I admire how restless Jeff Lemire seems to be. Look at the career trajectory the Toronto cartoonist has charted for himself, look at how urgently he’s laid down every penline and brushstroke — you get the sense that this guy needs to tell stories. In 2007, following a Xeric Foundation grant and a self-published debut, Lemire released Tales From the Farm, a coming-of-age story that finds parallels between hockey, fatherhood, and superheroes. Another two volumes followed in what became his Essex County trilogy, each growing in ambition. Upon their completion (Top Shelf published all three as one massive collection last year), Essex County had become a multi-generational family chronicle that pieced together the lonely lives of kind-hearted brutes, pensive boys, and determined women.
Lemire’s cartooning is expressive without calling attention to itself, pointing instead toward the importance of plot, setting, and character. After Essex County, he created The Nobody, a loose adaptation of The Invisible Man that leavens Wells’s masterpiece of misanthropy with the addition of a sympathetic narrator (a teenaged girl). Vertigo, one of comics’ big-name genre-fiction imprints, released The Nobody, and is also publishing Lemire’s monthly title Sweet Tooth. The series, featuring an antlered boy “hybrid” and his grim survivalist companion, is something of a post-apocalyptic take on the cartoonist’s concerns with small towns and family units, and the allegiances formed and broken within. To discuss his rapidly expanding body of work, Lemire graciously set aside some time to chat on the phone with me.
I thought [Canadian cartoonist] Darwyn Cooke’s introduction in your omnibus collection was pretty smart, in that he aligned you with the tradition of Canadian literature more than he did with Canadian comics: you have an attention to character and to plot that I don’t necessarily expect when I think of comics.
Ten years ago, when people wanted to describe those kinds of things [about comics], they’d call them graphic novels. Now they call everything a graphic novel. I don’t set out to specifically do anything particularly high-minded; I always want to tell the stories that interest me at the moment. The Essex County stuff in particular is a personal story, and it’s a very Canadian story, so I can see why Darwyn’s intro suits it.
Maybe it’s that other Canadian comics don’t seem especially Canadian to me.
I shouldn’t speak for other cartoonists, but I have a feeling that a lot of Canadian cartoonists don’t want their stuff to be [stereotypically] Canadian. I don’t see Chester Brown writing a hockey graphic novel, for instance. But I love hockey, and I play hockey every week, so why not write about it? Maybe it’s just my personality. I’d be lying if I said my big ambition wasn’t to create the great hockey graphic novel.
What kind of challenges are involved with putting hockey to the comics page?
None, really. Hockey is such a visceral, fluid activity — there’s so much movement and action. You can take the structure of a single game, and you have your narrative skeleton. The tension’s all there; the drama is built into any game.
The thing that comes across most strongly in Essex County is its setting. The rural scenes are so authentic — the fields, the driving, going to a gas station to buy comics. You grew up in the real Essex County [in southwestern Ontario]; was that in Windsor or the outlying area?
It was a little town called Woodslee. Windsor was the city nearby. When I started the first book, I was just using the name. [What I called Essex County] is a fictional town that represents a bunch of smaller communities. The writing feels authentic because that really is where I come from. I wrote about my experiences and things that I like.
Another thing I like about Essex County is its attention to Toronto history, in terms of describing Union Station in the early ’50s or going to the Edgewater Hotel to start your TTC route. Do you anticipate returning to Toronto in your future work?
I would imagine. After Sweet Tooth, which is a rural story as well, I wonder how much more I’ll have to say about that setting. By that point, I’ll have been living in the city for twenty years or something. In the same way that my childhood and where I grew up influenced my work as an adult, I’m sure that five or ten years from now I’ll have more perspective on my life in Toronto. I’m working on another book with Top Shelf right now that’s set in eastern Canada and that’s been interesting too. I’ve only been there a few times, but I’m having a really good time researching the history. It’s different writing a story about a place that you don’t know as well, that you didn’t grow up in, or that you haven’t lived in for a significant amount of your life.
The Nobody maintained the small-town setting that you established in Essex County, but you turned away from writing slice-of-life literary fiction with a gigantic canvas to do a pulpy genre story. What was the thought process involved in making that shift?
Essex County was such a big part of my life for so long; it was a three- or four-year process of pretty intensive work. When you’re done something like that, it’s easy to get paralyzed into not being able to do something else. You’re always trying to live up to [the first project], especially if it was successful, which it was. I wanted to dive into something new to get that feeling off my back. At the time I was reading The Invisible Man, just for fun, and I thought, “This is public domain now. It’d be fun to play off what I did in Essex County, the small-town stuff, but put the opposite twist on it.” That’s how it started. In its scope, The Nobody isn’t as ambitious as Essex County. But you’ve got to work up to those books. You can’t sit down and make a sprawling personal epic every day. You’ve got to do other little works that feed into the next big one.
So you’ve gone from the years-long process of making the Essex County trilogy, to doing a slimmer standalone book, The Nobody, and now you’re working on a monthly series, Sweet Tooth. That’s the opposite of the way that things usually go, isn’t it? You started with the big narrative, and now you’re learning how to divvy it up into chunks.
Yeah. When I was doing Essex County, if I wanted a scene to be fifteen pages, I let it be fifteen pages. The Nobody was 144 pages. Before I started, I already knew how much time I had to tell the story. With Sweet Tooth I don’t have that problem because it’s open ended: if I want to take a whole issue to explore one scene with one character, I just do it. If anything, this is the most freedom I’ve had as a storyteller.
Do you have an idea of the shape of Sweet Tooth?
I know the end, for sure. I’ve already written the last issue. I need to know where it’s going because the whole story is a road trip, basically. I don’t see it being one of these things that lasts for fifty, sixty issues; it’s more of a twenty or thirty issue kind of thing. I don’t want to overstay my welcome and make things up that don’t add anything new to the story I want to tell.
I read something you wrote about post-apocalyptic comics that mentions Tim Truman and Richard Corben, who are great, super-pulpy genre influences to have. Are there any monthly comics you’re following now that help you figure out storytelling methods, or do you go back to those guys for inspiration?
I read tons of monthly comics, but I’m not trying to emulate anyone else’s stuff. I’m trying to do a monthly comic that feels different from other monthly comics. I have my high concept to start it off, but I’m trying to do something atmospheric and character-based. I want to maintain my storytelling voice. That’s the only way to stand out. There’s so much stuff coming out every month, and if you can’t offer something truly different, then what’s the point?
(Images courtesy of Jeff Lemire)