The first volume of this series worked because of the unique angle writer/artist Jeff Lemire found to address the long-standing shared grief the members of the Pike family felt over the death of their youngest member, Tommy. Except for oldest sibling and prodigal son Pat, each family member chose to remember Tommy in an idealized fashion, either from a specific point in his life or as the man they hoped he’d grow into. With this second volume we flash back to the 90’s to see Tommy as he actually was: a quiet, withdrawn boy who’s suffering from severe headaches. We also get to see him make entries into the journal that Pat would later mine for his critically-acclaimed bestseller as he observes his family around him. Tommy takes in everything from Richie’s endearingly brash selfishness, Tara’s uncertainty about her future, Pat’s general apathy, and his parents’ own failings. Yet what does it all matter when we know that he’s not long for this world?
I’m not going to say that flashing back to show us what Tommy was really like wound up being a mistake that robs “Royal City” of what little mystique it had. No, really, I’m not. That’s because the thing that weighs down this second volume is how all of the plot threads here, both major and minor, wind up becoming predictable low-key bummers. Something’s eating at each member of the Pike family, be it cheating on a girlfriend, potential infidelity, trouble at work, or an unwanted pregnancy, and it all contributes to the feeling that life in a one-factory small town really kind of sucks. Taking the edge off of this feeling is how lived-in Lemire makes these characters’ lives feel. Life may suck for them and these characters do make a lot of bad decisions, but the feelings behind them come off as genuine. Lemire’s gift for coming up with interesting page layouts also makes for an experience that will keep your eye rolling effortlessly across the page. This may not be the creator’s strongest work, but it’s still good enough to get me to come back for the next, and final, volume.