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AICN COMICS Q&@: Matt Adler talks with SWEET TOOTH and SUPERBOY writer Jeff Lemire!


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AICN COMICS: Q&@ is our new semi-weekly interview column where some of your favorite @$$Holes interview comic bookdom’s biggest, brightest, newest, and oldest stars. Enjoy this latest in-depth interview filled with @$$y goodness and be sure to look for more AICN COMICS as we gaze into the future of comics every week with AICN COMICS: SPINNER RACK PREVIEWS returning soon every Monday and then join the rest of your favorite @$$Holes for their opinions on the weekly pull every Wednesday with AICN COMICS REVIEWS!

Q’s by Matt Adler!

@’s by Writer Jeff Lemire!

Matt Adler here. Jeff Lemire is a busy man. He’s writing and drawing SWEET TOOTH, his critically acclaimed Vertigo series about a half-human, half-animal boy trying to make his way in a post-apocalyptic world. He’s chronicling the adventures of DC’s SUPERBOY every month. And he’s got still more projects on the way. Even with all this, he still took time out to talk to me about his projects, shortly before the release of the 17th issue of SWEET TOOTH, and the creative process behind them. Enjoy!

MATT ADLER (MA): You’re 16 issues into SWEET TOOTH so far; are you pleased with the reaction to the series? Were you surprised with the reception it got?

JEFF LEMIRE (JL): Yeah, honestly I was. I think that anytime you’re doing a new book that isn’t a well known character or a superhero or something in this kind of marketplace it’s really risky. So I’m just happy that the sales have been steady enough and the trades have sold well enough that I’m actually going to get to tell the whole story I wanted to tell. The biggest fear about investing in a project like this at the beginning is that you put so much of yourself into it and then 9 issues in or something, you find out you’re cancelled. It can be pretty crushing. That was really my only expectation going in, just hoping that I could at least get 12 issues. So yeah, I’m just really happy that obviously now I’m going to get to tell the whole big story I always wanted to tell.

MA: There’ve been a lot of changes at Vertigo since you first came on board. Have they affected how you’ve developed the book?

JL: You know, honestly, no, they haven’t. Like you said, the book’s only 16 issues in (I’m on issue 20), but in that short time I’ve already had 4 editors on the book itself, and then on top of that, all the big changes at DC and at Vertigo. You would think that stuff would trickle down and affect the day to day, but one thing Vertigo’s really been good at is, and I credit Karen Berger for this, despite all that other stuff that’s going on on the business side of things, she really manages to keep the creative side of the books consistent, and cushion us from all that, and let us keep going and doing our thing. So there hasn’t really been any direct influence on the book at all.

MA: Two of the central concepts of the book are the plague that’s wiped out a lot of humanity, and probably the most unusual aspect of the book, the hybrid creatures that populate it. Where did those concepts come from in your mind?

JL: I think it came from a mishmash of a whole bunch of different things that I liked growing up, or things that I read that I liked. At the time that I was developing SWEET TOOTH, I was working on a book called THE NOBODY for Vertigo, which was loosely based on H.G. Wells’ THE INVISIBLE MAN. So I was reading a lot of H.G. Wells at the time, so I think THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU crept in there somewhere. And I was also really into Jack Kirby’s KAMANDI series at the time. Initially I think there might have been a spark of an idea where I thought maybe I would pitch a new KAMANDI series to DC, after THE NOBODY. Are you familiar with Kamandi at all?

MA: Yeah, the boy at the end of the world, right?

JL: Yeah, so if you take the big high concept elements of Kamandi, the last boy on Earth, and the human/animal hybrids, and things like that, you can obviously see how some of that influenced the ideas that went into SWEET TOOTH. And less specifically, I just always loved post-apocalyptic fiction. I feel like whenever you get that kind of post-apocalyptic world, it amps all the tension and drama within the characters up to such a level. Everything’s so high stakes automatically when you get into that kind of a situation. They’re just such fun stories to read, and I always wanted to try my hand at doing a long form adventure story like that. So it’s just a mix of all kinds of stuff I grew up loving, and the animal hybrid stuff just seemed like a unique way to put a take on that.

MA: The two characters that have been the focus of the series up to this point, Gus and Jeppard, have sort of an interesting, some might say twisted relationship; do you think that Gus is better or worse off for having met Jeppard? Do you think being exposed to that kind of brutal reality of the world was valuable to him?

JL: I can’t really answer that question fully without revealing where things are headed, but as far as the arcs those characters have been on so far, when we first meet Gus, he’s in almost every way the embodiment of innocence, or childhood, and purity. He’s led a completely sheltered life and has no idea of what’s going on in the world at large. And then the instant he meets Jeppard and leaves the woods, you just automatically see him slowly in some ways being corrupted and hardened, and awakened to the bad things in life. But at the same time now, in the last couple of issues, and the last arc specifically, you see the betrayal he’s been forced to go through has started to make him mature in a weird way, and he’s becoming almost a protector to the other animal kids. Where that’s headed I don’t want to reveal too much, but that is kind of a big question of the series: is Gus going to become totally corrupted like Jeppard or is he going to evolve into something else as a result?

MA: In terms of Jeppard, is it that he’s started to feel sympathy for Gus, and that’s what’s starting to crack his hard exterior?

JL: Well, I think when we meet Jeppard, he’s almost a two-dimensional character on purpose. In the first couple of issues where he shows up, I made him almost a clichéd, grizzled, bad-ass sci-fi character, where he’s just completely hardened and embodies violence. And then slowly, when you get his back story, you see that there’s a bit more to him than that. And the idea of Jeppard, again, it’s almost the exact opposite of what’s going on with Gus, where he starts off with no hope and he’s lost everything he had to live for, and he’s just completely become this cold kind of figure of violence, whose only goal is to survive at that point. And then Gus slowly awakens all the things that he used to be, all the things that he had lost, and starts to remind him of his humanity. So obviously Gus’ influence on him is a positive one, where he’s becoming more of the man he was before all this happened. But then again, you could argue that’s leading to a bad place for him, in that if he becomes too soft and too human again, it might make him more vulnerable.

MA: Are you very conscious to not have any clear cut heroes and villains in this series?

JL: For the most part. There are a couple of guys like Abbott who’s pretty much just straight-up bad guy, but I kind of like to play off expectations a little bit in that sense, where when we first hear about Dr. Singh, and when we first see him in the first few panels, you get the sense that he’s going to be this mad scientist bad guy, which is obviously not at all what he ends up being. So it’s kind of fun to take a cliché or an expectation and twist it a bit like that. But for the most part, I’m trying to make all the characters as real as I can and make their motivations make sense, so even when people are doing bad things in this world, it’s usually, at least in their minds, for the right reasons. Singh’s an example of that. The only exception might be Abbott, who really does seem evil to the core for the most part.

MA: Obviously this is to a large extent a fantasy world, but have you drawn upon your own life experiences for this book?

JL: That’s a tough one to answer. Specifically, no, I can’t really think of anything offhand that has directly filtered into the book. But when you’re creating something every day, your real life is going to influence how you’re doing it. So I’m sure it does. At the time that I first started working on the book, we just had our first child, so I think a lot of Gus’ innocence was probably me trying to represent that, what I was experiencing in some way. And just seeing my kid grow up and seeing him change I think is influencing how Gus is changing.

MA: Can you give us an overview of how you approach creating an issue of the series?

JL: It’s a pretty organic process. When I write SUPERBOY or something for DC, I’ll write the script and hand it off and for the most part I’m done with it at that point. Whereas with SWEET TOOTH, I’ll write a script just to get all the main points out, and get the dialogue down, and make sure it all fits within the issue, but the finished product that comes back at the end when I’m done inking is usually dramatically different from the script I wrote because I’m always changing things, and switching them around, and moving panels, and rearranging pages, right up until the last moment. It’s all a very organic process. So there isn’t one set way that I make an issue. Sometimes I’ll do a whole scene and it won’t be working, and I’ll just go back and redraw it a completely different way that I never planned on and new things will come out. So, being able to write and draw your own book gives you that kind of an advantage, and I try to take full advantage of that, and make sure each issue is as good as it can be, in the time that I have to do it.

MA: Can you give us any teases about what’s ahead in the book?

JL: Well, I won’t say anything about the next issue, because that’s the end of the “Animal Armies” arc and there’s some big reveals there, but beyond that, issue #19 has three guest artists joining me, a couple of friends of mine, to help give me a little bit of a break. So there’s going to be three short stories within the issue, each drawn by a different person. And then issue #20 kicks off the next arc which is going to be called “Endangered Species”. And that introduces a new character and kind of a new direction for the book that sets it on the path of where I’m planning to take it at the end of the whole thing. We’re kind of in the second half of the overall story now.

MA: Let’s turn to your work on SUPERBOY. How did you get that gig?

JL: I was approached by Geoff Johns to work on THE ATOM for DC. Geoff was a big SWEET TOOTH fan, so that’s kind of how he got to know my work.

MA: Was that in his role as Chief Creative Officer?

JL: Yeah, exactly. This was like a couple of weeks after he got that actually. I think one of the things he was excited about in getting that job was the ability to kind of take a bigger role in bringing some people he admired in and bringing some fresh blood into the DC Universe to try to reenergize things. So I know he called me, and Scott Snyder from AMERICAN VAMPIRE, and a couple of other guys, all within a couple of days there, and he offered me that job. So I started working on that, and I was just getting along really well with the editors, and they enjoyed working with me, so we just right away started thinking about what to do next. And Geoff suggested that they wanted to do a SUPERBOY ongoing and that I might be a good fit for that, so it really was kind of that easy where one thing led to another.

MA: That’s interesting, because there always seemed to be sort of this wall between Vertigo and the mainstream DC Universe where you had these Vertigo creators who sometimes talked about wanting to do DC heroes and never really got around to it.

JL: Yeah, obviously there were a lot of changes at DC right around that time that Geoff got that role, and Dan DiDio and Jim Lee got promoted. And I think one of the things those guys consciously talked about was breaking down those barriers between Vertigo and DC and trying to bring some of that creative energy from Vertigo into DC. So yeah, I think when you see Scott Snyder on DETECTIVE COMICS now, and me on SUPERBOY, that’s kind of the first signs of that happening.

MA: So this Superboy is a clone, partly of Superman, and partly of Lex Luthor. Do you think this incarnation of Superboy works better than the original, who was simply Clark Kent when he was a teenager?

JL: I like those stories a lot, but I just feel at some point, just telling young adventures of Superman can get kind of boring, because there’s already like 3 Superman books every month, and then you get a fourth one with the same character. So I kind of like this one better, just in that he can be his own character, and you have more freedom to plot out your future. Whereas with the young Superman character, you know where it’s headed, and you’re kind of restricted in what you can do to him.

MA: The Superboy Syndrome. You know he’s going to be all right in the end, because he grows up to be Superman.

JL: Precisely. Whereas with this character, we don’t know anything; anything can happen. So I have so much more freedom to choose the direction of where he’s going and how’s going to grow up and what kind of man he’ll end up being, if he’ll be a hero, a villain…all these things are open. So obviously it’s a lot more fun to write that.

MA: Have you had to do much research in terms of reading back issues in order to write the series?

JL: I was pretty familiar with a lot of that stuff; I grew up reading DC, so I was pretty well-versed in the history. But I re-read a lot of the old runs on the character, just to refresh myself. But for the most part, I was pretty much aware of everything.

MA: You’ve mentioned various comics that you’ve read: KAMANDI, SUPERBOY, and I know you’ve said elsewhere that Jeppard from SWEET TOOTH was somewhat based visually on Frank Castle from Garth Ennis and Richard Corben’s PUNISHER: THE END. So how long have you been reading comics?

JL: Oh God, honestly, I think I started reading comics when I was like 4 years old. I was just, for whatever reason, instantly drawn to them as a little kid and just right away was always copying pictures from them and drawing them and reading them, and I just never stopped. So that goes back 30 years that they’ve been a huge part of my life. And I always was a DC fan as a kid for whatever reason, so I’m really well-versed in all of DC’s characters and history. So I try to draw on a lot of that stuff with the SUPERBOY book and try to bring a lot of my favorite characters into the book. You already saw The Phantom Stranger in the first issue and he’ll be back and play a big role in the series, as will a bunch of other kind of peripheral DC characters that I always really enjoyed.

MA: What were your favorite books when you were growing up?

JL: When I was young, the two books I really loved were THE TEEN TITANS, that Marv Wolfman and George Perez were doing, and THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES , that Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen were doing. Those two books were just my favorite thing as a kid, and then as I got a bit older, I started to get into stuff that would eventually become Vertigo, like the early SWAMP THING, and SANDMAN and HELLBLAZER. And then when Vertigo officially became Vertigo, I got really wrapped up in all that stuff. And then that led me, as I got closer to 19, 20, I started to get into more alternative and underground cartoonists and discovered a bigger breadth of what was out there. And now I just read a bunch of everything.

MA: So would you ever want to tackle LEGION or TITANS as a creator?

JL: I don’t know, it’s one of those things where you’re so close to it as a kid, you almost wonder if you can do it without just writing bad fan-fiction, you know? When I took on SUPERBOY or THE ATOM, which I was aware of, but never a superfan of, I’m a lot more open to interpret it. Whereas the early versions of those characters are just so ingrained in my memory, of the Titans and Legion, I don’t know if I could escape it. So it might be kind of tough.

MA: I imagine it would be even harder to tackle as an artist, given how many characters are in those series.

JL: Oh God, yeah, I wouldn’t want to do that. I haven’t done a team book yet, but it’s something I guess at some point I’ll want to tackle. So who knows? But I don’t know if the TITANS or LEGION are something I’m really drawn to; the SUPERBOY book has a lot of teenage characters; aside from Superboy, there’s a large ensemble cast of teenage characters and it’s almost like a teen team book as it is. So if I did another book after this, I think I’d want to get away from doing teenage characters just to stretch different muscles.

MA: And he already has connections to The Legion…

JL: And the Titans as well. So I’d probably want to stay away from that whole corner of the DCU and try something completely different. DOOM PATROL is always something that I really want to take a crack at, someday.

MA: So given your background, it was probably a pretty simple shift to move into writing the superhero genre, right?

JL: Yeah, up till that point I had only done independent stuff and then SWEET TOOTH, so I hadn’t really tackled that kind of stuff yet, but like I said, I was really aware of it, so it was just a matter of bringing the sensibility that I had developed as a writer up to that point doing indie comics, and try to infuse that into that superhero stuff and see what came out. So it’s been interesting. I think I’m getting better as I go. It’s a big difference writing superheroes from writing your own stuff. There’s a lot more restrictions in some ways, but then in other ways, it’s so much fun too. It’s fun to balance doing my own stuff with doing SUPERBOY; one keeps me fresh on the other one. When I get bored doing SWEET TOOTH, or get kind of burnt out, I can jump to SUPERBOY, and it just seems so fun and colorful, and then when that kind of gets stale, I can switch back to SWEET TOOTH. Each just kind of keeps me motivated.

MA: Do you have a preference in terms of writing for yourself or writing for another artist?

JL: Oh, I always prefer drawing my own stuff. At the end of the day, that’ll always be my main focus, writing and drawing my own material. There’s so much more control, and I can do so much with the art in addition to the script, and add so much more to the page myself, whereas with writing for another artist, you only have so much control and you have to let go at some point. But again, as long as I get to do both, it’s kind of fun to be able to do both. I can never see a day where I just write for other artists, though. Creatively, I just wouldn’t be fulfilled not drawing.

MA: Are you happy with the art on SUPERBOY?

JL: Oh yeah, very much so. Pier’s a great artist and a great collaborator. Like I said, it’s fun to jump between the two, so I get all that control with SWEET TOOTH, and it’s also fun to just write the script and let it go and kind of be surprised at what comes back, because obviously I don’t surprise myself when I’m drawing; I kind of know what it’s going to look like. So when I see his art come back for SUPERBOY, it can be a really pleasant surprise, where he’ll take a direction or a layout in a way that I wouldn’t have but it can be better or just different in a way that’s sort of surprising. It’s fun to get that back.

MA: Would you ever want to try the plot-pencils-script method?

JL: No, that just doesn’t seem...because I’m so used to drawing my own stuff, I tend to be very visual. I lay out a lot of the layouts and the visual aspect of the book with my script, and that’s part of what I enjoy, so I don’t know that I’d ever want to do it the other way.

MA: So do you have any teases about what’s in store for SUPERBOY?

JL: In issue #3 and #4, we get more of a focus on Superboy’s high school life and his friends, and his relationship to the town and to Ma Kent… we kind of flesh all that stuff out a lot. And I introduce a new superhero that I created in those two issues as well. In issue #5, we have the Superboy/Kid Flash race which is a lot of fun. In issue #6, we have the crossover with the other SUPERMAN books for the DOOMSDAY crossover. Beyond that I can’t say too much yet. But there’s some big stuff coming up.

MA: Are you working on anything else at the moment?

JL: I’m writing and drawing another graphic novel for Top Shelf who published my first stuff, so I’m kind of slowly working on that in between everything else, and that’s probably a couple of years away. And then there’s three other DC projects that are in the works…

MA: Top-secret?

JL: Yeah, they’re top-secret, but they’ll probably be announced early next year.

MA: Thanks for taking the time to chat. The ongoing adventures of SUPERBOY and SWEET TOOTH are both on the shelves every month from DC Comics!

Matt Adler is a writer/journalist, currently writing for AICN among other outlets. He’s been reading comics for 20 years, writing about them for 7, and spends way, way, too much time thinking about them, which means he really has no choice but to figure out how to make a living out of them. He welcomes all feedback.

Editing, compiling, imaging, coding, logos & cat-wrangling by Ambush Bug
Proofs, co-edits & common sense provided by Sleazy G

Readers Talkback
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  • Jan. 20, 2011, 11:18 a.m. CST

    Huge talent to watch out for

    by EvilPants

    Lemire is one of the creators I'm most excited about in comics right now. His Essex County is pretty much a comics masterpiece. Sweet Tooth is well on it's way to becoming a classic, and The Nobody is pretty amazing as well. I thought the Superboy issues he's done were fine, but I'd much rather see him doing his own creator-owned work.

  • Been very curious about the new Superboy series for a while -- after reading your interview, I'm going to pick up the back issues. Would love to buy Sweet Tooth as well, but frankly comics are so damn expensive I have to be very selective in the titles I purchase, and I tend to stay with my core band of silver age stalwarts. Now, if these titles were available as digital downloads at a reasonable price (no I don't consider $1.99 - $2.99 reasonable for digital) I would support a lot more titles on a monthly basis. Yes, that is correct - I am cheap AND narrow-minded.

  • Jan. 24, 2011, 1:46 p.m. CST

    Wizard Magazine is shutting down!

    by bobsjohnson

    Holy crap....shouldn't this be news here?