Over the course of a relatively short (so far) career, Canadian-born artist Jeff Lemire has developed one of the most broad-ranging resumes in comics. Canada gets mentioned a lot when his name comes up, not because it’s such a distinctive origin for an artist (what else are you going to do when you’re stuck inside all winter, har har), but because his earliest works established him as someone with a brilliant gift for capturing the look and feel of a place in time. Case in point: the multiple award-winning Essex County Trilogy, set around his home town in lower Ontario, which brought him wide acclaim.
It’s a talent that has served him well across genres. He’s written everything from personal, independent stories; to horror, superheroes, and sci-fi, all of it defying genre conventions. As an artist, his distinctive watercolor-style is like nothing else out there. He’s got three books coming out between now and the end of the fall: the fourth volume of Descender (with Dustin Nguyen), A.D.: After Death (with Scott Snyder), and the first volume of his new series Royal City. Recently, Jeff chatted with us about his work in general, and these upcoming books in particular.
Starting with the book that comes out last: In a sense, Royal City is the most “Jeff Lemire” of his current projects, only in that he’s doing the art as well as the writing. It’s also a very personal work, a multigenerational family story with touches of the supernatural. It’s about Patrick Pike, who returns to the dying factory town where he grew up only to be quickly be drawn back into the family drama he once set out to escape. Patrick’s brother drowned decades ago, but something like his ghost is haunting the family, bringing dark secrets to the surface. It’s out in October.
Even with some fantastical elements, Royal City feels like a return to the feel of some of your earlier work (I’m thinking of Essex County, of course, and I’m sure I’m not the only one for whom that comes to mind). How has that been? Do you have a preferred style/mode, or is variety the thing?
I definitely wanted to return to my roots as a cartoonist with Royal City. I love doing genre work, and will continue to do so with books like Descender and Black Hammer, but I also need to balance that work with things that are a bit more grounded.
So, it’s not so much that I prefer one type of storytelling to another, as a desire to do different types of stories simultaneously, to have different playgrounds to play in and to keep me fresh creatively.
Royal City feels very intimate, and has a really great sense of place. Is that the kind of thing that you research, or does it all come from accumulated memory?
There is never a lot of research involved. Royal City, the fictional place, comes mostly from my imagination and from places I have lived or spent time in through my life, so it all just organically forms as I start working on the story.
I was really compelled by setting a story in a small to mid-sized city that had once been a booming industrial town, but was now rusting away. It seemed to echo the state of the characters I was writing about and visually it gives me a lot of touchstones that I like to draw, old factories etc.
For A.D.: After Death, available in July, Lemire is teaming with Scott Snyder (Batman, ) for a sci-fi story about a future world where death has been cured. Lemire’s doing the art on the story that explores the meaning of death, and what happens when it no longer drives us in quite the same way.
Without giving too much away, Royal City and (obviously) AD have things to say about death. It’s palpable in both books, almost a character. Maybe getting a little personal, but is that a conscious theme?
Well, I think all of our lives are delineated by death. We may not like to think about it, but our own mortality and the mortality of those we care about is what defines us as people. It’s not something I sit around and dwell on in a morbid way, but it certainly seems to present itself quite often in my work. Of course with AD even more so, as it is the main theme of that work.
I’m not sure I’d stop to question a cure for death for even a moment. How do you think you’d respond if offered the choice as in AD?
My intellectual side says that I would not take it. That without death we would have no purpose or definition in our lives. But if we really were offered that, it would be hard to say no.
With a book like AD, you’re taking on the artist/illustrator role with Scott Snyder doing the writing. What’s that process like? Having done the writing and art on so many of your books, is it at all challenging to collaborate?
It was the first time I had drawn something of this scale that I didn’t also write for myself, so it was definitely a challenge. Because of the structure of AD, with part of the book being prose and part being traditional comics,Scott and I quickly found a good working method that allowed us each to play to our strengths. He would spent the majority of his time working on the prose sections while I drew the comics sections. And I didn’t get a full script for those comics sections, we worked more in the old “Marvel Style” where we would discuss the scene and then I would go off and lay it out and draw it based on those conversations. Then Scott would add dialogue when the art was done. So I never really felt restricted or anything, I was given the freedom by Scott to do the visual storytelling in the comics scenes.
Last, but not in any way least: coming in June is the fourth volume of Descender, a book written by Lemire, with art by Dustin Nguyen. It’s the story of Tim-21, a robot boy who was once a beloved family member, but who finds himself an outcast in a galaxy that’s been taken over by sentient AIs. Though he survived the initial purges of his kind, he’s on the run in a world that no longer trusts his kind.
I could ask process questions all day, so I’ll try to calm down after this one: In Descender, you’re working with Dustin Nguyen. How much do the two of you collaborate together on the visual elements?
The collaboration between Dustin and I is the most effortless that I have ever had. We barely ever talk to each other or discuss the book because we are already on the same wavelength. I do very loose, sparse scripts and let him handle all the visuals. It’s like we share a brain so we don’t need any back and forth. We both just love and respect how the other works and role with it.
Dustin has such an incredible knack for creating the tech and visually building the worlds of Descender, it would be silly for me to get in his way.
This might just be me, but a big part of what speaks to me about Descender is the sense of Tim-21 as an outcast for no particularly good reason. A pariah just because of his circuitry. And I’m sure it works on other levels for other readers. Are you thinking of things like that specifically going into creating a story, or is it more that your stories just lend themselves to those types of interpretations?
I tend to always tell stories about “outsiders”, I always have. And a lot of that comes from me feeling like an outsider most of my life as well. So it doesn’t surprise me that different people could read specific things about their own loves and circumstances into that. To me that is the joy of genre work, whether it’s sci-fi or super hero stuff. When it is done well, he genre elements become big, broad metaphors for our own lives. And Tim-21 is the ultimate outsider. We can all see a bit of ourselves in him I think.
You’ve spoken in the past about Descender as being limited to a certain number of issues—a story with a definite endpoint. Is that still the case? Is it something that’s constantly evolving? Can you talk a little about what goes into that thought process?
That is actually no longer the case! I did have an end point in mind and was working towards that, but just this past month Dustin and I started riffing on some new directions and ideas and we both got really excited about them. As a result, we have changed our plans for the ending and for where the series will go, and we’ve come up with something that we both think is much stronger. And as a result, the series will be much longer than we both thought. And we couldn’t be happier about that, because we love the world of Descender so much, and want to keep telling stories in it—and working together.