Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

December 27, 2013

CR Holiday Interview #10—Jeff Lemire



Back when DC Comics announced its New 52 line overhaul, one of the things that was targeted as a key element for DC to have a chance to make it successful over the long-term was the development of unique writing talent maybe a step below that of the one or two superstar creators that a big publishing push was almost certainly going to yield. I think the writer and cartoonist Jeff Lemire has stepped into that role in admirable fashion.

Lemire is one of those rare beasts in all of comics: a creator that has found a voice useful in making comics in multiple expressions of the modern conception of what comic books are and who reads them. He has worked with DC superhero-line properties like Animal Man, the Grant Morrison conception of Frankenstein's monster and the various mystical characters constituting their "Justice League Dark." He ended one popular Vertigo title Sweet Tooth with a 40th issue and launched the science fiction oriented Trillium with a much-lauded initial burst of issues. He is perhaps just as well known in the wider comics community for the alt/arts work he's done, primarily The Essex County Trilogy but also 2012's The Underwater Welder. In 2014 Lemire should continue his recent work with the television series influenced conception of the Green Arrow character and write the adventures of a Justice League set in his native Canada.

I'm grateful for the time Jeff Lemire spent talking to me mid-month about juggling all of these things, and to Alex Segura and Pamela Horvath at DC for putting me in touch. Lemire is a busy man. -- Tom Spurgeon


imageTOM SPURGEON: When I mentioned I was interviewing you for the holiday series this year, Jeff, what came back to me was variations of "Oh, that guy has really figured out how to do alt-comics work and mainstream work." I wondered if you ever conceive of how things are going in your writing career in those terms? Do you see yourself as bridging that gap or in those terms at all? Has working in multiple comics arenas been purposeful at all?

JEFF LEMIRE: I don't know if it's purposeful. I'm pretty aware that I come from independent comics. I bring that sensibility with me. I've never really lost it. I'm still working for Top Shelf, and doing my own very personal stuff. I'm also doing stuff for Vertigo that's a little more genre-based. The superhero stuff... I seem to have always have foot in all of that stuff; it just sort of blends together. Certainly I love superhero comics and I grew up reading them and I have a real affection for them and those characters. But certainly I come at it trying to bring a little bit more of a personal voice to it. I guess my natural sensibilities tend to lean towards the independent and alternative stuff.

It's trying to bring that to those books, those elements of my personality.

SPURGEON: When you say it wasn't purposeful, do you mean that you didn't pursue it, or do you mean that it wasn't something you even wanted?

LEMIRE: [laughs] I really just kind of stumbled into it. I loved it growing up but I never, ever, ever anticipated or pursued working for DC or Marvel. That stuff... it was always, I look back -- it hasn't even been that long. In 2007 and 2008, I was still working a day job and doing Essex County. My real goal was to just make enough money doing stuff for Top Shelf or whatever to maybe have a part-time income in comics, and then maybe only have to work a part-time day job. [laughs] I never anticipated being able to do comics full time. I was never pursuing working for DC. I never thought my stuff -- well, certainly my drawing style but also my sensibility as a storyteller -- I never thought it was something that fit at DC. I didn't even bother trying. I did my own thing. Ironically, by doing my own thing and developing a voice as a cartoonist and a storyteller, I think that served me in a way that I can bring something new to superhero comics, or at least that must be what people like Dan DiDio and Geoff Johns saw in me and tapped me to start writing some of that stuff. Then it all kind of happened. Once I had the opportunity I figured why not go ahead and try it. I discovered it is fun to do both.

SPURGEON: You said that you read this material as a kid, or growing up. Were the comics of this type that interested you similarly idiosyncratic? Were you attracted to the off-beat approaches to doing superheroes that preceded you? What were some works that were meaningful to you in that genre?

LEMIRE: Even when I was reading that stuff I tended to seek out the comics that had a bit more edge to it. I was reading stuff by Howard Chaykin and Frank Miller -- people like that -- when I was too young to be reading it. Like when I was eight or nine. [laughter] Everyone else was reading Chris Claremont's X-Men and I was reading American Flagg! [laughs] so I was always a bit drawn to that -- and not just in comics. Movies and everything. I went to stuff that had a unique author's voice for sure. That's something that's always attracted me. David Lynch films. Stanley Kubrick films. Stuff like that at a young age. You could see the authorship behind them. You could hear someone's voice. That always attracted me. I was always seeking that stuff out.

I was the right age when the first wave of Vertigo hit. I was probably like 13, 14 when that first wave of Vertigo hit. It kept me interested in comics. In my late teens I dropped out of comics, stopped paying attention. I was from a small town so there weren't any comic shops. The only stuff I had access to was on the newsstand. I became disenchanted with superhero comics. Got more into movies and music. It wasn't until I moved into the city in my early 20s -- places like The Beguiling were here -- where I discovered all these other cartoonists, independent and alternative cartoonists. European stuff. That [laughs] that really got me interested in the medium and drawing again.

SPURGEON: Were there one or two cartoonists more significant for you than others? Were there any where you had that scales-fall-from-eyes moments, or were you more generally drinking it all in?

LEMIRE: Yeah, you know, there was. I remember distinctly I hadn't read comics in a few years. I was in film school here in Toronto. I walked into a comic store just passing by one to see what was going on. Paul Pope's Heavy Liquid was coming out from Vertigo. And I was like, "What is this?" That was unlike anything I had seen from Vertigo before, from DC. His drawing style is so energetic and bold that it's hard not to want to draw after looking at his stuff. I started finding all his THB stuff. That kinetic drawing style of his really made me want to draw, pick up a brush for the first time and draw.

Then I started to see what else was going on. Guys like Dan Clowes and Seth. Coming to Toronto there was this weird brotherhood of Canadian cartoonists that all hung around at the time. Seth, Chester Brown and Joe Matt... you would see them at The Beguiling and that was cool. I got into that stuff. I opened my eyes to all the stuff that was out there. You get into Paul Pope and you start to see all of his influences, the European stuff like Hugo Pratt -- all those guys he was into.

One door opened another. I started to see how big comics was. It wasn't just stuff I'd grown up with.

imageSPURGEON: You were a Xeric winner, am I right? For Lost Dogs.

LEMIRE: Yeah. Yeah, I was.

SPURGEON: You would have been one of the later ones, I'm guessing.

LEMIRE: 2005.

SPURGEON: What do you remember about that experience now? I'm always interested in the Xeric winners because part of the original mandate was very much about instructing you in the way the industry worked.

LEMIRE: Yeah, yeah, it really was.

SPURGEON: Was the Xeric helpful for you in terms of simply understanding this industry in which you wanted to find work?

LEMIRE: It was great. I had been drawing comics at that point... that was 2005, and I had been taking it seriously since 2001. Working every day on stuff and trying to get my stuff together. Even though there were a few guys here drawing comics I didn't really socialize with them. I was pretty much in a vacuum; I had no idea how the industry worked: just distributing your stuff in the Diamond catalog, I had no idea how that worked. No concept at that. Doing the Xeric Grant really made research that, and figure that side of things out.

I was working as a cook then. I would draw all day and then work all night as a cook. I had no money. I could barely pay rent. [laughs] So the thought of having money to print a comic or distribute it was impossible unless I had some help. When I found out Canadians could apply to the Xeric, it became the thing. I applied three or four times before I actually got it. I would never have been able to afford printing thing or getting something together without it. That was a really huge step for me.

SPURGEON: So are you one of those pros that keeps track on how the industry works, does that interest you? Or are you at a stage -- and this happens, too -- where you've kind of removed yourself from that kind of close attention?

LEMIRE: I don't know. When I first started doing stuff for DC, I was a lot more interested than I am now in trying to keep track of sales... just out of curiosity and if they were going to keep giving me work. [laughter] Now that I feel a little more secure in my position and in what I'm doing, I don't have time. I'm kind of detached from that side of things a bit. I don't go on-line as much, or engage with fans or keep track of the business side. I find it's more of a distraction than a help. It starts to influence the way you think about the jobs you take, and that's not a good thing. Those decisions should come from creative places not from thoughts of career and business.


SPURGEON: I have an Essex County question. It was named an "Essential Canadian Read" at one point. I guess while elements of the subject matter are clearly Canadian, I wondered if you thought about in terms of it being a work in the tradition of Canadian literature more generally.

LEMIRE: It is very much in the tradition of Canadian literature, I think, people like Margaret Laurence. It's firmly set in my Canadian experience. I take a lot of pride in being Canadian and being a Canadian storyteller. I try to explore that in as much of my work as I can. Certainly the indy stuff, but even now in some of the DC books they're letting me set some of that stuff here and explore the Canadian landscape. It's very important to me.

SPURGEON: Your pacing is very distinctive, Jeff, particularly in the comics that you draw as well as write. So when you say the work is in this Canadian tradition, do you meant that it also encompasses a kind of formal approach in addition to the subject matter with which it engages?

LEMIRE: I don't know if my style or my formal approach to comics would be Canadian in any way. I really think that if you look at Canadian cartoonists that preceded me, there's not a strong connection there. Guys like Seth and Chester Brown... there's not a lot of common ground in what they do and what I do. Even if you look at contemporaries of mine like Bryan Lee O'Malley or Darwyn Cooke, I guess -- he's been around a lot longer but he emerged right before me -- we're very different than on another. I don't think there's a "Canadian style." [laughter] I think it's more in the subject matter and how the stories have a connection to the landscape -- the land itself is almost a character in my work. It's more that than a formal approach.

imageSPURGEON: You mentioned you didn't really expect a progression into Vertigo work and now mainstream superhero work... but you also said that you're comfortable knowing you have a place. How long did it take for you to feel comfortable. Was there a point at which you remember feeling more comfortable with that kind of storytelling? How long did it take you to find your creative feet in the commercial comics you're doing?

LEMIRE: I think it took a few projects. It really hasn't been that long. It feels longer than it really has been. My first project for DC was 2010, so we're going on four years. I did The Atom and Superboy; those projects brought with them a lot of stress in terms of how much of my own style I could fit into them. Also, how I would do it, how I would work with another artist. There was a lot of learning going on there. It wasn't until the New 52 launch when I got Animal Man and Frankenstein that I really felt... I'd made a lot of mistakes on those first two projects and kind of figured it out. When I hit those two projects and started from the ground running, I felt like that's when I found my voice as a writer of mainstream stuff. I found the right balance of injecting my own personality into the comics but also working with artists and allowing them some freedom, not giving them too much direction in terms of layout and that kind of thing. Letting them be themselves. It was Animal Man, really, that I think I found myself as something distinct from when I write and draw my own stuff. But there was still enough in there that it felt like me.

SPURGEON: One thing I'm curious about in terms of your being one of the writers that launched with New 52... how much were you guys encouraged to contribute to the overall tapestry of what they were doing? How much were you encouraged to come up with bridging concepts, say, that other writers could make use of? How much were you accessing the work of your fellow launch writers to see if there was material you could use in your books?

LEMIRE: We were given quite a bit of freedom. I think part of that is they were launching so much stuff at once that they were... they were looking to us to really take the point on our own books. For instance, Scott Snyder had been good friends at that point for a couple of years. He was doing Swamp Thing and I was doing Animal Man. So with us pitching books at the same time there was a lot of back and forth and thus connections between the two books. We really built our own corner there. Something like Frankenstein wasn't even part of their plans for their relaunch, but I had a vision for that book and plans and they liked them. So that one came more directly from me, just as a fan of what Grant Morrison had done there. I felt like there was potential to just keep adding onto that mythology. I had a lot of chance to add to the mythology. The books were both successful so I got to keep adding onto them.

SPURGEON: I talked to Scott Snyder last year, and he was like this, too: that you're kind of mindful of other writers and their strengths and weaknesses and are pretty helpful and solicitous towards one another. That might be via a direct relationship but also might take place indirectly, just in terms of being aware what other folks are up to. Is that a fair assessment?

LEMIRE: Yeah, I think my circle of friends at least are all supportive of one another. A lot of my Top Shelf friends have ended up working at DC: Matt Kindt, Rob Venditti. So there's a friendship there that goes back, and we're all very supportive of one another, and bounce ideas off of one another. Share scripts. Give each other advice. It's very helpful.

One thing when you're doing your own stuff, like with my indy stuff, and I'm writing and drawing it myself -- that's a very isolated activity. Which I enjoy. But it's also nice to enter this shared universe where you can call up another writer and start bouncing ideas of of them. That sort of collaboration you miss when you're doing your own stuff. It's nice.

SPURGEON: Do you still have a solid relationship with Top Shelf? Are you at the point where you have an opportunity to pursue whatever it is you'd like to pursue with them given the success of Essex County and the arc of your mainstream comics writing career? Or is there some dark secret...

LEMIRE: [laughs] There are no dark secrets with Top Shelf. No, I'm very friendly with them. I mean, I owe those guys so much. They gave me my first shot with the Essex County stuff. I love working them. They feel more like a family than a publisher at this point. I'll continue to work with them for as long as I can. My next book I'm doing with Simon and Schuster just because that opportunity was there, but those guys were cool -- Chris [Staros] and Brett [Warnock] and I have this understanding that whenever I want to do something with them the door is open. It's important to me to keep that relationship that way. I'm hoping every three or four years I can do a project with them as well.

imageSPURGEON: I was looking at a bunch of your Animal Man comics, and the really basic thing that struck me about that character, and maybe even in the context of all of DC's characters at this point, is that he's a family man. So that would seem to me to play into some of your interests in family dynamics, and the way that conception of family plays against its day-to-day reality: the father-son issues, the responsibility of being a father. I'm guessing that was a big entry point for you and that character.

LEMIRE: Absolutely. It was the perfect character for me at the right time. There was so much inherent to that character I was already familiar with: if you take the family aspect away from that character, what is he, really? He's some guy that can run as fast as a cheetah; it's not really that interesting. [laughs]

SPURGEON: He'd be fun at parties.

LEMIRE: Yeah! But as a superhero comic, there'd be nothing to make him special or distinctive. Or really to give the book a chance to survive. The fact that he's a father and a husband makes him different, so that's something I latched onto right away. I expanded that as far as I could. It was a perfect book for me to infuse my indy-kind of themes into.

SPURGEON: You do a lot of work with those themes in your comics: parenting themes outright, like in Underwater Welder, or maybe something that could be more broadly defined as protective relationships like in Sweet Tooth. What is it about that subject that keeps you coming back? Is it the richness of that topic? Is it the concern you personally have for those matters? Is this an opportunity for you to work through some of your fears?

LEMIRE: Probably, yeah. The same time I started working at DC, literally the same time I started to do Sweet Tooth and Underwater Welder is when I became a father. It's hard for that not to become a big part of your work. My son is five now. I've been at DC for four years... it's a big part of my life. It's hard to take a step back and analyze where and why you explore certain things. [laughs] The work itself... I don't think too much about it outside of the work. The father/son thing is something I've always -- for whatever reason -- kept coming back to. [laughs] I'm sure it's something deep in my psyche I don't want to get to into on the phone. [laughter]

SPURGEON: Let me make that broader, then. One thing that interests me about writers that work in mainstream comics having done work before that in other modes of expression for comics is how they come to use the fantasy element of comics, the metaphorical richness that you get when you suddenly have fantasy elements that you're compelled to use in many cases. I wonder how hard it is for writers to find ways to make that serve story, to make it serve your particularly interest in specific themes or narrative outcomes. Has that come naturally to you?

LEMIRE: It comes naturally to me because I've always been draw to that stuff. Even though Essex County is quite grounded in a way, there are fantasy elements or at least dream-like elements in there. There's a magical realism to it; with Underwater Welder as well. I've always used genre -- horror, sci-fi or superhero stuff -- and it's something which I'm very comfortable. Almost all of my work has used it in some way, even my personal stuff. I think... it's not a struggle for me. I see the superhero elements or with Animal Man the horror... they are really just metaphors for what it is you're exploring. If you're looking at the forces that might pull a family apart, it's easy for you to create metaphors for that.

SPURGEON: Do you end up enjoying the operatic, larger-than-life opportunities with those genre tools, working on this grand stage in primary colors at least part of the time?

LEMIRE: Absolutely. The superhero stuff is fun when you can cut loose. The project I'm tinkering with for Simon and Schuster and which I'll start in earnest in the New Year, that is very grounded. That is probably my book without any kind of fantastic element at all. To be able to work on that intensely for two weeks and then spend a few days working a Justice League script, that's [laughs] that's almost a relief after working with that tight control of the indy world. I do enjoy it.


SPURGEON: The Justice League Dark material seems to me to represent the cleanest break with your ongoing sets of concerns and your basic approaches to form, Jeff. For example, it struck me that just having that many characters to deal with, the fact that you have like five to seven lead characters, that would have to make it difficult for you to employ the kind of pacing you're able to use with a smaller cast. Comic books like that one are these rampaging plot-point vehicles -- story point, story point, story point. Was that a struggle for you, to juggle those concerns? There's a tentative quality to that book.

LEMIRE: That one was tough. Justice League: Dark was my first team book, and like you said there are so many different things to juggle. With Animal Man, it's still essentially the story of this one character. There may be a family, but it's his family. It's much easier for me to infuse my sensibility into that. Justice League: Dark was a real eye-opener in how hard certain books are to write, and how difficult it is to do certain things with such a big cast of characters and so much going on. I don't know that all of Justice League: Dark was entirely successful for my figuring that out.

I'm doing this new Justice League book next year, and I learned a lot from Justice League: Dark just as I had initially learned with Superboy and The Atom before doing Animal Man. So this one should be a lot more me, if that makes sense. At least I hope it will be.

SPURGEON: You spoke of that first transition partly in terms of learning to deal with your writers, giving them more leeway to be creative. Is there something similar you learned this time, with your transition between the two team books? Is there something you're glad not to experience again?

LEMIRE: I think in Justice League: Dark it wasn't so much of an artist thing as a writer thing; I was worried juggling all of the different characters and giving them "screen time" that I never had the opportunity to take a step back and approach the material the way I would otherwise approach it. I've been very conscious of taking each character in the new team book -- and this sounds very simple now, but when you're dealing with so many things it's hard to see the forest for the trees -- and giving them a personal arc and then working it so they each have an emotional hook and a journey. It's about making sure there's an emotional and a character point of view in addition to the plot point of view -- to boil it all down in a more articulate fashion.

SPURGEON: I think your art is interesting. I wondered if working with a variety of different artists as a writer is helpful in how you approach your own art when you get back to it? You're drawing the last Animal Man. Is there something you're looking forward to in terms of getting to collaborate with Jeff Lemire the artist? What do you think your strengths are?

LEMIRE: It's hard. Much more than with my writing I'm critical of my art. Nothing's ever good enough. As soon as I finish a page I hate it immediately. [laughter] I'm very hard on my art, so most days I see the misses.

SPURGEON: What is something you latch onto in terms of wanting to see it improve, then, Jeff?

LEMIRE: I know I'm a strong storyteller. I know I can create mood and motion. It's really about trying to refine the style while keeping the looseness and the expressiveness of it. Make it tighter in terms of anatomy: technical things, pushing myself to get a bit better. Then there a days when I just have fun drawing. Those are usually the best days. [laughter]

SPURGEON: Do you draw outside of your comics work?

LEMIRE: Yeah, I force myself to sketch at least a half-hour every day before I start my other work. Otherwise I'd never do it.

SPURGEON: Is drawing a part of your writing process at all?

LEMIRE: Yeah, that's funny. I'm working on Trillium right now, so when I sketch all I'll sketch is scenes or characters from the Simon and Schuster thing, laying the groundwork. Turning over ideas, some of which will never make the final book. I come up with stuff sketching I never would have if I sat down at a keyboard. I definitely approach stories like that visually first.

imageSPURGEON: The designs in Trillium are very striking. Does that come mostly out of your sketchwork in organic fashion, or is that something you have to explicitly work on.

LEMIRE: I spent a lot of time working on the design for that one, especially in terms of the world-building there. With Sweet Tooth, despite the science-fiction element it was still set in our world. With Trillium I design whole worlds and the look of the tech... with this new book now, I remember the last six months of Sweet Tooth my sketchbook was full of sci-fi stuff, prepping and trying things out for Trillium. So overall that was like six to eight months of designing before I ever started to work on the comics themselves. That was a lot of fun, actually. I also got to look at a bunch of sci-fi stuff I loved as a kid that I'd forgotten about. A lot of Moebius, a lot of stuff like that.

SPURGEON: That's kind of the zeitgeist, that kind of science fiction.

LEMIRE: Yeah, it's weird. The last convention I did was last June... I think it was June, I can't remember. Oslo. I was checking out these Norwegian cartoonists and even all of them were doing sci-fi, space stuff. [laughs] Or fantasy stuff. There's a real thing right now with genre stuff. I remember 10 or 12 years ago all of the indy stuff was autobio, slice of life stuff. It's a real shift. [laughs] Then there seems to be more sci-fi books coming out, stuff like Saga; there's a real boom right now.

SPURGEON: Now, you're in your late 30s.


SPURGEON: It seems like comics-makers in their late 30s and early 40s, their orientation towards the vocational aspects of comics changes. They just kind of want to get to it; they want to make significant progress on the work they feel they're meant to do.

LEMIRE: Right.

SPURGEON: You seem comfortable where you are and you're certainly prolific. Is that just reflective of a general work ethic, or have you thought in terms of starting to build a professional legacy? Is this prolific period part of a specific orientation you have to this time in you professional life, or is it just about maximizing your opportunities as they come to you?

LEMIRE: I'm definitely right there.

About three or four years everything in my personal life felt figured out. [laughs] I had a kid. I had a happy marriage. We had a house. All of that stuff was taken care of, now it was time to get serious producing -- not as much work as I can, but trying to get all of these stories I want to tell told while I still can. There's definitely that sense of work now. I'm approaching mid-life; there's certain things I want to accomplish, certain things I want to do and I still feel like I haven't really told my best story yet. I want to keep going until I find it. Make sure I get to tell it before I get too old to hold a pencil anymore.


* Jeff Lemire
* Jeff Lemire At DC
* Jeff Lemire At Top Shelf


* from Trillium
* an iconic Lemire image, from Essex County
* from the Xeric-winning Lost Dogs
* page Essex County
* image from Frankenstein
* image from Animal Man
* Image from Justice League: Dark
* another Trillium image
* from Sweet Tooth #40 (below)



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