interview Comics

An interview with Jeff Lemire

©Urban Comics édition 2016

La première fois que le nom de Jeff Lemire est apparu en librairie date d'avril 2010. C'est à l'occasion de la sortie de l'intégrale d'Essex County et de The Nobody que le lectorat français a pu se familiariser avec un style visuel atypique et un talent de narrateur rare. À mesure que les années passent, l'artiste canadien ne cesse de voir sa popularité croître au point de se voir confier l'écriture de récits importants chez des éditeurs mainstream comme Green Arrow ou dernièrement les Extraordinary X-Men. Cherchant en permanence à malmener les schémas narratifs actuels avec des découpages osés et millimétrés, Jeff Lemire impressionne en tant qu'auteur complet avec Sweet Tooth ou Trillium mais aussi lorsqu'il se lance dans la saga de science-fiction Descender avec Dustin Nguyen. En bien peu de temps, Jeff Lemire a mis l'industrie du comics américain dans sa poche et les lecteurs avec. Quand à votre serviteur, nul besoin de lui poser la question...

Réalisée en lien avec les albums Descender T1, Sweet Tooth T1, Trillium
Lieu de l'interview : Festival d'Angoulême

interview menée
17 février 2016

Could you please introduce yourself and tell us how you began working in the comics industry?
Jeff Lemire : My name's Jeff Lemire and I'm a Canadian cartoonist, I started working in comics sixteen years ago, around 1999-2000 I'd gone to film school in Toronto but, as I studied the film medium industry, I became less interested in it and more in comics, again. I grew up loving comics and drawing all the time but there wasn't really a clear path to making a career doing comics so I tried other things but I missed drawing so much that, when I graduated Film School, the first thing I did was drawing comics again. I spent several years just developing my voice, Jeff Lemire Essex County practicing, until I did The Essex County, a book I did in 2005, 2006. It was the fist book I really felt I'd found my voice as an author. So I started to publish those with Top Shelf, a small publisher in America and, from there, I went on to work for Vertigo, with Sweet Tooth. And then I started writing super-hero comics as well from DC and now Marvel. Now my career is kind of split in two halves where I do mainstream super-hero stuff and I still do my more personal work on the side.

What have been your influences, artistically speaking?
Jeff Lemire : It's always changing. At different points of my life and career I find different artists. As a child, I only had access to Marvel and DC super-hero comics. That's what I grew up reading... And copying. But then as I got older, I started to develop my own style as I started to discover more European cartoonists who were more stylistic, more impressionistic, more expressive than the American comics. It suited me more. The big ones were probably... When I was really developing my style, the person I always looked at the most was probably Dave McKean, who did Cages. It was sort of my bible, I just love that book.

He's a genius !
Jeff Lemire : Yeah, he's a genius. So that's the thing I aspired to. Although I could never reach it, just the expressiveness of his linework...

Have you met him?
Jeff Lemire : I've never met him.

Jeff Lemire The Nobody He's a nice guy.
Jeff Lemire : Yeah, I'm sure he is. Dave McKean was sort of my big touchdown. But, I mean, Paul Pope, also, just the urgency of his brushwork was really inspiring when I was first starting. And I discovered a lot of European cartoonists like Hugo Pratt, Jose Munoz, err... So many ! [laughs] And now, you know, all the time I discover new people and new inspirations.

Meeting Dave McKean is very easy. All you have to do is to follow Neil Gaiman. They hang together half the time.
Jeff Lemire : [laughs]

From the beginning, you've been balancing between indie comics and mainstream. Do you have a specific approach to each type?
Jeff Lemire : Not really. I mean, I try to bring as much of myself as I can to the super-hero stuff as well. It's just a different process. You're working with more people, it's more of a collaboration so my voice is only one of several in the making of the final product, you know? So we're collaborating and my voice, my style is mixing with whoever the artist is whereas doing my independent work is much more direct. It's my voice. Especially when I'm drawing my own stuff, it's just one person, it's a more distinct, more direct vision, I guess.

In each and every one of your comics, you try and go for new approaches to narration and visuals. For example, in Trillium, you roughed up some readers by forcing them to turn their book upside down to follow the two protagonists' intertwined destinies and in Green Arrow, the visual edition was out of the ordinary. Is that a goal you set up for yourself, each time?
Jeff Lemire : Yeah, yeah. It's usually a personal challenge. Like, when you've been working in a medium for a certain amount of time, like I've been drawing comics every day for fifteen years, non, you've got to find new ways to keep it fresh for yourself, each day, you know?Jeff Lemire Green Arrow Or else, you get bored. So you challenge yourself to try to find new ways of using the medium to communicate and challenge the readers. I feel you have a responsibility, as a cartoonist, to do everything you can to fully explore the medium, its potential... It's a language like any other and the more you use it, the more you learn different ways of using the language. It's mostly to keep me from being bored as if I'm not bored, the reader is likely not bored either. [laughs]

Lately, the first books of Sweet Tooth and Descender both came out in France. Could you please present those two books to our readers?
Jeff Lemire : Sweet Tooth is, I guess, a science-fiction, post-apocalyptic story. It's about a group of children who are hybrids, half-animal, half-human, in the wake of a plague that's wiped out most of humanity. They may hold the secret to either curing the plague or to whatever caused the plague so different factions of people are hunting them and the book tells of the road-trip these kids take across post-apocalyptic America. And... Well... I don't know, I figure that's it. [laughs]

And Descender ?
Jeff Lemire : Descender is a sci-fi, space-opera book that I'm doing with artist Dustin Nguyen and it's a big, sprawling epic of robots on the run in space... It's a universe where robots have been outlawed and they're hunted down, killed and destroyed. It follows one robot, a young boy-robot and his companions as they're sort of trying to find their way in this universe that hunts and fears them.

Sweet Tooth 's first TPB was published last december, in France. There's a very dramatic scene in it where the children are in prison. It's a very dark moment, like a throwback to world war 2. Do you also challenge yourself to reach at the readers's emotions, like that?
Jeff Lemire : To me, the stories always gravitate to ones that are emotionally charged, that I can invest in, emotionally. These are the stories I like to create as well. Jeff Lemire Sweet ToothI want to touch the readers and affect them, emotionally, have them engage with the characters. And sometimes, that means doing very dark and terrible things to your characters but, usually, my stories end up in an optimistic place. I may put my characters through hell but they end up coming out in an optimistic place.

You really made an impressive entrance at Marvel Comics with All-New Hawkeye, Extraordinary X-Men, Old Man Logan and Moon Knight. How did you get to work for Marvel and how did you manage to find yourself at the helm of all these titles?
Jeff Lemire : [laughs] Well, I mean, I'd been working at DC comics for four or five years and I think I'd built a name for myself on Green Arrow and Animal Man. Then, last year, I felt it was time for a change, for various reasons. I met Axel Alonso, the editor in chief at Marvel Comics, and we talked about different things I might have worked on. Hawkeye was the first thing he wanted me to do and I didn't want to do it because Matt Fraction and David Aja's run was so special. It was very daunting to try to live up to it. So I was skeptical and I hesitated to take it on but then I came up with that idea of exploring Hawkeye's childhood. It seemed like something that I like to do with a lot of my characters. So, once I had an idea that I felt strong about, I decided to do Hawkeye and I think they were all very happy with how it turned out. And then it was just a matter of timing when the new X-Men came to be. They needed a new writer for X-Men and I was there [laughs]

You're the new Bendis.
Jeff Lemire : [laughs]

I read All-New Hawkeye yesterday and I think you found a right balance between Matt's established character and a new vision. And Ramon Perez's art is very powerful
Jeff Lemire : Everyone loved Matt and David's run on the series so I just didn't want to do something totally different to betray the readers Jeff Lemire All-New Hawkeye I wanted it to feel like the same characters that they'd invested in. But I didn't want to copy what they did either, I wanted it to be personal to me. So I've tried to find a balance between continuing with the kind of feeling they had going but also bring as much as possible of my own voice as well as Ramon's into it.

About Descender : when I read what it's about, I wondered why you picked Dustin to illustrate that. It's weird to see his style on this kind of story. Did you choose to work with him or was it a chance encounter?
Jeff Lemire : It's a great mix. Dustin and I Had been both working at DC for a long time but we never worked together. We always admired each other's work. So, when I left DC, he was also looking to do some creator-owned projects and it was perfect timing that we got to work together. It's such an effortless collaboration, I feel like we share brains and we hardly communicate at all ! We just have the same influences, the same way of telling a story. It's a perfect mix of two creators, it almost feels like destiny that we got to work together. When I used to look at Dustin's stuff, I always loved when he did watercolor – his private work was mostly watercolor – and I knew he wanted to do a full comic in watercolor. I felt it was interesting for Descender because... I mean it's a story about machines and technology, which is usually illustrated in a very precise, clean way but he's doing it in a very organic way, with watercolor. In a weird way, that mix of technology with the organic watercolor medium almost perfectly symbolizes the character of Tim – a machine, yet so human – it just works very well.

I know you do the covers on Descender but, in general, how do you choose to illustrate a particular title?
Jeff Lemire : I can write a number of titles at the same time but I can only ever draw one thing at a time because it's very time-consuming. I'm already working on a new graphic novel that will come out in may. Jeff Lemire DescenderI've been working on it for the last three years which is about when we started doing Descender so I've been kind of busy [laughs] But I wanted to do more creator-owned stuff. So, working with people like Dustin allows me to do more than one creator-owned project at a time. And after my graphic novel, I'll probably do a new Image book that I'll write and draw... Yeah, I can only really do one book at a time and if I'm going to invest as much time as it takes to draw something, I'd rather it be something that I own and create myself rather than a Marvel or DC property.

I don't know if this is still going on but you've been allegedly working with Scott Snyder on a new book. Could you tell us a bit about it?
Jeff Lemire : Yes, it's pretty exciting. I've just finished another graphic novel called Roughneck which will come out from Futuropolis in may and then I'm working right now drawing a book that Scott is writing which is called AD - After Death. It will be with Image Comics in the US. It's not a series, it's a graphic novel. It's sort of growing all the time and it started off at a hundred pages and it's getting bigger. It's science-fiction, located in a future where death has been genetically cured and it follows that society of people who are basically immortal. One of them in particular has everything he's ever wanted, he's immortal but he's very unhappy so it kind of explores him as he tries to escape all this. It's very interesting and we're doing it in this strange format which will be prose, like a novel this guy is writing and I'm illustrating just illustrations, not comics, and the other half will be in comics form so it's a mixture of every thing Scott does and everything I do.

Do you collaborate on the writing with Scott?
Jeff Lemire : No, Scott does all the writing and I'm drawing.

Jeff Lemire Roughneck So it's the first time you're only illustrating a book?
Jeff Lemire : Yeah, I've done a couple of short stories with others, that I didn't write but I've never drawn something this long that someone else wrote so it's interesting.

Doesn't it feel weird?
Jeff Lemire : It's challenging in a good way because it forces me to do things that I wouldn't do if I was writing myself and it pushed me in different directions that I would never have taken on my own, visually. So it's helped me grow, I think my artwork has leaped a lot on these next two projects, from Sweet Tooth and things... And it's kind of fun to try to interpret Scott's vision. We're really good friends, Scott and I, we've known each other for a while and we talk about so many things. I know him so well that I know his intentions and what he wants. It's very easy, like, we don't need to communicate too much, I know what he wants.

Last question regarding your work : I love Trillium. How do you look back on this series?
Jeff Lemire : I'm very proud of it. I think that, in a weird way, Descender would never have been had I not done Trillium because Trillium was my first incursion into hard sci-fi. I loved the world-building so much, doing it, that I wanted to do more and that led to Descender which is bigger in scope than Trillium. And I really loved the experimentation of Trillium, with the format. Yeah, I'm really proud of it.

Were you given the power to get inside the head of someone famous, live or deceased, in order to understand his art or his techniques or just how his or her mind works, who would you choose and why?
Jeff Lemire : David Lynch, the film director. Ever since I was a kid, his work has affected more deeply than anyone else's. I almost can't explain it, it's just... So powerful to me, so influential... He's my hero. but, artistically? Definitively Dave McKean [laughs]. Because he's so versatile, he can do so many different things and do them so well... If I could rob his talent, that would be great.

Thank you Jeff !

Jeff Lemire Descender