Jeff Lemire is undaunted by hard work. A self-admitted workaholic, the Toronto-based cartoonist is everywhere this spring. Roughneck, a graphic novel he wrote and drew, launches Simon & Schuster’s new Gallery 13 graphic novel line in April. Around the same time, A.D., collecting an Image series he drew from a story by Scott Snyder (who writes Batman for DC) is also hitting shelves; so is a collection of Black Hammer, a horror-tinged take on superheroes drawn by Dean Ormston to be published by Dark Horse. And Royal City, a new ongoing title he writes and draws for Image, just launched as a monthly comic. And he’s writing two more ongoing titles for Image, Descender, a SF tale about a robot and Family Tree, about a girl who turns into a tree.
If this sounds like a lot, it’s actually slimmed down–last year his schedule included writing eight comics periodical series a month. The new workload is a comfortable place to be for Lemire, 39. He’s risen from a night shift short order cook who dreamed of making comics to a respected Canadian author who’s also gotten to write for every major superhero from Superman to Wolverine.
When I last interviewed him for PW, nearly 10 years ago, Lemire was part of an article on “promising cartoonists”–the first volume of his acclaimed Essex County trilogy, Tales from the Farm, had just been published, and he was getting used to being a cartoonist after years of crappy jobs. Since then he’s written for Marvel, DC, and Valiant, and launched a half-dozen of his own series. But while his output spans all genres and characters, there is a wistful tug of longing behind all of his best work, a focus on family, rural life, and those who yearn to belong to both. [PW also interviewed Jeff Lemire in
It’s a reflection of where Lemire grew up, “a really tiny farm in rural southwestern Ontario,” he explains over the phone. After working various blue-collar jobs, he moved to Toronto at age 19 to go to film school. More bad jobs awaited while he doodled his own comics, but getting anyone to publish them was a pipe dream.
Then came the Xeric Grant, a program founded by Teenage Mutant Turtles co-creator Peter Laird to help cartoonists self-publish. In 2005 Lemire won a Xeric for his first graphic novel, Lost Dogs. “My wife was working at a book store and between the two of us, we could barely pay rent most months,” he recalls. “The thought of being able to self-publish wasn't even possible; I had no money at all.” The Xeric was $5,000 U.S. and “it might as well have been $100,000 to me. Just to have some validation was fantastic.”
Encouraged by the response to Lost Dogs, Lemire submitted his next graphic novel to publishers, and Chris Staros of Top Shelf snapped it up. Tales from the Farm was a gritty yet tender story about an orphaned 10-year-old boy who has to move to a small town and befriends a damaged former hockey player. It was the first of what would turn into a trilogy of graphic novels set in Essex County, a fictionalized version of Lemire’s hometown. Like most of his most personal work, the stories are rooted in rural Canadian culture, the search for family and the compromises people make to survive.
Although some Eisner nominations for the trilogy put Lemire on the comics map, the Essex County trilogy would go on to have a huge impact on how Canada viewed graphic novels. In 2010, the Canadian literary world was stunned when readers voted the trilogy into the top five of the Canada Reads competition for “Best Canadian Novel of the Decade.” A graphic novel had never made the list before, and Essex County’s inclusion sparked a controversy, with some saying comics had no place on the list. The backlash led to even more support for the book.
According to Chris Butcher, a manager at Toronto’s Beguiling comics shop and the organizer of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, Essex County’s impact was huge. “Essex County was really the first graphic novel to engage the hallmarks of CanLit like you might find in the work of Alice Munro or Anne Marie MacDonald,” he told PW. “The near-infinite expanses of farmland, the dark familial troubles echoing across generations. It really put graphic novels on the radar of a lot of people who'd never considered the form before. Unfortunately in doing so also riled up all the basic, ignorant assumptions that comics have historically faced. It's a hell of a lot of pressure, but Jeff handled it pretty well considering."
Since winning the contest, Essex County has become something of a Canadian literary classic, taught in college courses. It’s a development that somewhat bemuses Lemire. “It’s pretty hilarious,” he says modestly.
It also led to the opportunity to work in the traditional comics world, creating the series Sweet Tooth for Vertigo, DC’s nonsuperhero imprint, helping launch DC’s New 52 program and writing books for DC, Marvel and Valiant regularly. But for Roughneck he’s returned to the cold, inky nights of rural Canada, a book mined from the same flinty soil as Essex County. It’s not exactly Essex County Part 4–but it is a return to the kind of stories he had to leave behind when he got busy writing superhero stories. “I got to a point three or four years ago where I just needed to get away from all that SF stuff and go back to where I started. I’m a different person now than I was 10 years ago,” he says. “I couldn't just go back and tell more Essex County stories. But I wanted to tell similar stories that were very grounded, maybe with a touch of magical realism. Roughneck came from trying to go back to my roots.”
The hero of Roughneck is another damaged ex-hockey star, Derek Ouelette, who has to confront both his own violent outbursts and the return of his estranged sister, Beth, who has a violent ex-boyfriend pursuing her. The two, who are half-indigenous, escape to a remote cabin–it’s a simple, contemplative story about troubled people told as much through panels of Derek’s boots crunching through the omnipresent snow as through dialogue.
Glimmers of the story came to Lemire back when he was working on DC’s New 52 line and joked about writing a “Justice League: Canada” book. “Essex County is sort of a nostalgic, romantic look at Canada in many ways–hockey and small towns,” Lemire says. “The truth is, like any place in the world, Canada has a lot of problems. And there's another side to the country. I think the way that our country treats its indigenous people and our First Nations is something that's pretty shameful, and it's a big problem here. I never really touched on in those earlier books.”
Royal City, Lemire’s other spring debut, rings yet another variation on the theme of town vs. country, as a family struggles with life in an industrial town. “I wanted to explore the mid-size cities in North America that are now drying up and disappearing. The town is disappearing, and a family is also falling apart.”
While Roughneck and Royal City reflect Lemire’s distinctly Canadian background, Black Hammer, published by Dark Horse, is an all out assault on comic book history and tropes, a Watchmen-like deconstruction, drawn by artist Ormston with spectacular images and sinister undertones. After the heroes of Spiral City rescue the universe, instead of resting up for the sequel, they’re get transported to some strange parallel universe, where they are forced to live on a farm in a small town while trying to deal with their physical and mental deterioration. Tractors and space/time disturbance matrixes share equal time.
Lemire admits that Black Hammer may be his favorite out of all his work. It’s an idea that actually predates the publication of Essex County. “If you look at the concept, it’s really superheroes meet Essex County.” Created when he never knew he would get the change to write “real” superheroes, he “came up with this idea that’s my love letter to superhero history. Like a lot of my work, Black Hammer is about family, but a family that didn’t necessarily choose one another. They may not like each other all the time, but they grow to love each other.”
Whether it’s aging hockey players or Marvel’s Old Man Logan, Lemire’s work has a thematic thread, but he prefers to let his work do the talking. “I certainly have reoccurring themes and motifs in all my work, but for the most part, I don't like to figure out why I write about them. If I start to get back to the roots of certain things, I worry it might go away.”
Ultimately, both Roughneck and Black Hammer are about the healing power of nature, yet another callback to Lemire’s rural upbringing. “In comics, so much takes place in the big city, and rural people are often shown as hillbillies or bumpkins, but they're real people with complicated lives, just like people in the city. I think there's nothing wrong with showing that and treating it with respect.”