Whether he’s working with an indie press or a large comic publisher, graphic novelist and comic artist Jeff Lemire creates characters and settings both unsettling and familiar
By Brooke Ford
Comic artist Jeff Lemire sketches obsessively, sometimes for more than eight hours a day, drawing and re-drawing a series of portraits whose origins he can’t quite explain. “Certain characters start reoccurring over time,” he says. “I had this little boy with antlers, he kept popping up. And usually when that happens, a story is not too far behind.”
Add antler-boy to Lemire’s ongoing fascination with social outcasts, rural landscapes pierced with mystery, and childhood innocence betrayed, and you’ve got his latest project, the serial comic Sweet Tooth. Published by Vertigo starting last year and recently released in a collected Volume I edition, Sweet Tooth is the tale of Gus, a boy born with antlers sheltered from the world by his caring father. But when the curious plague that devastated the population finally reaches their little bit of woods, Gus is left to fend for himself. Enter one Mr. Jepperd, a coarse anti-hero who rescues Gus and promises to take him to “the preserve,” a place where similar mutant kiddies all live in peace. What happens next is as intimately disturbing as that first singularly obsessive image of a wide-eyed antler boy suggests.
Lemire’s artwork and writing are haunting in ways that provoke an eerie aftertaste, both comforting and unnerving. These idiosyncrasies are as unmistakable in his early self-published work Lost Dogs as they are in his most recent post-apocalyptic comic series Sweet Tooth. Lemire’s graphic novels have always seethed with grim outlooks such as his project with publisher Top Shelf, Essex County, a bleak tribute to the farming area Southeast of Detroit/Windsor where he grew up But in Sweet Tooth, with its heartbreaking array of confused children adorned with horns and snouts, it’s clear that Lemire is traveling farther and farther away from home.
“I just try to think of a situation where you can take that to an extreme,” Lemire explains. “And if you take total innocence
Gus who didn’t know anything about our world and throw him into this world, it’s just such a contrast, such a shock, and that’s where the tension in the story comes from.”
There’s something in the way Lemire establishes his characters, especially Gus, that never allows you to question their existence. “A boy with antlers, why not?” Lemire quips with a laugh. This is also true for The Nobody, Lemire’s last graphic novel, a riff on The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells that reads more like a silent film than a graphic novel. “I like taking concepts and just treating them like they’re normal,” he says. “Instead of having these big loud moments where you draw attention to it, you just focus on the small quiet moments.”
There are plenty of quiet moments to be found in Sweet Tooth, especially with the latest issue concentrating exclusively on a single conversation between two characters. As Lemire describes his style of pacing, “I think it started with Essex County, that quiet style, and then it became a part of how I tell stories.” There’s a difference though, between having five pages for a single scene compared to having only 22 pages in total, as is the case with a serial comic: “You have to find other ways to create that sense of time. But it makes you grow and that’s the joy of comics. There are so many different ways of using time between panels and issues, it’s just playing with time.” It’s also a melding of genres, as Sweet Tooth brings together a science fiction fantasy with a typical Western Jepperd and Gus are saddled to a horse, traveling in what seems like an aimless direction through a vast and endless landscape. For Lemire, it’s about expanding these genres to encompass new ways of understanding them and the characters that inhabit these worlds. At the beginning, Jepperd comes across as a two-dimensional violent archetype. “You’ll see that he turns into something very different from the person you think he is,” Lemire discloses. “How Gus and Jepperd end up changing and influencing each other throughout the story is really what the comic is about.”
What’s most exciting about Sweet Tooth is its culmination of some of Lemire’s most frequent artistic motifs. While his illustrative style has changed from a thoroughly gritty and aggressive approach, with panels drawn in thick, intrusive lines, to what in Sweet Tooth becomes a gentler style with arresting subtleties, there are compelling recurrences. Most noticeably, Lemire’s trademarks can be found in the faces of his characters, especially in the more brutish ones, their drive to be beaten and punished for an unspoken burden evoked by hands that are consistently wrapped up as fists eager for anger and provocation. There are also striking similarities between Gus and Lester, the boy on the farm from Essex. Both boys have been recently separated from their fathers, are paired up with a harsh fatherly figure, and are reflections of what Lemire continuously refers to as “an innocent.”
Producing Essex County Trilogy with Top Shelf, its first volume published in March 2007, is what got Lemire through DC/ Vertigo’s door, a rare opportunity to do unconventional projects with a large comic publisher. “If I wasn’t doing Sweet Tooth with Vertigo, I’d be doing it with Top Shelf,” he says. It’s important to find a balance between big business like DC and small indie presses like Top Shelf, says Lemire. “On a business level and on a creative level, doing work for DC where I can make a decent pay cheque lets me make comics for a living and still produce smaller books.” As a major difference between the two publishers, Lemire notes that while Vertigo puts out so many new comics on a monthly basis, they can only promote in “little pushes,” Top Shelf, on the other hand, still continues to promote Essex County.
Along with re-releasing Lost Dogs later this year, Lemire will be publishing a new 250 page graphic novel The Underwater Welder, expected in 2012, again with Top Shelf. With this forthcoming work, Lemire promises to lay bare more tales about fathers and sons and the half-truths of memory and family secrets.