Essex County Cover
In 2011, Essex County was the first graphic novel to make it onto the top five list for CBC’s Canada Reads. The book was eliminated in the first round— Georges Laraque called it a “cartoon”—but it still helped bring graphic novels and the creator of Essex County, Jeff Lemire, into the Canadian consciousness. Recently, I had the chance to talk with Lemire on the phone and I asked him how he felt about Essex County being included in Canada Reads:
“That was really exciting. Not just for me, but I think just for the recognition that it brought graphic novels in general in the country, and I think that it got a lot of people reading Essex County and then subsequently, other graphic novels. […] The book obviously didn’t do as well as I hoped it would, but at the same time the backlash that came from it being voted off early was so strong that maybe it ended up getting more attention than it would have if it had been voted out later.”
Essex County was originally published in three volumes by Top Shelf Productions and took Lemire two to three years to complete: “It’s hard to remember, because it’s been a few years now, but I think I started the first chapter somewhere in 2006 and then I finished the last book in early 2008, maybe? Or 2009. […] So, you know, it was like a three year process to do the whole thing.”
Lemire has two more books forthcoming from Top Shelf Productions this year. Lost Dogs, shipping in April, was originally self-published with the help of the Xerix Foundation, which awards grants to self-publishing comic book creators. Lost Dogs is a brutal story in which a man’s wife and daughter are attacked while he watches helplessly. You can see Lemire’s art style beginning to develop, though it’s a little rough. I asked him what it was like to look back at his older work:
“Generally pretty painful. […] I’m the kind of guy who, as soon as I’m done a drawing, I just have to put it away and move onto the next one. I’m never really satisfied with my work. Which is good, because you’re always pushing yourself to get better and you don’t really rest on anything. But at the same time, […] when you look at an old project like that, [you] can barely look at the artwork, it’s just so rough, but you just have to have faith that there’s something in there that people will enjoy.”
The second book coming from Top Shelf Productions, in August 2012, is The Underwater Welder. Lemire says that the graphic novel is “kind of my follow up to Essex County in a lot of ways. It’s not the same characters or anything, but just sort of thematically and aesthetically it’s probably the closest thing to Essex County that I’ve done.”
The story is set in a fictional Nova Scotian town:
“It follows this guy who’s a welder on an off-shore oil rig, and [he] and his wife live in this really tiny coastal town and they’re expecting their first baby. [So] he’s experiencing a lot of pressure […] and it’s taking its toll on his marriage and on the job. […] Then one day he surfaces from working under the ocean […] into a world that’s really different from the one he left, and he’s got to find his way back to his unborn son and his wife.”
Lemire also has several other projects that he’s currently working on. Sweet Tooth, published by Vertigo, is Lemire’s ongoing creator-owned project, which he writes and draws. He is also the outgoing writer of Frankenstein, Agent of S.HA.D.E. (DC Comics) and his final issue will be #9, coming May 9, 2012. He is the incoming writer for Justice League Dark (DC Comics) and his first issue will be#9, coming May 23, 2012. And finally, he is the writer of Animal Man (DC Comics), which has Lemire collaborating with Scott Snyder, the writer of Swamp Thing.
I asked Lemire about the process of collaborating with Snyder:
“It’s kind of a unique situation, just because Scott and I are really good friends, so the collaboration, so to speak, just sort of started unofficially .We just like to share each other’s scripts and get feedback from each other […] all the time, so it started as that, it wasn’t every actually going to be an official crossover that would show up in [Animal Man and Swamp Thing]. It was just us talking. Talking about story and coming up with ideas together […] and it just kind of evolved out of that.”
I also asked Lemire how he felt about the way his treatment of female characters has developed. He said that the first two volumes of Essex County were definitely about men, and fathers and sons, but he’s proud of the fact that the main character of the third volume was a sixty-year-old woman. “You don’t see a lot of comics with the lead character being a sixty-year-old woman who isn’t wearing some kind of crazy costume,” Lemire explained. While Sweet Tooth also started out focusing on father and son relationships, Lemire says that as the series progresses and the cast grows, he is introducing more female characters.
“You know, it’s definitely something that’s important to me, trying to show real women and not just fall back on clichés. […] In some sense that’s what I’m most proud of with Animal Man, is that [Buddy Baker’s] daughter Maxine and his wife Ellen are both, I think, really strong characters. […] I think that’s partially why people have responded to that book so strongly.”
Fans of Animal Man will be relieved to know that Lemire has no plans to leave the book anytime soon: “that’s a book that I don’t want to leave until I have to for whatever reason. I can see myself writing it for years and years.” As for future projects, Lemire was working on new artwork while we were on the phone, but what it was for, he couldn’t say. “It’s for a project that hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s really fun. A break from my usual projects I guess. I have a month off between Sweet Tooth issues, so I took this little job that they’ll probably announce later this summer, with a writer that I really respect.”