Jeff Lemire has had a busy 2009. The Toronto-based comic book writer and artist, previous winner of both the Shuster and Doug Wright Awards, was nominated for an Eisner Award for his Essex County Trilogy. The graphic novel was collected this month as both a hardcover and softcover compilation by Top Shelf Productions. Vertigo Comics, the more mature, more sophisticated imprint of DC Comics, recently published his original hardcover graphic novel, The Nobody, an alternate take on H.G. Wells’ classic Invisible Man character. It was his first work for a major comic book publisher. In another first, this September sees the release of Lemire’s ongoing monthly series, Sweet Tooth, also published by Vertigo.
In-between convention appearances, in-store signings and drawing sessions, I was able to catch up with one of comicdom’s rising talents and ask him via email about his work, his influences and his new series.
JP: In your work, your love for comics is evident both in the writing and in the drawing. What comics were you reading while growing up? What was it about them that captured your attention?
Lemire: As a kid I loved everything DC. I think this was brought on by the publication of both Crisis on Infinite Earths and Who’s Who when I was 9 or 10. Those two books opened my eyes to the MASSIVE cast and complex multiple worlds of the DCU and I was hooked. Who’s Who in particular featured original artwork by just about every comic book artist in the industry at the time, so it was really valuable for me in terms of seeing the diverse styles of cartooning out there and learning what kind of art I did and didn’t like. George Perez was an early favourite. This led to my love affair with The New Teen Titans. Later I got hooked on The Legion of Superheroes, and fell in love with Keith Giffen’s art.
JP: As both a writer and an artist, who are some of your main influences?
Lemire: To me I don’t really separate writing and art because they are all a part of the same process…storytelling. I would say my main influences are David Lynch, Alan Moore, John Steinbeck, Nick Cave, HG Wells, Wim Wenders, Stanley Kubrick, Tom Waits, Eddie Campbell, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert.
JP: Lester, the cape and mask-wearing boy from the Essex County Trilogy, writes and draws his own comics. In volume one, there’s a great scene where he shares his “Heroes and Villains” comic starring the characters of “Night Bird” and “Powerman” with Jimmy Lebeuf, and in volume three he’s seen working on a “Captain Canada” comic. I imagine this is something you yourself did often as a child?
Lermire: Those were in fact my childhood comics reprinted as the character’s. I actually have a half dozen more of those including my own “Who’s Who” type encyclopaedia featuring hundreds of invented superheroes.
JP: Hockey plays an important part in the Essex County stories. You’ve even got your bio on the back page of the book, designed as a “hockey card” which I thought was inspired. “Jeff has an outstanding shot from the point.” Hockey plays an important part of your life, doesn’t it?
Lemire: Aside from comics, my passion is hockey. Watching it, playing it and reading about it. Ken Dryden’s book THE GAME is one of my favourite books period. Making comics is a very time intensive process, and hockey provides me with an escape. I also think it is a very big part of the Canadian identity, so I used it as a central metaphor in the book.
JP: Essex County has drawings of big, sweeping landscapes. It has been said that landscape is an important character in Canadian storytelling and this idea seems important to you too. What is it about landscapes?
Lemire: I think it is, in some ways, a romanticized view of where I grew up, and in other ways a colder, starker version as well. The way all the characters know each other, and their lives intertwine so neatly is obviously a bit idealized and manipulated to tell a “complete” story. In the real world everyone is connected, but in much less obvious and, um…thematic ways. Also, visually, I took the things I loved the most about the Essex County landscape, (old rust farm equipment, tattered wooden barns, vast open fields, endless telephone lines running off into the horizon), and focused on these, almost creating an idealized, almost timeless visual shorthand for the setting. I ignored many things I didn’t find particularly appealing: like the suburban sprawl and big box retail that is slowly creeping in.
JP: You’ve got Sweet Tooth coming up at the end of the summer for DC’s Vertigo Comics imprint which is your first monthly series. How did that project come about?
Lemire: As I was ending my work on The Nobody, I wanted to pitch a few more ideas to Vertigo. As you can tell from my previous answers, I am a bit of a fanboy, so the idea of doing my own monthly comic is a dream come true. I had a few ideas percolating that eventually merged into Sweet Tooth. It’s my take on the well-worn genre of post apocalyptic fiction. But I really think it is an original and personal story with lots of action, adventure, horror, and human emotion.
JP: As Sweet Tooth’s release gets closer and with buzz surrounding The Nobody, anticipation for your first monthly series is growing and growing. You were even a panellist at this year’s Comic Con in San Diego. Do you get a sense of that at all? Excited?
Lemire: I’m so busy working on the book and juggling being a new father that I don’t have time to worry about anything else. I honestly just try to make each page and each issue better than the last, that’s all I can control. The rest of it, the buzz, the press, the sales etc….I try not to think about all of that, or let it influence my work. But, yes, obviously this is a very exciting time for me.
JP: What themes will Sweet Tooth encompass?
Lemire: It’s about fathers and sons, it’s about redemption, it’s about family, it’s about the friendships that can form in even the darkest of places, and it’s about holding onto hope in a hopeless world.
JP: You’re about six or seven issues into the series already – you’re moving at a pretty brisk pace! What’s surprised you about the series so far?
Lemire: How unbelievably bloody it is. It’s turning out to be full of brutal violence. That might be a real shock to fans of my Essex County work. Yet, I think it’s all still very grounded in friendship and the quiet human moments that those books had. But in some ways I think that makes the violence even more shocking. Diamond actually turned down our first preview pages for PREVIEWS because it was too bloody!
JP: Getting away from your own, creator-owned work, if there was one character you could write and draw a story around, who might it be?
Lemire: I love The Doom Patrol, and if all goes well you may see me draw them sooner than you think. And, I also love all of the golden age DC heroes. I’d LOVE to do an Hourman/Dr. Midnight/Atom miniseries set in the 40’s.
Thanks to Jeff Lemire for his time with Biff Bam Pop! You can catch him at Toronto’s Word on the Street on September 26. For updates or to see more of Jeff Lemire’s work, visit his website at www.jefflemire.com