Way back when the Earth’s crust was beginning to cool, I was a Vertigo associate editor who had just inherited the editing reins of Jeff Lemire’s first ongoing comic, Sweet Tooth. I had already become a fan after reading his tremendous Essex County Trilogy, but Sweet Tooth would quickly become one of my most-rewarding professional experiences, leading to a friendship with Jeff that extended far past that book.
From there, every comics fan knows what happened to Jeff: He’s become one of comics’ hottest writers, whether it’s mainstream superheroes (DC Comics' Animal Man and Green Arrow, Marvel’s Hawkeye and Moon Knight); the comics he cartoons himself (Top Shelf’s The Underwater Welder, Image Comics' Royal City); or his white-hot creator-owned collaborations (Image’s Descender, Dark Horse’s Black Hammer). Meanwhile, my time editing Vertigo books like Sweet Tooth, The Unwritten and Daytripper earned me an invitation to join DC’s at-the-time Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns ushering DC properties to film and TV, eventually leading Geoff and I to start DC’s TV department with shows like Arrow, The Flash and Gotham, and then with me overseeing that department before finally leaving to pursue my own writing.
But March 2018 proves a homecoming for both Jeff and I. His new Image ongoing Gideon Falls reunites him with one of his most frequent and talented collaborators, Andrea Sorrentino, on a concept he began conceiving before his career even started -- following a young man obsessed with a conspiracy in the city’s trash, the washed-up Catholic priest arriving in a small town full of dark secrets, and their ties to the mysterious Black Barn. My new Image comic Infidel with artist Aaron Campbell marks my first major comic as writer, with a story about an American Muslim woman and her multiracial neighbors living in a building haunted by creatures that seemingly feed off xenophobia.
That Jeff and I were both now working on Image horror books was too big a coincidence for me not to reach out. I was dying to talk comics with him -- not just about our new books, but craft and what originally inspired us as I tried to learn more about the process of one of comics’ most prolific and popular writers, to selfishly mine lessons for myself.
Pornsak Pichetshote: OK, so the first comic I ever got was Amazing Spider-Man #230, the back half of “Nobody Stops the Juggernaut.” The first runs I remember buying was Marvel Tales, which reprinted all the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Spider-Man, and Adventures of Superboy that I only bought for the Dial H for Hero backup strips. What’s interesting to me when I look back at Spider-Man, is that I remember how much I responded to that outsider/one-man-against-the-world feeling. While in Dial H for Hero, it was its pure imagination; those two themes carrying over into everything I do now. What were your first comics, and has any of it carried over into your work?
Jeff Lemire: Well the first one I can remember is… DC used to do these DC Blue Ribbon Digests. They’d reprint the Silver Age stuff in the same format as those Archie digests. This would have been 1981/1982, I guess. I would have been five, and I remember getting one of those in a grocery store, and it was reprinting the Justice Society comics Paul Levitz had done with Joe Staton in the ‘70s.
As for runs… I kind of got everything. I would just buy anything I could find, because I lived in a really small place, so you couldn't always get the same things every month. It was just whatever they had, which was Marvel and DC. The first time I ever really remember getting into a run or following a creative team would have been the Wolfman/Perez New Teen Titans, and then Crisis on Infinite Earths. But I think my biggest influence might have been DC's Who's Who because I just got obsessed with how each character was drawn, and I started recognizing different art styles through that book. I started remembering the names of the artists, copying them and looking at how they were drawing those characters.
How old were you then?
I would have been about 9 or 10. That wasn't the first stuff I was getting, but that's when I started to really draw a lot and recognize different art styles --
It’s impressive you even knew George Perez's name at 10, though.
I feel like when I was that age, I might have liked this art or that, but I don't know if I necessarily would have remembered the artist who drew it.
I think that’s when I started to. I read everything, but with Who's Who and stuff like that, I started recognizing names of artists and writers. It was a little more art-driven back when we were kids. Now it's more writer-driven. It's funny. When I was a little kid, a lot of the artists whose art at the time I thought was ugly are now my favorite artists, people like Jack Kirby and Joe Kubert. The classic guys. [Laughs] I didn’t get it.
You know, I had the exact same thing happen to me with Steve Ditko. I loved the first 50 issues of Spider-Man, but for the first 36, I loved the stories but wished I liked the art more, because Steve Ditko’s art… I just didn’t get it. And then it went over to John Romita, and I’m like, “Oh this is so much prettier. I like this style more.” But then something was missing from the stories. At that age, I didn't know that something was Ditko. Now, he’s one of my favorite artists.
Going back to your question about the storylines that imprinted on me, I think if you went back, the two big books for me were always Titans (the Perez stuff) and then Legion -- and this might be a stretch, but -- they both had real family dynamics. Relationships between the characters, especially in the Titans stuff, and you really got a sense of family with those characters. If I see myself carrying anything forward, it might be that.
I kind of wonder about people who were getting into comics in the mid-'90s [Laughs] They were so bad... You look at that stuff now. It’s just such trash. I know that’s unfair…
It’s a good question, though: What were the things that people connected to at that time, that kept them in comics, because you’re right, it wasn’t the stories.
I think in the ‘90s, it seemed to be that visceral in-your-face art style, right? No one cared about the stories so much. At the same time, you had the complete opposite of that happening at Vertigo. It was the other end of the spectrum. I guess comics really weren’t that bad. It was more the superhero stuff kind of took a dip there for a while.
You and me, we’re about the same age, so I’d love to ask someone a generation behind us and see what got them hooked on comics in the ‘90s.
Yeah, the one book I have talked about with creators who are maybe a generation younger than us, who talk about it in the way we talk about Legion or Titans, is Grant Morrison’s JLA. That seems to be a real touchstone for a lot of those people, and I could see that. I kind of missed that. That was the era where I got out of superheroes and was only reading Vertigo stuff. I didn’t get into that stuff until later and re-read it. So I guess there was stuff, you just had to look to find it.