By Will Wellington
Jeff Lemire made his name with a series of rough-hewn parables about gawky kids, big-hearted lunks, and steadfast women: the ink-drenched and bloody Lost Dogs, the elegiac Essex County, and the nightmarish Sweet Tooth. Since then he’s crossed into the mainstream, penning acclaimed runs of the New 52 Green Arrow and Animal Man while continuing to advance his own artwork in titles like Trillium and The Underwater Welder. Lemire’s ongoing titles include Descender with Image, All-New Hawkeye with Marvel, and Bloodshot Reborn with Valiant. Yesterday, in an exclusive interview with Comic Book Resources, Lemire announced that he’ll be taking over the flagship X-Men series, newly titled Extraordinary X-Men and launching in October. I caught up with Lemire a few weeks ago during a signing appearance at the best little comics shop in Guelph, The Dragon.
Will Wellington: Do you like doing signings?
Jeff Lemire: No, not really. I shouldn’t say that. I like working. I like being in my studio. Anything that takes me away from that I tend to resent.
Is it an economic thing?
Friends like Jenn [Haines, owner of The Dragon] ask, and they ask you a lot of times and eventually you say yes. It’s good to get out once in a while and remind yourself that it’s real people that are reading this stuff, because when you’re in a room alone there’s definitely a disconnect between the work you do and people coming to shops and buying it. Once in a while it’s good to be reminded that you’re not just writing for yourself all the time.
Who were you emulating when you started?
I don’t know who I was into back then. That was around 2000 or so. I was really into Paul Pope and Dave McKean, neither of whom I can draw as well as.
As in “The Sandman” Dave McKean?
Yeah, like his covers. Those are more his digital stuff. I was more into his actual cartooning. He did a book called Cages which was just pen and ink. It was very expressive stuff. I think you can still see that my art’s very expressive as well. But I don’t really draw anything like them.
Are you into Ralph Steadman at all?
Oh yeah, Ralph, well, he was a big influence on Dave McKean, so it all goes back to that style of splashing ink around. Scratchy, crazy, cartoony.
Is there anything that really bothers you about your own artwork?
Oh, I hate my artwork. When I’m done drawing something I can’t even look at it. But that’s part of being your own worst critic. The only way you get better is to constantly see the faults in everything you do and try to improve on them the next time. It doesn’t cripple me. I don’t hate it so much that I stop. I hate it just enough to make me try to improve it with each new project, each new page.
What’s the potential of comics?
I think comics is the most limitless storytelling medium right now and the most direct. Film and television—there are just so many people involved. And it takes so long and it’s so expensive that it’s really hard for someone’s vision to come through. It obviously does happen; there are great filmmakers. But comics … I can sit down, write and draw a story, and then two months later it’s in other people’s hands exactly as I wrote and drew it right from my mind, right from my hand, no one else involved. I don’t think film can touch that. Even prose, it’s just a much slower process and the editor usually has a heavier hand than in comics.
You went to study film though.
Well, I was younger, so I didn’t know what I wanted to do, first of all. Being a cartoonist was not something that I ever thought was a feasible career. I grew up in a small town in Ontario where no one did anything in the arts for a living. And the thought of being a comic book writer or an artist and supporting yourself and a family seemed as realistic as being a rockstar or playing in the NHL. But I did know that there was a pretty booming film industry in Toronto. You could actually get work. I’m not saying you’d be a writer or a director and an auteur right away, but you could actually support yourself by working as a grip or whatever. It just seemed like something in storytelling and art that could support a career.
It seemed like a way out.
Yeah. And it was also a way to come to the city to study, get away from home, and learn about storytelling and films. I love films, even though I don’t work in them. I learned a lot about storytelling and writing, and even started to develop a bit of a visual style just by the cinematographers I was studying. It became obvious as I was going through that program that my real passion was drawing and comics and my personality was much more suited to something I could do by myself.
You were approached by DC and they wanted you to pitch.
I did Essex County with Top Shelf, which is a smaller publisher in the US. They’re small but they have a prestigious reputation. One of the publisher’s at Top Shelf was friends with an editor at Vertigo and he was able to get Essex County in front of that editor, who really liked it and asked me to pitch stuff for Vertigo. So I did a small graphic novel for Vertigo which led to working on my first ongoing book, Sweet Tooth. Editors at DC proper saw Sweet Tooth and asked me to do something there.
What does a pitch consist of?
I don’t know if there’s a set format. I usually do a couple pages of general direction and tone and the big ideas that I want to do. Usually you’ll do like a point by point outline of the first four or five issues and more general notes on where you would go from there.
What about pitches you’ve made that didn’t go through, that you really missed out on?
I’ve been lucky in that most of the things, if not all the things, I’ve pitched on I’ve gotten. A lot of times an editor is asking me to pitch on it because they want me to do it anyway. It’s not really like I’m competing with someone or I’m an unknown quantity. They want what I bring to it. Before the New 52, I pitched an Adam Strange miniseries, but the timing just didn’t work out, because they were doing the New 52 so they weren’t really accepting new things. But I took a lot of the ideas from that pitch and used them to make Trillium, the sci-fi book that I did. You always use everything.
Is that work as satisfying as your solo stuff?
When it works well, yeah. I mean, no, it’s never as satisfying as when you draw it yourself too, because you’ve just invested more of yourself into that. So no. But there have been times when things have really worked well and it’s very satisfying, but maybe in a different way, like my Animal Man run and my Green Arrow and I think the ones I’m doing now on Hawkeye and Bloodshot. And then there are other things where it didn’t quite come together as well, but that’s to be expected.
You write this post-apocalyptic series Sweet Tooth. Do you think we’re doomed as a species?
No, I don’t. I’m pretty optimistic. I think we always seem to find a way to endure. All the darkness and evil in the world is definitely there, but I think it’s pretty balanced. I didn’t always think that, but as I get older and have a family of my own my viewpoints change. You see a lot of hope, in children especially. No, I don’t think we’re doomed at all.
Who are your favourite Canadian cartoonists?
Seth, for sure, is my favourite. I love Seth’s stuff. I feel like it’s very Canadian in the best ways. There’s this sense of nostalgia for a Canada that doesn’t really exist anymore. I just love going to that world. He’s brilliant. He’s a brilliant storyteller, brilliant artist. He’s always been my favourite. There’ve been a lot of Canadian creators who have influenced me at different points in my career. I think Dave Sim and Cerebus were certainly inspiring when I was younger and trying to self-publish. That someone from Kitchener did it so successfully for so many years—whatever you think about the work itself, that alone was inspiring. It makes you think you can do it too.
Is there anything you totally dislike about working in Canada or living in Canada?
No, not really. I love being Canadian. I love our country and I love everything it offers. It’s not a perfect place, but it’s a lot more perfect than many other places you could live. I’m happy.
Well, I guess I’m asking the guy who contributed to True Patriot here.
I don’t know how much of a patriot I am. Our country has a lot of flaws. I think the way that we’ve treated our aboriginals is appalling, for instance. But there’s also a lot of wonderful things about Canada. I love the actual physical landscape of the country itself. I love the diversity from region to region. I love hockey. It’s a great country with a lot of flaws, but I do think those flaws are things that slowly over time we become more aware of and hopefully work to correct.
I read that you moved the Justice League to Moosonee or Moose Factory. And then you went and you were in Moose Factory researching the community.
Yeah, I was up there for a couple weeks.
Do you do that sort of thing for a lot of projects?
I had never done it before that project, but it was really rewarding and I learned a lot more about our country and our culture. It’s good to try something new and use certain projects to learn something about yourself and the country that you didn’t know. That was a really good chance for me to get more involved in learning about our First Nations. Spending two weeks in a place doesn’t make you an expert, but I certainly know a lot more about it than I did before and I continue to learn more about it.
One thing I notice about your work is that your characters are all terrified to talk to one another about their feelings.
One thing that drives me bananas about television and film is that the dialogue is so overwritten and everyone talks about everything and they’re all so witty. In the real world, people aren’t like that. Especially when you grow up in a small town with farmers and factory workers, people don’t share their emotions. They don’t say a lot, especially the men. They’re very stoic. I feel like my dialogue’s a little more representative of how people actually fail to communicate with one another. People aren’t always bantering and sharing every intimate detail like they do in film and television.
Do you think that comics are particularly well-geared towards portraying that kind of silence?
They can be. There’s comics that are really overwritten and banter-y as well. That tends to be my little writing rule for myself, to constantly scale down the writing, as few words as possible. Because it is a visual medium too. You can communicate a lot more with a look than you can with a paragraph sometimes.
Is that true of the Marvel / DC stuff you’re doing as well?
Depends on what the book is. There’s a lot of banter in Hawkeye because that’s part of the fun of Hawkeye, having these two characters say witty, funny things to each other as they’re punching Hydra agents or whatever. Bloodshot is a very stoic character. His internal dialogue is a lot stronger than what he actually says. It just depends on what suits the character, what suits the tone of the book. My solo stuff tends to be a lot more introspective and slow paced and quiet, whereas sometimes the superhero stuff needs to be a bit faster and poppier.
Is there a number one dream character you could write from one of those big pantheons?
Not really. Sometimes writing your favourite character can be a trap, because you bring so much baggage with you—the stories you’ve read about that character that you love so much—that it can almost hold you back from making those characters your own. I had that experience writing Constantine. One of my favourite characters has always been Hellblazer, Constantine, and then writing him was really disappointing. I didn’t do a great job of it and I didn’t enjoy it because I was so beholden to all the Hellblazer stories I loved. Green Arrow was a character I didn’t have any feelings towards. I never read Green Arrow comics, didn’t really care about the character all that much, but because of that when I got the character I was free to make it my own and do crazy stuff. I had a lot more fun writing that than I did Hellblazer. There’s no real dream character. I try to do things that I can try something new with. Bloodshot was totally different from anything I’d ever done before. This dark thriller, psychological horror thing. You get to stretch muscles you hadn’t before. And Hawkeye was a little more humour to it, a lighter touch. You just try to take projects that stretch new muscles more than going after characters you love.
Will Wellington lives and works in Guelph.
By Will Wellington