A quintessential Canadian, writer/artist Jeff Lemire gained praise early in his career for his haunting tale of hockey and heartbreak, "Essex County." The trilogy of tightly woven graphic novels, released by Top Shelf Productions as a collection in 2009, earned Lemire his first Eisner Award nomination, as well as high praise from industry heavyweights including fellow Canadian Darwyn Cooke and superstar writer Geoff Johns. When Johns was named Chief Creative Officer of DC Entertainment a year later, one of the first creators he recruited for the publisher in his new role was Lemire.
Having already launched "Sweet Tooth" for DC's Vertigo Comics imprint, which earned him his second Eisner nomination for Best New Series in 2010, Lemire was charged with reestablishing Ray Palmer as The Atom in "Adventure Comics" and relaunching "Superboy," a title that earned him his third Eisner nomination in 2011.
Considering his early success, it was believed Lemire would be handed a series featuring an A-level superhero such as Superman or Batman when the New 52 was unleashed on the comic book industry this fall, but in classic Lemire form, he instead landed on two titles with D-level assets: "Animal Man" and "Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E." Both series, which Lemire is writing but not drawing, have been lauded by critics and fans alike with each one turning the archetypal superhero comic on its head.
With 2012 just days away, CBR News checked in with Lemire, who not only teased what's ahead for the cast of "Sweet Tooth" next year but also confirmed which issue his "Animal Man" series will commence its highly-anticipated crossover with Scott Snyder's "Swamp Thing" and which war Frankenstein will be dropped smack dab into the middle off as the bolted behemoth's secret origin begins to unfurl.
Need more? Lemire also shared with CBR an exclusive six-page preview of "The Underwater Welder," his forthcoming creator-owned project coming this summer from Top Shelf Productions.
CBR News: In "Sweet Tooth" you've been telling a wonderful story in "The Taxidermist" arc, which was illustrated by "Revolver" & "Superspy" creator Matt Kindt. The arc goes 100 or so years in the past, to tell what could be considered the secret origin of "Sweet Tooth." Was it always your plan to tell the origin of "Sweet Tooth" this way?
Jeff Lemire: "The Taxidermist," the way it ended up, was never something that I had planned. It wasn't part of my initial plans for the series at all. It was something that kind of organically popped up as I was working on the "Dangerous Species" arc. Unlike other parts of the book that I've known since the beginning -- and I can't wait to get to -- that wasn't one of them but once I did think of it, I was really excited about it. I am pretty happy with how it turned out and it's really only scratching the surface of the story's origin. If anything, it probably adds more questions to the mythology but it does include some answers too.
Has Gus' origin changed since the series was originally conceived?
No, I think what has changed is how I was going to tell it. Some details have become -- well, it's hard to answer some of these questions without giving away too much but Gus' origin and the origin of the plague have always been a bit fluid. The thing that I have always known is the end of the book. And the end of the book isn't a big reveal of how it all happened. The end of the book is something else. It's more emotional and more character driven. So again, his origin and the origin of the plague have always been more fluid and it continues to develop as I get closer to some bigger reveals.
In the next arc, we return to present day. Obviously Thacker and the other characters from "The Taxidermist" are all dead, but will the events of that arc be explored moving forward?
Yes, for sure. Events and characters from that arc will connect directly to our present day cast. Specifically, Dr. Singh is going to start to uncover some of that past and it's going to lead him to figure some things out. That's all coming. And it's going to start interconnecting pretty soon.
The next arc, which runs through "Sweet Tooth" #29-33, is a five-part thing and after that, the story really amps up and all the answers really start coming out.
"Sweet Tooth" is very much the story of Gus and Jepperd and how these two characters' lives intertwine. While that relationship truly drives the series, it's Dr. Singh that I look forward to most each issue. Does that surprise you?
No. I like him too. He's always been a very important character to the book. For me, it's Gus' and Jepperd's story but a close third behind the two of them is Singh's story. He's very important and his point of view is really important to the book. Some really interesting stuff is going to start to develop with him in the next couple of issues. And he plays a huge role in the end of the book.
The first memory I have of Dr. Singh is of him horrifically driving a needle into Gus' neck. But he's not all that bad, is he?
I wanted to introduce him as a really clichéd mad scientist, much like I did with Jepperd, showing him as this Punisher-style action hero but then you peel that back and show that the cliché is not at all what it looks like. The thing with Singh is that he's not at all that mad scientist character. He's developed into something very different. The interesting part of his story arc is just seeing him transform from a man of science and logic to a man of man of total faith and religion and a believer of all this weird mythology he's discovering. And that's just going to keep getting more and more dramatic. And he's actually going to become a pretty crazy guy by the end. [Laughs]
In fact, Singh might not necessarily be the one to save the day just because he's so involved with everything at the end. He might actually become a real problem for everyone very soon, as well.
Can you give us any other teases of what's ahead in "Sweet Tooth"?
I am literally drawing Dr. Singh's face while we're talking. The next arc is called "Unnatural Habitats" and we go back to the present day and where we left things off. Jepperd has basically been exiled from the safety of The Dam. And the girls and the hybrids have all stayed behind, so there is a separation. The whole story is going to start taking some really dramatic turns now. And some really beloved characters are really going to start to... die. [Laughs]
For me, I am kind of entering the end game now. The first half of the book was all about me setting everything up and building the world and getting the plotlines in place and now I get to execute all those plotlines and see them all come together. There is going to be some finality, for sure, in that next arc. The cast is going to get much smaller. It's going to become more focused on Gus and Jepperd again. And basically, this is their last hurdle before they head north and start to discover all the secrets they've been looking for.
I actually saw some interesting parallels between the origin tale in "Sweet Tooth" and the world that Buddy Baker is currently exploring with his daughter Maxine in "Animal Man." Those two sets of mystical creatures could almost co-exist in the same world.
I think what happened was that I was working on "Sweet Tooth" and researching it and that stuff just sort of naturally seeped into "Animal Man" because it was all happening at the same time. And to be honest, a lot of the stuff about the totems and things like that in "Animal Man" comes from Travel Foreman, as well. It may just be a bit of a coincidence that some of the imagery he chose kind of tied into what I was doing, which was obviously inspired by native Canadian imagery. So there's that and a natural cross-pollination when I am working on two things at once. Of course, they are going to influence each other.
You obviously believed in Buddy and the story you wanted to tell with him in "Animal Man," but are you surprised at all at the attention, not to mention acclaim, the series has received since its launch?
Oh yeah, I can't believe the reaction to the book. I knew, or at least, I thought I was doing a good book but you never know what's going to connect with the readership and the public. And for it to have connected on the scale that it has -- I mean, it's not selling Batman numbers, but for it to be selling the numbers that it has been selling for an "Animal Man" book -- it's pretty astounding. I don't know what it is but Travel and I seem to have captured something that's just hit the moment. The book's a huge success and I just thought that we would be lucky to not get cancelled. I am surprised by both the commercial and critical success it's achieved. It's pretty amazing. And pretty gratifying.
You're known predominantly, or at least cut your teeth, as a cartoonist, writing and drawing your own titles. You've just finished an arc with Matt Kindt on "Sweet Tooth," Alberto Ponticelli is drawing "Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E." and you just mentioned working with Travel on "Animal Man." Have you had to adjust your creative process to allow others to play in your sandbox?
At the end of the day, I can't draw four books a month but I can draw one and write a couple more. If you want to do more than one project, that's the way it is. I got a real sense working on "Superboy" of how much control to take on regarding the visual aspect of a series and how much to leave up to the artist and now, I think I have a good rhythm. As a writer, I know how much to let go. I'm very comfortable with it because I really like the artists that I am working with and I like the collaboration. When I go back to "Sweet Tooth," I control everything myself, so I get the best of both worlds. It's a lot of fun to send your scripts off and see someone else interpret them and come back in different ways. That's one of the best parts of working for DC -- the spirit of the books comes through in the collaboration.
Dating back to when "Animal Man" was announced, it's also been known that the series was closely tied to Scott Snyder's "Swamp Thing." The Buddy Baker and Alec Holland duo is hardly the World's Finest, so is it safe to say the excitement over the upcoming crossover was unexpected?
It's funny how much attention that's getting already. Scott and I have been working on it for a long time, so it's really fun to see all the anticipation in getting there. I feel like, between the two of us, we have a story that's really scaling up to whatever hopes people have for it. I can't wait. It's actually only a couple of scripts before we get to that storyline -- so it's super-exciting. It's hopefully going to be a really big story for DC next year and for both of our books, for sure.
Is the crossover between "Animal Man" and "Swamp Thing" happening this summer?
Yes. It all starts in #12 for both titles.
Will the story play out entirely in "Animal Man" and "Swamp Thing" or will there be an event-style series, as well?
I don't know how much I'm allowed to say but everything that we're doing will happen within "Animal Man" and "Swamp Thing," the two monthly books. It will not spread over to other crossovers or anything like that. And it won't be a separate event book or anything. It's all going to happen within the monthly books.
Animal Man and Swamp Thing were both Vertigo characters before being resurrected into the DCU. Do you think 20 years from now, some hotshot new writer or artist will try folding Dr. Singh or Gus into the DCU?
No, because I own those characters. That's the big difference.
Would you like to see that happen?
Uh, no. I would not. Although I do think it would be fun to see Maxine and Gus together.
Your other series in the New 52 is "Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E." While "Sweet Tooth" has been a slow burn and "Animal Man" is building towards something epic, "Frankenstein" has been an all-out monster mash since the first issue. We've talked a lot about the origins of your characters today. Will you be giving Frank a similar treatment?
The whole thing with the way the book started off was really a lot of fun and I think it was a fun way to introduce new readers to the character and the concept but it can only sustain itself for a while before it becomes kind of stale. I needed to add some more depth to the book at this point and into the character. I've always said that I'm going to reveal, or at least, start to reveal Frankenstein's history.
The fact of the matter is that you have this character that's been around for more than 100 years and has been sort of a secret hero in DC's history before superheroes were around so we're going to explore Frankenstein at different points in American history.
The first one we'll see is in "Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E." #6 where Frankenstein is dropped into the Vietnam War. We have a couple of other ones coming up that I shouldn't spoil yet. But I am going to start to explore him as a character a little bit more and his origin And what makes him this monster that humanity would be completely terrified of, if they knew he existed. And what makes him want to protect humanity. And what makes him so noble and things like that. I think there are some really interesting stories to be told there.
Finally, before we let you go, what can you tell us about "The Underwater Welder," which is slated for release in 2012?
I feel like so many different people know me now from superhero stuff and from DC stuff, so it's nice to put out a nice, quiet project like "Essex County" again, just to remind people that I can still do that. And that's still a big part of my life creatively. I am really excited about the book. It's all done now and I'm pretty proud of it. It's just of matter of waiting 'til next summer and getting it out there.
"Animal Man," "Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.," and "Sweet Tooth are monthly from DC/Vertigo. Top Shelf releases "The Underwater Welder" summer 2012.