Lemire Embiggens Ray Palmer

Fresh off a "Best New Series" Eisner nomination for "Sweet Tooth," DC Comics announced this morning via its blog, The Source that Jeff Lemire would be teaming up with artist Mahmud Asrar ("Dynamo 5") on "Brightest Day: The Atom" #1 in July. The one-shot special will serve as launchpad for a new ongoing story that will continue as the co-feature in the pages of "Adventure Comics," beginning in #516.

DC Comics Editor Brian Cunningham also revealed in the post that Ray Palmer would be the featured Atom, and not Ryan Choi.

Ray Palmer, created by the legendary duo of Gardner Fox and Gil Kane, was introduced as the Silver Age Atom in "Showcase" #34 in 1961. Palmer is a scientist and a teacher who develops a lens fixed with white dwarf star matter, which enables him to shrink any object to any degree he wishes. The unfortunate side effect is that, after an object is treated, it explodes. When a freak spelunking accident forces Palmer to turn the technology on himself to get out of collapsed cave, he not only saves the day, but The Atom is born.

In recent years, Ryan Choi has been used as the all-new Atom operating in the DCU and was even featured in his own ongoing series, written by Gail Simone. But during the megahit "Blackest Night" event series, Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis threw Ray Palmer back under the lens and DC's smallest hero is once again playing in the big leagues.

CBR News spoke with Lemire from his home in Toronto and the über-talented indie star shared what it is about Ray Palmer that he makes his size irrelevant to his stature within the DCU.

CBR News: First off, congratulations on the Eisner nomination for "Sweet Tooth." You obviously don't get into creating comics to win awards but, it's nice to be recognized, all the same, isn't it?

Jeff Lemire: Oh, of course. Any time your peers or the people in your industry take a look at what you're doing and say, "Yeah, this is good," that's the type of validation you need - sometimes - to remind yourself that you are doing something good. Being a cartoonist, you're alone most of the time and you don't get a lot of feedback, so it's really nice to be recognized. And to get put into a category with so many great books, it's great.

Shifting to today's news, how did your involvement with Ray Palmer come about? Did you ask to play in the DCU sandbox, or did they drag you in kicking and screaming?

Geoff Johns called me one day out of the blue and asked me if I wanted to do it. So no, it wasn't me trying to pitch or get some work or anything. It just happened.

I guess when Geoff Johns calls, you take the call.

The funniest part was that I was working in my studio, and my wife was with the baby, and he called and she was in the middle of trying to deal with the baby and she almost just told him that I couldn't come to the phone because she was too busy so she wouldn't have to come get me [laughs]. Can you believe it?

So, what was the offer you couldn't refuse?

He just said that he was taking a bigger role within DC and he was looking to bring some fresh writers in. He's a big fan of "Sweet Tooth," and he felt that I had an original voice and he knew that I was big superhero fan, too. We've emailed back and forth a few times, just about some of our favorite comics when we were kids and stuff, and we realized that we liked the same stuff growing up. He said he was just looking to bring some of these characters back to the spotlight that had maybe fallen away a bit over the last few years, and he wondered if I would be interested in The Atom. I immediately said, "Yes," because I love all the old Silver Age guys like The Atom and Green Lantern and The Flash - all the old Gardner Fox stuff really interests me.

But we didn't want to just re-tell an old Silver Age story. We really wanted it to be a very modern take on Ray Palmer and The Atom. We wanted to take all of the iconic elements of the Silver Age stories and sort of modernize them and update them.

For me, it was taking all of the things that have happened to him over the last couple of decades - all the Jean Loring stuff and everything else - and put that behind him. That stuff's all done. That part of his life is over and he's cut that baggage loose. We're sort of free to tell new exciting stories with The Atom, and we can start to look forward instead of always reacting to things.

So, it's really fun to just take all of those old science concepts and science fiction concepts and do modern versions of those - having these pulp-y sort of adventures with The Atom.

Will your story with The Atom tie into what Geoff and Peter [Tomasi] are doing with "Brightest Day?"

As far as I know, his role in "Brightest Day" is going to be limited to just a few scenes here and there. The story that I am going to be telling won't be directly connected to the "Brightest Day" stuff. It will be more spinning out of it, so I don't really have to worry too much about what's going on in "Brightest Day," in other words. It's just me taking The Atom and using "Brightest Day" as an excuse to really...I wouldn't say re-boot him because we're not redoing his origin or anything. We're more re-invigorating him. That's the word.

I kind of know how he's involved in "Brightest Day," but obviously not allowed to say. I know how I can take that and run with it.

In James Robinson's "Cry for Justice," which was just nominated for an Eisner, as well, Ray Palmer was acting like a pocket-sized version of Jack Bauer. Is he still in that mode when we pick up with him in "The Atom" #1?

I liked James' story, but that was his Ray Palmer. I'm going to do my own, and my Ray Palmer is a teacher and a scientist just as much as he is a superhero. I think that's what makes him so unique. Green Lantern was a natural born hero and Batman was seeking revenge - all of these superheroes have a reason for being a superhero whereas Ray, really, first he was a teacher and a scientist and as a result of his work he gained these abilities. So I think that's what makes him unique. I explore why a scientist and why a teacher would continue to be a superhero. In other words, what makes Ray Palmer want to put on the costume every day? That's the story I want to tell.

Is it difficult or liberating to take on an established character versus working on a character that you created for one of your own projects?

It's absolutely liberating. It's a nice break from doing the really personal stuff that I do in my creator-owned stuff. My stuff tends to be quite heavy and quite emotionally charged and what-not. It's not that I don't want Ray to have a good strong emotional arc in the story, but it's just fun to take these classic characters and all of the things that you love about them and have fun and do it your way. But yeah, it's a whole different part of my brain. I'm certainly writing The Atom a lot different than I would, for instance, "Sweet Tooth." It's just as fun, but it's a completely different thing.

You kick things off with a one-shot special. Does that serve as #0 issue for what you're doing in the co-features in "Adventure Comics?"

Exactly. We're going to show where he is in the DCU right now. We're going to revisit his origin, but in a way that no one has ever seen before. We're going to add a lot to what was known, and we're going to add a lot of color to it, and a lot of detail, and really make it more of a modern origin. So the one-shot will serve to reestablish him and at the same time, set up the plot that we're going to do in "Adventure Comics."

So, the co-features in "Adventure Comics" will be an ongoing story and not done-in-ones?

That's right - to start with, it's going to be a 10-part story, and I believe they are going to be 10 pages each. So that's good. We have a good 100 pages, plus the one-shot, to tell a real nice story. Hopefully, if it's successful, we'll keep going, because the story I'm telling is really just the first chapter of a longer epic with Ray Palmer.

Considering your monthly duties writing and drawing "Sweet Tooth," was the fact that this was a co-feature versus its own series make it any easier to jump on?

No. I would have done it if it was a full book [laughs]. That's just what was offered.

So after this 10-part story, you'd gladly write a Ray Palmer ongoing series?

Yes, I would. I think I'm setting up enough stuff in this first story that it could definitely carry him through into a monthly. Like I said, I think this really is just the first chapter of a bigger Atom story that I'd like to tell. So, fingers crossed that people respond to it, and maybe he can have another ongoing or another miniseries.

You obviously can't give too much away just yet, but what can you tell us about the story?

Like you said, I don't want to spoil too much just yet, but I can say it's going to be a new villain or villains, because a lot of the stuff we talked about when we were discussing where we wanted to take Ray, he really didn't have a Joker. You know what I mean? He didn't have a classic nemesis. He had a few villains like Chronos the Time Bandit and the Bug-Eyed Bandit, but none of them really connected to Ray on a personal or emotional level. The Joker is kind of like Batman's other half. Lex Luthor and Superman have a long history. But Ray didn't have that kind of a villain where it wasn't more than this bad guy popping up every month. We needed something that was really tied to his origin and really tied into who he was emotionally so that the story meant something. So, in reworking the origin, I created a new villain for Ray, and that's going to be the story I'm telling - Ray discovering this villain for the first time, but at the same time, realizing that this person or persons have been connected to him right from his childhood.

Where do you see The Atom in terms of the greater hierarchy of the DCU? I mean, there are the Trinity - Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman - and then it's probably Green Lantern and The Flash in terms of stature. Is The Atom right in there, or is he at that next level with say Aquaman and Martian Manhunter?

I think there is probably two ways of looking at that question. One way would be where he is right now, and I think people would kind of look at him and agree he's not up there with Flash or Green Lantern yet. But at that same time, I think he has that potential.

In the Silver Age, when Julius Schwartz brought back The Flash and Hal Jordan, The Atom was right there with those two guys. They all spin out of these great science fiction concepts, just like Geoff did with Green Lantern and just like he's doing with The Flash now. Ray has that potential. I also think that Ray has this weird hangup where, just because the guy is small, he can't be cool. Or as cool as those guys. My main goal is to make people realize that he can kick total ass just as much as those guys, and that his size doesn't necessarily mirror his stature in the DCU.

You mentioned Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. With Geoff steering those two characters right now, and him being the one who reached out to you about this project, might we see Green Lantern and Flash in your stories with The Atom?

No, those two guys aren't going to pop into my story. But there will be another character, which if you know The Atom, there is one superhero that he has been linked to forever and that's Hawkman. We definitely may see Hawkman since he just returned.

Yet another character Geoff is very fond of. So should we start mailing in postcards to Dan DiDio demanding a new Jeff Lemire-written "Atom and Hawkman" ongoing series?

Bring it on, man.

One more character I wanted to ask you about is Ryan Choi - the new Atom. Does he play into this at all?

No, we're going to leave him go. What DC's plans are for that character is outside of what I'm doing. I'm just going to focus entirely on Ray Palmer. Ryan's story happened, but Ray's back and Ray's The Atom, as far as I'm concerned. I don't know what Ryan's fate will be, but he doesn't play into what I'm doing.

Not only is this your first foray into mainstream DCU superheroes, I believe this is also your first project that you won't be drawing. Was that a hard choice for you, or again, just not possible due to other commitments?

Exactly. Purely on a scheduling level, there is no way that I could draw more than one book. And "Sweet Tooth" is my baby, so I was never going to have the time to do it anyway. But also, I don't think DC would be interested in someone with my style drawing this character. They want a really iconic, classic superhero book here. And, you know, that's not the kind of stuff that I draw. At the same time, for quite a while now, I've really wanted to start writing scripts for other artists. Like you said, it's just another way of being creative - another way of flexing my creative muscles, or whatever. I think, being an artist myself, I can bring a lot to scripts to help the artists.

We have a really good on artist on "The Atom" - Mahmud Asrar. I don't know if you're familiar with him. I'll be honest, I wasn't too familiar with him before, this but then they told me about him, and I grabbed all that "Dynamo 5" stuff he did for Image and I think he's fantastic. He's a classic superhero artist, sort of in the same vein of Ivan Reis or a lot of those guys that are really doing great work right now. I think we have a real gem, and he has the potential to be a real star and hopefully, if we make The Atom as cool as I want to, this will be a good showcase for him, as well.

Is this a one-time visit to mainstream DCU, or are you hoping that this is the first of many projects with these iconic characters?

I definitely hope to do more. I love doing my indie books and my more personal work, but just like we said at the top of the interview, I'm a big superhero fan, and if I can have this sort of second career or co-career going where I can play with superheroes and write for other artists, it's something I'm definitely interested in pursuing.

While this is a huge opportunity for you, DC must be pleased that you bring your own built-in fan base to the project, as well. "Essex County" and "The Nobody" were both critical successes for you, and now "Sweet Tooth" has been nominated for an Eisner. Can you give a quick update for fans of that title about what's in store for everybody's favorite antlered-hero Gus in the months ahead?

I'm just wrapping up "Sweet Tooth" #12, as far as what I'm working on, and then I'll be launching into the third story arc. The series is going really strong and I think we're getting into the point of the series - in the next couple of issues - where it starts to turn from simply Gus' story to more of an ensemble piece. Some of the side characters will start being fleshed out and playing larger roles, so I think the world of "Sweet Tooth" will start expanding as we get into the third arc.

It's still gets me excited every day to get up and draw, and hopefully that translates to the readers.

Finally, because you have nothing else to do, including a young family at home, you're also working on a mega top-secret project for Top Shelf - an original graphic novel, "The Underwater Welder." How's that coming along?

I don't want to give too much away, because it's a couple of years away, but right now I have the full script written and about 60 pages of art done. It's probably at least a few hundred pages long book.

As far as the general concept, just on a purely aesthetic level it's such a cool thing to draw - a guy in a diving suit with a torch, underwater. I think I honestly just started drawing the character in my sketch book just like I did with Gus or like with the Invisible Man, because he looked cool. Then a story just started springing up around it. Obviously in my own life, the last couple of years, my wife and I had our first child and I think this is going to kind of be my story where I can kind of discuss what it was like finding out I was going to be a father and what it's been like during the first year, too. It's going to be a big science fiction metaphor exploring that.

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