Interview with Jeff Lemire
I distinctly remember my first experience with Jeff Lemire. I was just starting to get into comics and my buddy Ty was being gracious enough to loan me a gigantic stack of books that I could take on tour with me. He was picking out some classics like A Contract With God, DC: The New Frontier, Scott Pilgrim Vol. 1, and others and I saw on his book shelf a light-blue hardcover book called Essex County. The book just looked great from the outside and I flipped through it and asked, “Can I take this too?” He said that he had not actually read it yet and was obviously a little bit hesitant to let me have it because of that, but again, being the gracious friend that he was, he allowed me to borrow it.
What I found in the book was surprising. Glancing through it, it seemed like a book that was sparsely laid out, yet smartly drawn with a northern rural focus, but I obviously did not know how well it would be written. Let’s be clear, it is absolutely smartly drawn and it does certainly have an unmistakable northern rural focus, but what I was not expecting to find was the depth of heart it contained and the complexity of real emotions that requires. The book chronicles a small town in Canada and a few of the stories contained therein; the further the roots go down, the greater the yield.
After realizing I had found one of the best cartoonists around, I was obviously very intrigued when I heard that DC’s Vertigo imprint would be releasing his new monthly comic called Sweet Tooth. Suffice to say, I was won over by that title as well. The deciding factor which sold me on the post-apocalyptic mystery? The surprising and unmistakable presence of heart.
I recently got the pleasure to chat with Jeff a little bit about his work and what drives him as a cartoonist.
The book will be released at San Diego Comicon 2012. It is about 1/2 way done. As of the moment I have over 100 pages fully drawn and inked and the entire script is done as well. I really floundered on that book for most of last year as I was learning to juggle all of my DC and Vertigo commitments, but things have settled down and I’ve found a new work routine that allows me to get a significant amount of work done on the Welder each week.
I get up early and get to my desk as soon as I can. I work best in the early mornings. I check email and then get to the drawing board. I spend about 8 hours a day drawing and usually take a day a week to work on scripts and other non-drawing commitments. The best part is being able to do what I love every day.
Definitely a seized opportunity. I would never just write DC or Marvel characters. It would not satisfy me creatively. Even if I was drawing them too, I would still yearn to do my own stories. For me doing Superboy and the other DC books are a fun side-gig. A nice way to take a break from my creator owned or indie stuff, but my personal work will always be my primary focus.
That depends what day you ask me. Most days it is just a fun experience. I don’t mind the editorial involvement. I like working with my Superboy editors, they are a lot of fun and after spending so much time alone, it’s nice to collaborate. And whenever things do start to feel a bit “restricted”, I just remind myself that I have Sweet Tooth and my other personal projects where I get TOTAL control and can do whatever I want. So, working with the DC editorial staff to make sure my version Superboy still fits within their larger universe can be fun, if you accept it for what it is and remember to be flexible.
The key is to try and infuse it with as much of your personality as you can with it still being their Superboy. It’s a fine line, but one I’m getting better and better at walking.
Film certainly influences my sense of pacing and composition, especially in my earlier work, but more and more I’m leaning towards finding new ways to use the aspects of comics that are unique to the medium, to tell my stories.
I can’t really get into too much detail on how I select what I show and what moments I draw because those decisions tend to be very instinctual…not intellectual. It’s not something I tend to approach with a method of any kind, I just let the comic play in my head from beat to beat and sketch it down. It’s a very natural process and one that it’s probably best not to analyze too much.
Essex County- David Gordon Green
Sweet Tooth – David Lynch
The Nobody – The Coen Brothers
There are so many talented people do so many amazing comics and each is so different from the other in terms of subject matter and approach. It’s hard to pinpoint one movement or one publisher because the variety of excellent work is at an all time high right now.
To me no one is doing better genre fiction in comics than Jason Aaron on Scalped, Darwyn Cooke on his Parker books and Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips on Criminal. No one is doing more exciting, experimental and audacious superhero comics than Grant Morrison. And then in the more independent side of things there are so many wonderful voices new and old creating such a huge breadth of great work…Matt Kindt, Lilli Carre, Chris Ware, Seth, Emi Lenox, Jim Rugg, Gipi, Jeff Smith I could go on listing names forever.
I never really thought it was possible to make a living doing it, et alone a very good living like I am now. But there were different stages along the way. When I won the Xeric Grant to publish my first GN LOST DOGS I felt validated. What I mean is that I had spent years drawing all kinds of comics no one had ever seen and for all I knew they were worthless to any one other than me. So when I won that it was like an outside source finally saying, no this is good, keep going.
Then when Top Shelf agreed to publish the first Essex County that was another step all together, Now I had a “real” publisher accept me, and not just any publisher, but one who published a very high quality level of cartoonists. At that point I figured I would be able to keep doing work and at least it would see print and get distributed. I still didn’t expect to make any money, that was until the DC COMICS/ Vertigo stuff happened…then I was making an actual page rate that I could live off of. That’s when everything changed and I was able to quit my day job at last! But still, I thought it was a temporary thing. Even when Sweet Tooth started I felt it would only last 9-12 issues before getting cancelled. But when the sales figures and critical response started out so positively, and just kept growing I knew I might be able to relax a bit and get used to working as a cartoonist full time.
And now, with so many irons in the fire, from indie books, to Vertigo to writing DC stuff, I finally feel that I’ll have a career in comics that will be able to sustain me for years to come. And that was all in about a ten year period. It didn’t happen overnight.
Actually the backlash of the book getting voted off so early was so huge that the popularity and sales of EC skyrocketed, It became more popular in many ways than most of the books that went further in the competition, so it all worked out.
I underestimated the effect the competition would have when I first found out I had been shortlisted. I can’t tell you how many thousands of people have read this book now, who would never have considered reading a graphic novel before Canada Reads. There were certainly a lot of great cartoonists, Canadian and otherwise who paved the way, but Essex really was a “breakthrough” book here in terms of the mainstream literary audience.
[Editor’s Note] Although Essex County did not win the Canada Reads competition initially, it did end up winning the People’s Choice Award of the competition by capturing more than 50% of the people’s votes.
There are a few artists who really had a profound influence on me aesthetically and in terms of how I approach being an artist and a storyteller, but none have made a bigger or more lasting impact on my life than David Lynch. I could go one forever as to the reasons why, but if I were to boil it down, the instant you see or hear a single second of one of his films you instantly know it is a David Lynch film. His fingerprints are on every frame of film, every second of sound design…you instantly enter another world, his world and his mindset. And you always know he is following his own path, never letting the work suffer or become watered down from any outside influences. That’s the kind of artist I strive to be.
Do it for yourself. You have to love doing it. There is no end goal…no prize at the end of the road…the work itself is all that matters. Do the work because it’s what you HAVE to do when you wake up in the morning, not to get published, or to have fans or to have some bullshit movie made out of it. Making a living in comics is a nice benefit, but I would still be making the same books on my own if I weren’t getting paid to do it.