Jeff Lemire has been one of the breakout stars of the DC New 52. His work on Animal Man and Frankenstein has been among the most popular and critically acclaimed work of that line. I didn’t know what to expect when I talked to him at Portland’s Stumptown Comics Fest in April, but it shouldn’t surprise any reader of his series that Jeff was as nice, interesting and down to earth as any person I’ve had the chance to talk to.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: You’ve walked the line between the indie and commercial worlds. Do you have a preference? Do you enjoy having a foot in both worlds?
Lemire: Yeah, I do. I grew up reading Spirit comics and stuff. I have a huge affection for that stuff and specifically the DC Universe. That’s something I’ve always loved. So it’s really fun to be able to work in that world and still keep doing my indie work for Top Shelf and Vertigo. I’m just lucky that I’m fast enough that I’m able to do so many projects at once. As long as I can do both, I’m happy.
CB: You’re writing three series a month, as well as writing and drawing Sweet Tooth?
Lemire: Yeah, two and a half or three, depending on what month. I am writing quite a few books, and my nine to five, Monday to Friday is mostly still drawing Sweet Tooth. That takes the most time. Scripts for the other stuff just get done when they get done — on weekends, at nights, whenever you find some time.
CB: You’re living for comics. Do you love doing it?
Lemire: There’s nothing else I’ve ever wanted to do or [would] rather be doing, so when you love doing it that much, it’s not hard to do it all the time.
CB: You grew up in a small town in Canada. Is that why so much of Essex County seems to ring true?
CB: What was it like creating comics in a community like that? It must have been hard to find kinship.
Lemire: Obviously my childhood was pretty isolated. I didn’t know anyone else who was really reading comics at the time. I think I just escaped into comics, because there wasn’t really a lot going on around that I was interested in otherwise. So I just escaped into drawing and reading comics, and that was sort of my refuge. When I got older and moved to a bigger city, I started to meet more and more people like me. It was great to be part of a community that was reading comics.
CB: Do you think your approach is different from some people’s because you didn’t have as many peers who were into comics when you were younger?
Lemire: Yeah, probably. I’m self-taught, whereas if I’d grown up around other people who were doing it, I would probably have learned certain things in life faster and not have to do so much trial and error on my own. As a result, I think I really developed a unique style because I did do so much experimenting. I didn’t always know the right way to do something, so I just figured it out on my own, and I think that’s where a unique voice came in.
CB: That’s one of the things I like about Essex County, especially the earlier chapters. There was a feeling that you were just doing what came from your heart without necessarily having the filters that some professionals have. But by the end, it felt liked you had worked out some of the themes. There are some wonderful scenes that are very moving because they’re personally yours.
Lemire: When I started Essex County — the first volume — I didn’t know it was gonna be a trilogy or any more that just that one story. As I expanded it, I started to apply logic and figure out how it could tie together, so I think that’s why you got that feeling.
CB: I keep coming back to the hockey scene, where the players are tapping the hockey sticks on the ice. It obviously comes from the small town Canadian experience. I think only someone who has lived in a small town in Canada can appreciate how important hockey really is.
Lemire: That is true. It really is a part of the community. The book itself is about family and families, and I just used the hockey team as a metaphor for another kind of family. But growing up in Canada — it’s a cliché but it’s a cliché because it’s true — hockey’s a huge part of small communities. It really brings people together. You know, church and hockey are the two things.
CB: The Nobody was an interesting book because the central story line was very super-heroic but the way it was executed was very much not. It’s about the loneliness of having the powers.
Lemire: That was a big leap — me trying to do an action-adventure/science fiction comic but still treating it in that quiet, personal sort of way. You take these big genre elements or themes and then execute them like it’s an art movie or a small, quiet indie comic again, and you get an interesting tension there.
CB: They say a lot of creators keep coming back to are the things that care about the most in their life. I guess Essex County, The Nobody and Sweet Tooth are a bit about being alone a lot.
Lemire: Yeah, isolation has been throughout all my work, I guess.
CB: I guess that comes from your childhood?
Lemire: Yeah, growing up on a farm like that, you can feel isolated, [but] you try not to analyze too much where the things come from. You let the work be the therapy. You don’t want to overthink it and then ruin whatever’s working. I think just being a cartoonist in general sort of appeals to people who enjoy being alone, because it is so time-intensive and most of the time it’s just you alone at a desk. You have to be very comfortable with being isolated. I prefer being alone at times.
CB: So how did Sweet Tooth come about? It was a whole different level of series from The Nobody.
Lemire: It all happened really quickly. I’d done The Nobody at Vertigo, and they were interested in working with me on some other stuff, so they asked me to pitch a monthly book. I just — literally over the course of one weekend — sat down and took a whole bunch of different things that had been popping up in my sketchbooks and tried to meld them into some kind of a story or pitch, and that’s what came out.
CB: Interesting. This isn’t something you’d been working on a long time? It’s a bunch of different ideas thrown together?
Lemire: No, it happened really quickly. Just a bunch of little different ideas forced together. The character himself was this character I’d been drawing in my sketchbooks for some reason for some months, and it really was about taking that and trying to build a story around it.
CB: There are some scenes in the series that are haunting, in the same way that the scenes in Essex County are haunting — slow and quietly building. It’s got a different pace than a lot of the books I think of from Vertigo. Is that intentional?
Lemire: It’s just my style, I guess. [It’s] my storytelling voice, so you just tr
y not to change it. Just try to stay true to it no matter what you’re doing. I think it did stand out and was unique compared to a lot of Vertigo stuff, so that’s maybe that’s why I succeeded. It didn’t just fall through the cracks, and people really noticed it as something different.
CB: Can you give any hints at all of what we might expect to come up over the next few months?
Lemire: It’s all kind of building towards the big climax in Alaska, where Sweet Tooth and all the rest of the cast of characters are heading, trying to discover his origin and [that] of the plague and the children. As that happens, we see all the different storylines that I’ve been playing with for the previous three years coming together into one big finale. That’s definitely coming up quickly.
CB: So everything will be coming together. We are going to get an answer to what caused the plague?
Lemire: The big reveal at the end isn’t the answer. That happens quite early. Issue 35, which is only a couple of months away, has the full answer. There’s still a good chunk of story after that. It was never a book that was about the mystery. It was more about the characters. I wanted to get that out of the way and then move on for the characters to reach their natural conclusions.
CB: I like how Jeppard really changes throughout the series.
Lemire: He starts out as sort of a stereotypical, two-dimensional action hero cliché and then slowly becomes something much more. He becomes more and more like Sweet Tooth, really, and he softens a lot. It will be really interesting to see how that all plays out.
CB: At the same time you’re doing Sweet Tooth, you’re also doing the DC work, which is personal in a different way, I assume. First you did Superboy, which I really enjoyed. That’s a great exploration of small town life, too.
Lemire: That’s not a character I was always in love with or anything. I wasn’t always dreaming of writing him. But it was an opportunity for me to get into that world and learn how to write for other artists in the shared DC Universe. I think I learned a lot on that project that I brought to Animal Man and Frankenstein last year. It was great to take another step as a writer. I was really happy with how those books turned out.
CB: What were some of the specific things you learned when working on Superboy?
Lemire: I’m so used to working on my own stuff that when I started writing Superboy, I was a little too specific in my art direction. I kept wanting to maintain too much control over the artists. As a result, it came out a bit stiffer than if I’d let the artists breathe and do their own thing. So when I went on to Animal Man and Frankenstein, I really kept myself away from the visual aspect of it. I just focused on character and plot and let them completely control the visual side. I think the results were a lot stronger.
CB: The art, especially on Frankenstein, gives the book a completely different, wild and totally over-the-top emotional energy to it. Those books are very different.
Lemire: They are, yes. Doing the same type of work all the time would get very boring. It’s good to have something like Sweet Tooth and Animal Man that are very dark serious books, and then Frankenstein, which is a big, fun action comic where I can cut loose and exercise a different part of my brain.
CB: Do you generally plot ahead or let yourself really get loose?
Lemire: I always like to have a good solid framework to know where I’m going. Within that, you leave yourself room for new ideas as you’re writing.
CB: That’s especially true in Animal Man, where it’s all coming together with the big crossover with Swamp Thing.
Lemire: That’s been plotted out pretty tightly for a while, now.
CB: Have you known since you started on the book that it would lead in that direction?
Lemire: Not specifically what it would be, but we [Scott Snyder and I] knew we would do something together eventually. We just started planting seeds, and then as it gots closer, we just figured out the specifics.
CB: Are you a fan of the work that Snyder is doing on Swamp Thing?
Lemire: Scott Snyder was a good friend of mine even before all this. Just through talking and hanging out and running ideas for each of our books off of each other, the crossover just happened. Why don’t we both do this and build it together?
CB: You’re also taking over Justice League Dark.
Lemire: May is my first issue, and I’m really excited about it. I’m having a blast on it. It’s got all my favorite characters. Constantine is probably my favorite fictional character, so I was super excited to get my hands on him. Surprisingly, the most fun I’ve had has been with Deadman, actually. He’s a character I liked, but he wasn’t really a favorite of mine. I really enjoy writing him.
CB: What is it about him?
Lemire: His working class attitude. It’s really fun to have him and Constantine bickering and playing off each other.
CB: That’s a whole different side of your muscles, too.
Lemire: It is, yeah. It’s somewhere halfway between Animal Man and Frankenstein. It has the big adventure, team book feel that Frankenstein has, but it’s rooted more in the supernatural. More serious character studies and things like that.
CB: Were you concerned about following Milligan on the book?
Lemire: it’s just like with Animal Man, since Morrison was there before me. You think too much about that, you get intimidated. So the best thing to do is just to go in there and be yourself and be confident in what you do. And be respectful of what people have done before you [while] at the same time trying to do your own thing.
CB: Has it been fun to be part of the DC new 52? That’s definitely different from the work you’ve done for Top Shelf.
Lemire: It’s been a whole different thing. They put so much publicity and stuff behind it. It was obviously exciting to be part of it. And then to have my books succeed was also really very gratifying.
CB: You have a book upcoming, Underwater Welder.
Lemire: Underwater Welder is my next big graphic novel. It comes out in August from Top Shelf. In a lot of ways, it’s probably the closest thing to Essex County that I’ve done since. I’m really excited about that book, and Justice League Dark obviously. I just drew a Batman story with Damon Lindelof, the creator of Lost, [who] wrote the script. I think that will be coming out over the summer as well. It’s a short story that will be exclusively available digitally, so it’s pretty much new, exclusive digital material.
CB: What do you think about the way that the industry is moving into digital?
Lemire: Personally, I don’t read digital comics
. I prefer paper and like the physical book. But anything that will get more people reading comics is good with me. If digital comics make it more accessible for people who wouldn’t normally make it into a comics shop to find and read my work, then I’m all for it. Anything that can help the industry grow in new directions and bring in a broader audience, I’m all for it.