blew my mind: don’t trust the narrator. Most of what I’d read for high school or for pleasure until then featured omniscient or objective narration, so finally tackling novel’s like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, wherein Chief Bromden casually mentions the walls oozing, or Nabokov’s Lolita, in which the main character very subjectively rationalizes his pederasty, really expanded my mind as to how an author could influence an audience and curate their reading experience. While I have come to expect writer and artist Jeff Lemire to throw down some tricks for a new title, the reveal at the end of Royal City 1 treated my brain to a lovely narrative twist which has my eye opened skeptically towards narrators all over again.
We tend to assume certain things as readers. In fairness to us, we are trained to do so. When the curtains open on this issue, there is nothing which indicates that things will not be exactly as they read:
After the opening page of an innocuous, middle-class home, we see a character laying in bed, sporting a vacant stare of malaise. The caption box to this panel begins with the personal pronoun “I” and speaks of discontentment. Yes, the text does sport a whiff of high school isolationism, but that feeling is in no way relegated to those of us just finding Nirvana for the first time at the age of sixteen. Thus, the brain would, from precedent alone, link that narrative voice to the character featured. While this might seem like an elementary detail upon which to focus, this trick defines the story we have here, both thematically and structurally.
Setting that aside from now, Lemire crafts a simple story about family, revolving around the Pikes — a family raised in Royal City, where parents Peter and Patti still live. After hearing a voice crying for him through an old radio, Peter suffers a stroke which acts as the inciting incident of the text, drawing the scattered family back together. Patrick Pike voyages back to support his family despite his own struggles as “a fading literary star,” and he carries with him the vibe of the main character, which may be attributed to the fact that he, as the outsider to Royal City and his own family, will almost certainly find himself as a catalyst for many of the larger plot points which will crop up in future issues.
I appreciate how Lemire, upon introducing the daughter, Tara, in the midst of a pitch to the owners of the Royal Manufacturing factory around which the city was built, delivers crucial exposition about the history of the town and its resistance to change, all while characterizing Tara as a progressive dreamer trapped by circumstance and a very threatened husband in this small, dying town. We also meet the black sheep of the family, Richard, who looks like he’s been on a constant bender for some time now, missing shifts at the factory and sequestering himself from the rest of his family.
Then there’s Tommy. Several of them. Each version of the character ranges in age and function, but they all share the trademark yellow mop of hair and interact with each member of the family in some way. For Richie, an unkempt, older Tommy enables him to have another beer and head to the bar. For Tara, an adolescent Tommy keeps her company in her empty home, while her husband stays elsewhere due to marital difficulties. While there are several hints throughout the issue at how “real” Tommy is, it takes until the last act of the comic to confirm the audience’s suspicions:
This page, organized as a sort of triptych, showcases all of the family members’ relationships with Tommy on one side, then the sad lonely reality without him on the opposite, with Patrick in the middle, the only one who questions the appearance of the long-dead youngest brother. I can’t think of a better way to visually tell this story, especially considering the caption text underscoring the images: Would anyone even notice if I wasn’t here at all? As more characters were introduced to the story, and the “I” of the narrator continued in what seemed like the same voice, it became more clear that our readers’ brains had been tricked, until we discover that all of that text came directly from Tommy’s journal. This reveal actually hit me quite hard, and sent me scampering back for a closer second read. I applaud Lemire for trying something new with the narrative, and so clearly illustrating how one teenager’s angst could be so myopic; Tommy’s loss would cause grave repercussions for the next twenty-four years.
Spencer! I hope I wasn’t the only one who thought the narrative trick Lemire played on us was cool. I didn’t have a chance to talk about the art style itself. How do you think Lemire’s inks and colors work to tell the story of a failing town and a family haunted by its past?
Spencer: I think Lemire’s art works well in that regard, Ryan. There’s always been something haunting about Lemire’s style that adds a moody, eerie aesthetic to whatever title he works on. In books like Trillium or A.D. After Death that’s led to legitimate horror and sci-fi elements; the supernatural aspects of Royal City are less concrete at the moment, but the dingy, faded backdrop of Royal City certainly provides an atmosphere in which a spirit like Tommy could feasibly thrive. More importantly, it looks like the kind of dead-end town that just spits out fractured families like the Pikes.
Anyway Ryan, you’re not alone; I too loved Lemire’s narrative trick. The most fascinating aspect of the twist, at least to me, is the fact that the issue’s internal monologue isn’t just coming courtesy of the dear, departed Tommy Pike, but actually appears to be an excerpt directly from his childhood journal.
This took me by surprise because his narration is still so relevant to the events of the issue; what does it say about the Pike family if an entry written about them by their youngest child in 1993 is still applicable nearly 25 years later? If nothing else, it means that the family’s current dysfunction wasn’t caused by Tommy’s death, simply exacerbated by it.
That said, there is one notable difference between the contents of Tommy’s journal and his internal monologue throughout the issue. Tommy’s journal opens with the line “Sometimes I wonder if it’s hard growing up in Royal City.” That’s present tense Tommy’s using. His monologue, though, switches this line up, using past tense: “Sometimes I wonder if it was hard growing up in Royal City.” That change in tense is so minor that I briefly wondered if it was simply done to accommodate Lemire’s twist (Pete wouldn’t be wondering if it’s hard to grow up in Royal City in present tense, for example; that would immediately betray the twist), but I’m going to give Lemire the benefit of the doubt and assume it has a greater meaning than that.
After all, this would change quite a bit. First, it would mean that Tommy still has some level of sentience, and is aware of his family’s current whereabouts and delusions. I don’t want to dig too deep into the whole “Is Tommy actually a ghost” question yet — partially because it’s purposely still vague, and partially because the reality of these Tommys seems less important than how the other Pikes respond to them — but that’s still a significant piece of information. Second, it makes my point about the relevance of Tommy’s words even sadder; if Tommy’s been observing his family for 25 years and still comes to the exact same conclusions about them that he did in 1993, then it means this family is caught in a cycle of dysfunction far deeper than it would immediately appear.
(That said, the fact that Tommy is only seen within Royal City — indicated by the fact that Pat doesn’t begin seeing him until he returns to his home town — is a check in the “Tommy actually is a ghost” column.)
Lemire says a lot about each member of the Pike family via the way they picture Tommy (or the way Tommy manifests to them). He seems to appear to each Pike as they want — or need — him to be. To Patti he’s the perfect child she never had, to Tara he’s a source of affection (which is sorely lacking in her marriage), and to Richard he’s an enabler. That last one is perhaps most interesting to me, because it’s the only relationship that seems to contradict Tommy’s diagnosis; Tommy says that “Richie sees everything for what it is,” but his lifestyle and relationship with Tommy seems built on deluding himself about how messed up his life actually is. I wonder about the appearance of Richard’s Tommy — is this more ragged looking Tommy what he would actually have grown up to be, or simply a contrast to the clean-cut perfect angel Patti wanted Tommy (and likely Richard, as well) to be, like a form of rebellion on his behalf?
Pete’s visions raise quite a few interesting questions as well. Unlike the other Pikes, he never fully sees Tommy. Instead, he manifests as a voice over Pete’s beloved radios; even in Pete’s stroke-addled dreams, he can only picture Tommy as a part of his radios.
What does this mean? If we continue to follow my “the Pikes see Tommy as they need him to be” theory, does it mean Pete needs the hope that Tommy could still be alive — the hope dangled by Tommy’s voice coming over the radio — more than he needs the idea of Tommy himself? Or maybe Tommy simply has to approach Pete through his beloved project radios in order to reach him in the little world he’s built for himself?
Those radios are clearly one of — if not the — most important items in Pete’s life, after all, but it’s interesting to see them pop up elsewhere in the issue as well.
This is Richard’s dream, and the symbolism here is telling. Richie’s drowning, and what’s right down at the bottom of the water with him? His father’s radios, his mother’s cross necklace, Tommy’s stuffed animal. Is this how he feels about his family, that they’re drowning him, or that they’re drowning themselves and dragging him down with them?
(The street sign indicates that Richie could also be blaming his problems on Royal City itself, which is interesting. I’m not as sure what the other items symbolize. I’m guessing the plunger is a symbol of the plant Richie works at, which, as Mr. Ofner points out, was founded by a plumber, but what’s the meaning behind the tire?)
Tommy’s journal is another important symbol to this issue, and not just because of its relation to the issue’s narration — it also seems to manifest in Pat’s car at one point, replacing his own notebook full with his book’s first draft. There’s a part of me that wonder if Pat’s stories are thus connected with Tommy’s life and/or death, but I admit I could be stretching with that one.
Another question that hangs over this issue: how did Tommy die? His wondering if anyone would even notice if he was gone makes me wonder if he killed himself, but I could just be reading too much into his teenage angst. We don’t have nearly enough clues at this point to come to any sort of conclusion, but the fact that I’m already invested enough in this story to speculate so much is a good sign. Royal City 1 is a compelling story told in a smart fashion, and if Lemire can keep this level of quality up, then this series should be a real winner.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?