Jeff Lemire Breaks Down Royal City [Interview]

IMAGE COMICS: Jeff, you've approached family from a variety of angles in your work. ROYAL CITY is clearly about family—but what approach are you taking this time? What is this family like?

JEFF LEMIRE: This is a very damaged family. They are broken in many ways and very haunted. And, while I have told stories about families in the past, most notably with Essex County and Animal Man, ROYAL CITY has offered me a brand-new way of thinking about how to approach things.

ROYAL CITY feels like coming home in a lot of ways. For a few years now I've been longing to return to the kind of stories I began my career by telling. To be blunt, I wanted to return to the territory of Essex County. I wanted to get back to telling more grounded stories about "real people." It made me wonder what would happen if I tried to do something like Essex County not as a standalone graphic novel but rather as a serialized monthly comic book.

A graphic novel is a great thing. It allows you freedom to go off and create a story in a vacuum, free of the monthly deadlines and pressure. You can tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. To use a film analogy, doing a graphic novel is more like making a movie, but a monthly book can offer the same benefits as a multi-season television series. And, as we are now seeing with the golden age of television we are living through, longer serialized storytelling allows for exploring characters, themes, and ideas across a greater amount of time and space.

IC: There's a feeling of inescapable gravity in Pat's return to Royal City, like he must return to move forward. What was Pat's place in his family? Was he the black sheep, favored son, or something else?

LEMIRE: Pat is an interesting character to me, and an interesting protagonist, because I don't really think he knows who he is or how he fits into this family. On the surface he is the local boy who has made it big. He left Royal City behind as soon as he was old enough and never looked back. And he has become a very successful writer and novelist.

But we will quickly see that this outward appearance may not match who Pat really is. He is struggling as a writer, and he is struggling as a man too. Trying to find out who he is. And though he doesn't want to admit it, coming home is probably the only way to really do that.

I think many of us who grow up in small towns and then move away tend to "reinvent" ourselves. Then when we come back home, we have to reconcile this person we want to be with the person we really are. This is very much Pat.

IC: ROYAL CITY deals with grief and familial secrets, incorporating magical realism along the way. What does introducing a little bit of unreality to something that's very human and real do for you?

LEMIRE: As much as I want to tell grounded and human stories about "real people," I also don't want to do a straight slice-of-life book. The comics medium is so rich in its ability to visually communicate ideas and emotions that it would be a shame not to use that. So I love having this really grounded story, with a very realistic cast of characters, but also having this strange and mysterious other world just below the surface that our characters seem to be tapping into.

The book has no overt or outright "supernatural" elements, but there is a lot of magical realism, mystery, and wonder in Royal City and it all seems to center around the character of Tommy Pike and his mysterious death in 1993.

IC: You mostly focus on the Pike family in ROYAL CITY #1. What is Royal City itself like? Is it a city on the decline, or has it found new life since Pat left?

LEMIRE: It is very much a city in decline. Royal City is one of these mid-sized cities across North America that was built around industry that is now being outsourced to other countries with cheaper labour. And without this central source of employment, the town is drying up. The youth are moving to big cities, and what was, decades ago, a vibrant community is now on the verge of disappearing. I know here in Canada there are many struggling smaller cities like this. Not big enough to be big cities and not small enough to be small towns, these places now have no identity.

So Royal City, the town, is a suitable backdrop for this family that is also on the verge of falling apart.

THE PIKE FAMILY TREE, as described by Jeff Lemire

Patti: Patti Pike is very much the matriarch of the family She has a very strong and very dominant personality. Her kids can never really seem to live up to her expectations, and neither can her husband, Pete. She may seem very unlikable at first, but as the series progresses we will start to unravel the sins and guilt that have driven Patti to become the person she is, and we will see that she is a very complicated person.

Peter: Pete is Patti's browbeaten husband. He is sheepish and quiet and lets her take the lead. He is content to shuffle off alone to his garage, which he has converted into his own workshop/refuge where he repairs antique radios. Unbeknownst to anyone else, these old radios may be a gateway to Royal City's mysterious other side.

And as our story begins, Pete suffers a stroke, pulling the family back together, at least physically.

Pat: Pat is a fading literary star. Some years ago he wrote a beloved debut novel, also called Royal City, but his subsequent books have been flops, and he is floundering badly. His marriage is on the rocks, and when Pete suffers his stroke, Pat is called home, where he is going to have to face the dark secrets from his past that may be holding him back.

Richie: Richie Pike is his own worst enemy. He is a total fuck-up and constantly makes the wrong decisions. He's self-destructive and flirts with the darker criminal underworld of Royal City.

Tara: Tara is the responsible one. She stayed home and made a life for herself in Royal City, becoming a successful real estate developer. She sees a new future for the town, but it may mean putting the final nail in the coffin of Royal Manufacturing, the town's fading industrial core. And this puts her at odds with Patti and her own husband, Steve, who still works in the factory. Tara and Patti are both strong personalities and are always clashing.

Tommy: There's not too much I can reveal about Tommy. He was the fourth Pike sibling, and he died mysteriously back in 1993. He appears in ROYAL CITY as a different person to each member of the Pike family.

To Patti, Tommy is the town's priest and the perfect son she never had; to Tara, he is still the little brother she used to babysit when she was a teenager; to Richie, he is his best friend and his drinking buddy who raises hell around town; and to Pat, he is still the 14-year-old boy who mysteriously drowned back in 1993.

But who Tommy really was and how he died is very much the mystery that will drive the series.

ROYAL CITY #1 is available for order now and debuts 3/1.