Eisner and Harvey award nominated comic writer/illustrator Jeff Lemire hails from a small town in Essex County, Ontario and has his surroundings, in part, to thank for his success. Although non-autobiographical, his three-part Essex County series from Top Shelf Comics is set in the farming community where he grew up. Canada Reads has recently named the trilogy one of the Top 5 Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade.
This young man from Canada, who much of his inspiration from his native soil, has achieved a great deal of success so far. Vertigo Comics picked up his next graphic novel, The Nobody, in 2009, quickly turning him into a rising star in the comic book world. Lemire’s breakout hit, Sweet Tooth, an ongoing series also published by Vertigo, focuses on a young boy with antlers lost in an apocalyptic world that, in his innocence, he knows very little about. Its success led to Lemire being named writer of one of DC Comics’ newest high-profile titles, Superboy. PW Comics Week spoke with Lemire recently about his accolades, the change from his creator-owned characters to DC superheroes and Sweet Tooth Volume Two, in stores now.
PW Comics Week: Essex County has been named in the Top 5 Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade by Canada Reads, which is a big deal because graphic novels are not normally included. What has that been like for you?
Jeff Lemire: It’s been really exciting, I think it’s a big step. It’s a big sign that comics or graphic novels are finally being recognized by more mainstream audiences, and having the same potential as literature and prose novels and things like that. It’s very flattering and it’s been a great honor and really exciting.
PWCW: Does it get narrowed down to a number one?
JL: Yeah, I think in February there’s a couple of radio specials where they take the five books and actually narrow it down to one book.
PWCW: Sara Quinn, from the musical group Tegan and Sara, championed your book. Do you know her personally?
JL: No, I don’t know her, I think we’re going to get a chance to meet soon. She’s been on tour in India. But yeah, she picked my book to defend so she’ll be one of the people debating the books in February and it’s really exciting for me.
PWCW: Sweet Tooth hit its one year mark earlier this year and you have the second volume just released. Are you happy with the success it's had so far?
JL: I have to say I’m a little surprised. You never know when you put a new book like that out on the market that’s so flooded with titles, especially when it’s a book that’s creator owned and not already an established character. You just don’t know how people will react or how long it will last. And I’m surprised the book has found steady sales and steady readership. I couldn’t be happier with it so far.
PWCW: What can readers expect to see in the second volume?
JL: The second book kind of expands the world a bit. The first volume really focused on the character of Gus, the antlered boy, and sort of set up the world and the mystery. The second book, we get to see kind of a broader scope of that world and we introduce other animal hybrid children and we get a better sense of the different factions that are struggling to hold power within this most violent world. Also, it really focuses on the backstory of Jeppard, the secondary character, and fleshes him out and we get to see his motivations as well.
PWCW: Sweet Tooth #18 is being published horizontally in February. Where did that idea come from?
JL: (laughs) Well one of the sort of running metaphors in the book is the idea that the adventures of Gus is almost at times like a children’s book or fairytale. So I thought it would be fun to do an issue that is actually done like a children’s book so I decided to flip it horizontal and do it as a kind of children’s storybook or an illustrated book just to play with that idea a bit.
PWCW: Do you know if any children read Sweet Tooth?
JL: No, it’s definitely not a book for kids. (laughs) I don’t think it is. It’s a book about kids but definitely not for kids, so I’m just playing with the idea that it’s a fairytale. Kind of like a children’s fable but for adults.
A lot of the times when people see the covers for the book, especially the first cover where you have Gus looking doe-eyed out at the reader, it sort of looks like something for kids, but parents quickly realize it’s not. But I do like playing off that idea that he could almost be transplanted from a really innocent world of children’s books into this horrible universe. And it’s just him reacting to this stuff as this complete innocent who should be in this more idealistic world?
PWCW: You've said in interviews before that you already have the last issue written. Now, as a fan, I always like to hear that because it means creators aren't scrambling to come up with something at the last minute. Do you feel it's important to know exactly where you're going in a story, especially in a series that comes out monthly?
JL: I think so, I mean for me personally, with all my stuff I tend to know the ending right away. And that’s just a matter of, yeah, I get the beginning and the ending first and then the middle part is sort of just figuring out the journey along the way. But I think for a book like Sweet Tooth where you’re kind of dealing with a serialized mystery, it’s important to know where it’s going and not just make it up as you go along because that never really works out. I feel like if you really know the ending right from the beginning you can add so many subtleties and little things later that will pay off and be more consistent and more rewarding for the reader. Just as a storyteller, I think it’s your responsibility to live up to the expectations of your readership that you’re building from the start and that’s one way to do that.
PWCW: You're also now writing Superboy for DC Comics. What was it like to be asked to take on such a high-profile title?
JL: It was pretty flattering, I’ve gotta be honest. I mean, I never pictured me being the kind of creator who would be offered superhero stuff just because my work is so...I don’t know, idiosyncratic or very stylized. So it was kind of surprising to be offered that, but so far, they’ve really given me a lot of freedom and it’s fun to maintain my voice as a storyteller while transplanted into this DC Universe. It’s been really fun. I grew up reading a lot of superhero comics so it’s really fun to take a shot at one myself and see what happens.
PWCW: For someone who is usually both the artist and writer on his books, what's it like handing over the illustration reins to Pier Gallo?
JL: It’s kind of mixed. At first, it was a bit of a transition, to be honest. I was so used to controlling all the little subtleties in the art to reflect whatever is going on in the script. You have to learn ways now as a writer to communicate to your artist a little differently in the script of what you want. So there was a bit of a learning curve but at the same time it’s also kind of cool. I can know exactly what my stuff’s gonna look like before I draw it whereas when I get something back from my Superboy artist for example, I can often be surprised by some of the choices he made. Sometimes, it would be something I wouldn’t have done, but it might work better.
PWCW: What's coming up for Conner Kent and company?
JL: The first year’s worth of stories that I have plotted out so far is going to be an overarching mystery that’s all tied back to Smallville’s history that no one’s really uncovered yet. Over the course of this year he’ll be slowly drawn into what’s almost like a horror story really, like a supernatural plot going on in Smallville. But instead of doing it in one big story or two volumes, I’m doing it all in stand-alone issues. Each issue stands on it’s own and tells a complete adventure, but when you put them all together they’ll add up to a bigger foe. It’s kind of harking back to the way they used to write comics in the Silver Age, with the old Superboy stories from the 40s and 50s where each issue is just one, big exciting adventure. I really wanted to get back to doing that but still have it be more rewarding for someone who reads these every month.
PWCW: You’ve also given him his own supporting cast, almost very similar to Superman’s himself. He’s kind of got his own Jimmy Olsen.
JL: Yeah, that’s one of the fun things about doing that book, because it’s set in Smallville, I get to create my own mini-universe within the bigger DC Universe and populate it with characters who reflect different things about Superboy’s personality and bring out certain aspects. You almost get to create this community, this small town, around him from the ground up really because the modern version of Smallville hasn’t really been fleshed out yet. Sometimes I end up enjoying writing the supporting cast just as much or more than Superboy. So that’s a good sign.
PWCW: Besides writing Superboy you've also written the Atom co-feature in Adventure Comics. How does working with superheroes compare to working with your own creations?
JL: When I do Sweet Tooth, really whatever I want to do with the characters kind of goes. I’m sort of in charge. I have editors who help me along the way, but I’m really the driving force behind it, whereas you take on one of DC’s characters, you kind of have a responsibility to be consistent with what’s come before and work with the editors to make sure everything’s tied into what’s going on in the rest of the universe. You know, that can be a drawback, I think some people look at that as a negative, but if you just embrace it and have fun with the whole big superhero universe, it can be kind of fun. And in general, my stuff tends to be very character-driven, whereas superhero stuff you get to have a little more high-concept stuff going on each month and then input small character moments. It’s definitely a different way of writing, but it can be equally as rewarding and it’s also been fun, instead of just working on my stuff, to take a break once in a while and work on Superboy then go back to my stuff. I think it keeps both of them fresh.
PWCW: Where do you go from here? What are you working on next?
JL: Well Sweet Tooth and Superboy are both ongoing things right now, they’re always part of my weekly schedule. I’m also slowly working away at a new graphic novel for Top Shelf to follow-up Essex County. It’s not set in the same world as Essex County but it’s very much similar thematically and aesthetically. So that’s something that’s kind of my little labor of love on the side that I’ve been plugging away at and it’s probably going to be an early 2012 release.