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Cartoonist Jeff Lemire had some published work under his belt before Top Shelf published the 2008 graphic novel Tales From The Farm, but that book—the first part of Lemire’s Essex County trilogy, about various wounded people in a rural Canadian community—was so moving and beautifully drawn that it signaled the arrival of a new, formidable talent. Since completing the Essex County books, Lemire has begun working regularly for DC Comics’ alt imprint Vertigo, first with the graphic novel The Nobody (a retelling of The Invisible Man with an Essex-y twist) and then with the ongoing series Sweet Tooth. The latter is, on the surface, a sci-fi/horror adventure about a plague-ridden future being quickly overrun by new human-animal hybrids. But it’s really the story of one of those hybrids—an antler-headed kid named Gus—and his connection to a gruff, emotionally scarred tough guy named Tommy Jepperd, who, like Gus, is struggling to get along in a terrifying new world. Lemire spoke with The A.V. Club about how Sweet Tooth is like his earlier work, and about his upcoming projects for DC and Top Shelf.
The A.V. Club: Did the image of a kid with the antlers come before the story, or did the story suggest the image?
Jeff Lemire: In the case of Sweet Tooth and in the case of a lot of stuff I do, it all starts with the image. It may be something I sketch in my sketchbooks—something that reoccurs in the sketchbooks. Eventually a character or storyline starts to grow out of that. So that character… I don’t know. I can’t remember the genesis. Why I was drawing a boy with antlers? But he kept popping up in a sketchbook one summer, for whatever reason. You just start building a character and a pretty vague story around that. I do this all the time, and some of these things I explore further until they turn into something bigger, like Sweet Tooth. And some other things I just forget about. This one stuck.
Plus, I’d always wanted to do something post-apocalyptic, and a long-form genre piece. My indie work is mostly reality-based, focused on real life and characters. I thought it would be fun to try something really different, and try to do a monthly action-adventure story that was treated sort of the same way I treated my indie work: quiet and slow-paced and focusing more on the smaller character moments than big plot moments. So I started with Gus, and the main idea just sort of popped up. It seemed like a really good starting point.
AVC: Was it a developed idea that you shopped around, or did Vertigo ask you for pitches?
JL: It happened really fast. I was doing a graphic novel for Vertigo called The Nobody and I was closing in on finishing that up. I think I was three-fourths of the way through it. I really liked working with them and they seemed to really like working with me. It was just a matter of timing. Bob Schreck, my editor on The Nobody, mentioned to me that they had some monthly slots to fill coming up and said that if I had any ideas for monthly stuff, I should pitch them. I kinda had this loose idea for the Sweet Tooth thing, which at that time I’d been planning on doing as three graphic novels, probably for Top Shelf or something. I didn’t expect to do much more work for DC. But when Bob offered the chance to take on a monthly, I quickly adapted the idea. At that point, it really wasn’t fully formed; it was just a bunch of vague thoughts that needed to be put together. Over the course of a weekend, I put it all into a pitch, and sent it on a Monday. I think within a week they greenlit it. That never really happens. Nothing happens that fast. It was just really lucky timing.
AVC: Have you found it difficult to maintain the monthly pace?
JL: No, it’s not a big deal for me. The monthly schedule can be pretty grueling, but I’m lucky in that my artwork is so expressive and loose that it lends itself to being done pretty quickly. I haven’t been late yet. And I can also work on other projects on the side, which is important to me. So the deadline aspect hasn’t been a problem.
The one thing that does get kind of stressful once in a while is telling a story that’s so long, you need a break from it. You wish you could move on to some new ideas or new characters. But I still have two or three years left with these people. Some months, that can be a burden. Usually something happens and I get a new idea or a new take on something, and that reinvigorates me. It’s like a marathon. I know it’s going to be worth it in the end because I know where it’s all going and I know this is a story that’s still really important to me. So you just sort of stick it out those tough days.
The good thing about a monthly book, too, is that when you do a graphic novel, you work on it for a couple years or a year or whatever, and then you put it out and you get feedback when it comes out and that’s great, but with the monthly comic I get tons of feedback from fans and that also helps to keep you motivated.
AVC: So Sweet Tooth has a definite endpoint?
JL: It definitely has an endpoint. I’ve known the ending of the story right from the beginning. I can’t really write anything without knowing the ending. I don’t know how people do that. Even with my superhero stuff, I have to know at least where I want to take the characters and what the ending of my story with them will be. I just can’t structure stories or character arcs and stuff without knowing the endpoint. In Sweet Tooth’s case, I’ve definitely always known the ending. The beginning and the ending are locked. It’s just the middle part that you leave yourself room to introduce new elements and characters. At one point, the story was going to be 24 or 26 issues, and then it was going to be 36, and now it’s more headed toward about 50.
AVC: Sometimes with long-form genre pieces like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, there are concerns that the more you fill in the middle, the further you get away from where you started and then the harder it gets to bring it back.
JL: Yeah, that’s exactly my biggest… I’m very conscious of that. I mean, it would be pretty easy to pad the middle sections and stretch this out to 75 issues or something. But the more you do that, the further you get from that core idea you started with, and that you want to end with. In the case of Sweet Tooth, that’s the relationship between the character of Gus and Jepperd, and seeing them grow together. The more I throw in, the harder it is to focus on that. So I have to be very conscious that anything I do add—any characters or storylines—are all working toward that end goal, and either reflecting or bringing out that core concept. Otherwise, they’re just not worth doing. I guess, technically, I could probably make the book a lot longer if I wanted to. But it just wouldn’t ring true at some point. It’s a delicate balance between fleshing out ideas and making the world bigger and richer, and going too far.
AVC: You mentioned wanting to do something set in a post-apocalyptic world. Were you concerned much that those kinds of stories have been done a lot?
JL: No, I kind of like that. [Laughs.] I mean, most genre stuff, in one form or another, has been done. That’s the interesting challenge: trying to find a way of doing it in a way that makes people see it differently. I wanted to take something that’s been done as much as this, and instead of treating it in the way that most people treat it, as a big plot-driven thing, instead just focus in on one or two people in that world and find the quiet moments of their life. All the big genre elements are going on around them and in the background, but that’s never really what the story's about. It’s all in the execution, right? Two or three people can do the exact same idea, but if you keep it really personal, something new comes out of it. My stuff tends to be pretty emotionally based, you know? I feel like this post-apocalyptic setting heightens everything and makes it all more immediate and desperate. The stakes are so high for every character that it really brings out heightened emotions that I thought would be really interesting to play with. It’s fertile ground for conflict and for creating really interesting characters.
AVC: After the Essex County trilogy, some were a little surprised that you would take on something like Sweet Tooth. But elements like the backstory of Jepperd are similar to Essex County in terms of the tone and even the details of his life as an ex-hockey player.
JL: That’s just naturally the way I tell stories. And I think that’s what my Vertigo editors wanted, that kind of quieter storytelling combined with these big action elements. That’s why they approved the book.
AVC: And though you mentioned being able to draw quickly, Sweet Tooth certainly doesn’t look over-simplified. There’s one page, for example, in the second trade paperback where Jepperd describes how he’s starting to lose the memory of his late wife’s face, And there are two panels of her placed over a big drawing of Jepperd’s face, such that the wrinkles in Jepperd’s forehead look like antlers jutting out of his wife’s head.
JL: I never noticed that. [Laughs.] That might have been a happy accident. But yeah, when I say that, that it doesn’t take me that long to do, that doesn’t mean I don’t care about it or that I’m just flopping it out. It’s just naturally an expressive style, so it just doesn’t take as long for me as for those people who try to make something photorealistic. I care deeply about the book and I put a lot of myself into it every month. Those three weeks or whatever of the month that I'm drawing the book are very focused.
AVC: Pivoting off of Sweet Tooth, you’ve started working with DC proper on some superhero titles. Was that a career goal for you when you started drawing comics?
JL: No. No, not at all. I was, and will be, perfectly happy drawing my own stuff whenever the DC work dries up. But that’s the good thing about being quick, that I have time to work on other things. And so as long as I can still do Sweet Tooth and still create my own work that I’m writing and drawing myself, I figured I might as well take a shot at some of this other stuff too. The opportunity was there. And it can be pretty fun to write superheroes. You know, the first year or so writing Superboy and Atom and everything was in a lot of ways really challenging, because I had never written for another artist, and I had never really worked within that kind of editorial system where there are so many different people involved in the creative process. It took me a while to get my feet, I think, as a writer. But with these two new books I’m doing for DC for the new line—Frankenstein and Animal Man—I feel like I’m finally coming into my own, as a writer as opposed to just a cartoonist. I’m really excited for people to read these, because it’ll be the best work I’ve done for DC yet.
AVC: Did you read superhero comics a lot when you were growing up?
JL: Oh yeah, I grew up reading that stuff. I loved it. I read it well into my teenage years. Then in the ’90s it got to the point where superhero comics were really, really bad. [Laughs.] All flash and no substance. Then Vertigo popped up. And I was reading Animal Man and all that back then, so it’s really cool to be working on that character now. Then as I got a bit older, I started discovering alternative and underground cartoonists and European cartoonists, so there was always something to keep me interested in comics. But yeah, superheroes were a big part of why I started reading in the first place.
AVC: In one of the Sweet Tooth issues you wrote a little note for Marv Wolfman and George Perez.
JL: Yeah, because I ripped them right off. [Laughing.] I stole the format for the issue from a comic they did in the ’80s. It’s cool that you can do one of these indie-looking comics for Vertigo, but it’s actually a superhero comic that influenced it. It’s fun to mix all your influences into something. The cool thing about Sweet Tooth is that you can bring influences from the underground and alternative people that I read and also bring in some genre influences, too, from movies and comics. And kind of mash it all up. It’s a fun project.
AVC: What do you have in the works on the non-DC/Vertigo side?
JL: I’m doing a big graphic novel for Top Shelf that’ll be, in a lot of ways, the true follow-up to Essex County. Something with that kind of scope and style. It’s called The Underwater Welder, and it follows this guy who works on an oil rig in a small Canadian town. He’s expecting his first child, and the pressures of his job and the pressures of his impending fatherhood are building and building. Then he has a sort of weird, mind-bending encounter one day when he’s diving below the sea and when he surfaces, the world he knew is gone and pretty different. It’s a story about him mining his past and figuring out how to get back to his wife and his unborn son. Anyway, that’s the book I’m working on actively. It’s due to come out next summer.