Jeff Lemire has a feel for small towns. His "Essex County" trilogy of graphic novels, a multigenerational saga exploring the relationships between and within families in a small farming community, has won awards from the American Library Association, taken the Joe Shuster Award honoring Canadian cartoonists, and has been nominated for an Ignatz, a Harvey, and two Eisner Awards.
In August, Top Shelf will release "The Complete Essex County" in both hardcover and trade paperback, while DC/Vertigo will publish in July Lemire's first post-"Essex County" project, "The Nobody," an original graphic novel inspired by H.G. Wells's "Invisible Man." A new ongoing series, "Sweet Tooth," will follow in September from Vertigo, with the first issue priced at $1.00.
CBR News caught up with Lemire to discuss these many releases.
Beginning with book one, "Essex County: Tales from the Farm" features subtle yet moving stories. Lester, the young point-of-view character in the first volume is being raised by an uncle after the death of his mother and their relationship is not a close one. Dressing as a superhero in the middle of a never-ending battle against alien invaders, Lester befriends the tragic Jimmy Lebeuf, who played briefly with the Toronto Maple Leafs before a punishing check left him with brain damage. The second volume, "Ghost Stories," explores the relationship between Jimmy's grandfather, Vincent, and Vince's brother Lou. These threads and more are tied together in "The Country Nurse," the third and final volume.
Though it takes several different forms, the idea of family is central to all three "Essex County" books, which Lemire said was a way for him to explore his roots, both in terms of family and home town. "I just think that exploring a small rural community, as I do in the books, you have to use family as the central metaphor," he told CBR. "Everyone's family is ripe with great, real characters, human drama and often rich stories. Mine was no exception. So, while the characters in 'Essex County' are fictional, they all draw from different people I grew up with and around."
Families almost necessarily evoke some strong feelings, which makes stories about families so powerful when done well and so uncomfortable when told poorly. There was always a danger of "Essex County" slipping into sentimentality, but Lemire believes he has successfully walked the line of real human drama. "I think the key, for me, was restraint," he said. "What isn't said in the books is more powerful than if I have the characters waxing on about their feelings, the way so many screenwriters would in bad TV family drama. And comics is a visual medium, so I really use that to have setting, and layout reflect the inner state of my characters, that way the entire comic is working to convey emotion and story, not just dialogue."
This restraint leads to a lot of silence throughout "Essex County," with many major transitions and scene changes swooping by like the bird which flies through each book, wihout dialogue or narration. "On a pacing and storytelling level, these silent, visual transitions were really influenced a lot by cinema and particularly filmmakers like Wim Wenders, Kubrick and Terrence Malick," Lemire said. "And the wide-open landscape of the setting demands quiet moments."
The setting of "Essex County," a fictionalized version of the area where Lemire grew up, also feels like a character, with a personality for each of the assorted characters to interact with and play off of. "I think it is, in some ways a romanticized view of where I grew up, and in other ways a colder, starker version as well," Lemire said. "The way all the characters know each other, and their lives intertwine so neatly is obviously a bit idealized and manipulated to tell a 'complete' story. In the real world everyone is connected, but in much less obvious and, um...thematic ways.
"Also, visually, I took the things I loved the most about the Essex County landscape--old rust farm equipment, tattered wooden barns, vast open fields, endless telephone lined running off into the horizon--and focused on these, almost creating an idealized, almost timeless visual shorthand for the setting. I ignored many things I didn't find particularly appealing: like the suburban sprawl and big box retail that is slowly creeping in."
"The Complete Essex County" includes two shorter comics which flesh out the county but don't necessarily feed into the main plot, stories that were previously available only as mini-comics sold at conventions. These shorts began life as part of book three, "The Country Nurse." "Anne, the traveling nurse, was going to have a bunch of really colorful and eccentric patients, which showed of some of the 'local color' throughout the course of the book," the Lemire explained. "But [Top Shelf's] Chris Staros, being the astute editor that he is, wanted me to focus on the characters from books one and two more, to tie things up a bit tighter. So, these two 'outtakes' became ideal short stories that I could sell as mini comics."
Coinciding with the release of "The Complete Essex County," collecting the work for which he is best known, Lemire is also debuting a new and significantly different graphic novel at Vertigo. "The Nobody" opens with a heavily bandaged man arriving in a small fishing village, seeking peace and quiet following a disfiguring accident. Even as he integrates somewhat into the community, the man - calling himself "John Griffen" after H.G. Wells's Invisible Man" - continues to arouse suspicion, in no small part because he refuses to show his face or discuss his past in any way.
"I am a huge H. G. Wells fan," Lemire said of the book's inspiration. "'The Time Machine' and 'The Invisible Man' were probably two of the first books I ever read, and I have re-read them a number of times. So, as a reader, I've had a life long relationship with his work."
Lemire added that, thematically, "The Nobody" is at least partly a reaction to "Essex County." "I wanted to switch gears and do something a bit pulpier and genre based. I also think that I was reacting to 'EC' and wanted to do something darker. The result was an exploration of the darker side of small town life and the invisible man/bandaged weirdo seemed like such a great cipher and symbol of an outcast in a close-minded, nosey little town."
Playing off the pulp conventions of the book, chapter breaks in "The Nobody" are illustrated in the style of 1970s genre comic book covers, like DC horror and Marvel romance. "After reading the book you will see that 'The Nobody' takes these genre conventions, uses them as an initial set-up, but instead focuses on the quieter, less sensational aspects of the characters," Lemire said. "It's almost like we get to see what the Invisible Man would do after the pulpy book was done, or the horror movie ended."
Artistically, one notable difference between "The Nobody" and "Essex County" is that the new book adds a second color, a pale blue, to the black and white - an innovation that Lemire confesses was not his idea but was instituted at Vertigo's request. "I love black and white artwork, but that was an editorial decision. So, I went with it, and had a lot of fun with it too," he explained. "I really think it adds coldness to the town. And, I always loved when Dan Clowes and Seth used to use the cold blues and greens in 'Ghost World' and 'Clyde Fans.'"
Along with the essential mystery of a bandaged (and potentially invisible) man, Lemire plays with a significant degree of ambiguity in his plot. Several points in "The Nobody" lead the reader to suspect that Griffen is not a reliable narrator, and while Vickie, the other major point of view character, seems honest, it's clear she doesn't have the whole story. "I tried to construct a narrative where you can basically read the characters story 3 different ways. To get into any more detail would ruin the book, but it is left to the reader to choose which of these may ion fact be 'the truth,'" Lemire said. "This was obviously a deliberate decision on my part, we and the characters in the book can never really see behind those bandages, no matter how hard they try. He enters the town a mystery and leaves as one."
Lemire's other project at Vertigo is "Sweet Tooth," a new ongoing series set in a post-apocalyptic-though still quite verdant-world. "The book follows Gus, a little boy with antlers and deer-like features that has lived his entire life in wooded seclusion with his father," the artist said of his new hero. "In our first issue he is forced to leave the woods and what he finds outside is a world devastated a decade earlier by a deadly pandemic. Furthermore, he and other human/animal hybrid children like him are apparently a by-product of the disease, and immune to its effects.
"So, obviously this is a world that is physically untouched, empty, not obliterated by war or nuclear fallout. It's almost like North America is one giant ghost town, and the remaining survivors are hunting these children because they feel they hold the secret to a cure within them. Gus is soon taken in by Jepperd, a hulking drifter who promises to lead him to a rumored safe haven for hybrid children called 'The Preserve.'
"That's the set up. What follows is an action adventure road trip across this bizarre landscape but tethered by the quiet, small human moments that made up my other work like 'Essex County.'"
As to the significance of the title, "Sweet Tooth," Lemire said that this would be a nickname Jepperd gives Gus after catching him eating Jepperd's secret stash of chocolate bars. "Thematically, it evokes something Sweet--nice, innocent, kind like Gus--and something sharp and dangerous like Jepperd. Plus, it just has a nice ring to it."
"Sweet Tooth" is Lemire's first monthly comic book and his first in full color, with one small exception. "I did five pages of a monthly book for the now-defunct Speakeasy comics called 'Beowulf' four or so years ago that were in color -- they never paid me for it, the bastards," Lemire told CBR. "But this certainly is my first work colored by someone else. And Jose Villarubia has always been my favorite colorist, from the stuff he did with Jae Lee at Marvel, to 'Desolation Jones' and his work with Alan Moore. He's a fantastic artist."
After the multiple award-winning "Essex County" trilogy and the ambitious graphic novel "The Nobody," Lemire is setting a high bar for himself on "Sweet Tooth." He is, though, not shy about hyping his newest work. "'Sweet Tooth' is far and away the best thing I've ever done, and the first issue will only be one dollar," he said. "So pre-order 100 copies each!"
"The Nobody" goes on sale this week from Vertigo. "Sweet Tooth" begins in September. For a 40-page preview of "The Complete Essex County" courtesy of Top Shelf, click here.