Interview with Jeff Lemire

[Originally published April 20 2010 through books.torontoist.com. I am posting it here on Dec 21 2022 but backdating the post to the original publication date.

This was at the beginning of Jeff’s career, after having his first graphic novel, Essex County, published. He has since become very influential as both a prolific writer and an artist, working for both DC and Marvel, having his own iconic post-pandemic dystopia series Sweet Tooth picked up by Netflix and working with Gord Downie to create , He was Lemire is a self-taught Toronto cartoonist who did the seemingly impossible: he worked diligently at learning his craft, self-publishing his idiosyncratic work for many years, and then submitted a coming-of-age graphic novel to Top Shelf that the American comics company actually agreed to publish. ]

Dave Howard: What started you writing Tales From the Farm?

Jeff Lemire: I think at the time I had been, I had another book Bostox which I had self published. I spent maybe a year or so trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I had sent out a bunch of project that didn’t really go anywhere. Like you say it’s been a while so I can’t really remember the original spark for that idea. I think I just kind of got fed up with all these things that weren’t working, and I just wanted to something that was really simple and really… you know the old cliché ‘write what you know’… so I just went back tried to write a really simple story about growing up on the farm, basically that I grew up on. 

Lemire: I think I had been sketching characters – like the hockey player and the kid with the cape. I think it was a decision to instead of trying to make up all these stories that just weren’t going anywhere, to just go back and explore where I grew up, and do a simple coming of age story.

Howard: Is it partially autobiographic? Often writers and cartoonists will start with autobiography and with stuff that’s close to home.

Lemire: Yeah, it’s not directly autobiographical. The setting is definitely a real place, it’s where I grew up.

Howard: Yeah I sensed it was real.

Lemire: I tried to capture a certain mood of the place and whatnot, but none of the characters are real people and other than basic stuff, none of it happened to me, obviously. So I wasn’t really interested in doing autobiography, I’ve always been much more interested in fiction. But you know you’re going to draw on things from your own life and create characters as metaphors to represent them.

Howard: How long did it take for you to get picked up by Top Shelf?

Lemire: Well I had actually finished that book in it’s entirety [Tales of the Farm, the first book in the Essex County trilogy] before I submitted it to any publishers. I just did it on my own and decided I would submit it to a couple of my favourite publishers, and if no one was interested I’d just self publish again. Top Shelf showed interest right away, and at that point I was starting to work on the second volume of Essex County so, as soon as I started talking to them about it, I already had the idea of the trilogy, and that was all a part of our initial talks. And luckily the first volume did well enough they were interested in doing the others.

Howard: You’ve gotten a lot of really great press about Essex County. I’ve read it recently and I really liked it a lot, I found myself tearing through it. I live right beside the McCormick Centre, the hockey rink one of the characters spends some time at. You live in Toronto now, are there parts of Toronto that are around you that are in it? Why did you choose the McCormick? 

Lemire: I actually play hockey there still.

Howard: Ok – (laughs)

Lemire: All the toronoto [ something didn’t get it] were pretty important to me at the time. I live in the east end now, but I lived in the west end when I worked on that, and for years. I still play at the McCormick pretty much every week with the team.

Howard: So you really are a big hockey fan.

Lemire: I am a big hockey fan, yeah, and I still play and that’s why the McCormick shows up, and other places like Roncesvalles shows up, I lived there for a number of years. Yeah, so, again, I was just drawing on real life.

Howard: How long did it take to get through to write the three books?

Lemire: I think I started in 2006, and finished the third book at the beginning of 2008. the whole process was a two, two and a half years I think. The second book took the longest, it took about a year and half. 

Howard: Can I ask – what was your routine like? How did you find you find yourself able to support yourself during the time you were making the book?

Lemire: Well, up until recently I worked as a cook at La Hacienda restaurant on Queen Street. Basically I would work night shifts so I could draw all day, because I like drawing in the morning especially. I get up early and just start working and work until four in the afternoon, and then go and work my night shift, and that’s basically what I did for seven or eight years. I did that until about two years ago I finally was making a living on comic books and I quit. 

That was sort of my routine. It was just something I was passionate about, so I just really applied a lot of discipline and will power and just stuck to a really set schedule every day. That’s the only way you can really get comics done because it’s such a labour intensive art form.

Howard: I imagine you got a lot of friendship and support playing hockey.

Lemire: Yeah, that was a big part of… I really rediscovered hockey at the time I was working on the second book. I don’t know if it was a result of working on the second book – I don’t really remember the time line. I played as a kid and a teenager, and I had kind of gotten out of it, and got into art and film. 

I met a bunch of guys at the restaurant, actually, who were kind of the same as me, they were in bands and musicians and whatnot. But we had all grown up playing hockey, and we just sort of started playing shinny on some of the outdoor rinks one winter, and we all just sort of fell in love with it again at the same time, and formed a team and joined a league. That was all sort of part of the process of working on the book as well.

Howard: What other comics were you reading at the time, were you reading a lot?

Lemire: It was a similar thing with hockey almost. Comics were everything to me as a kid, I just lived and breathed them. The superhero stuff when I was a kid and as I got older I guess at the time it would have been stuff like Sandman and work from Vertigo and stuff like that. I got really into film in my late teens. That’s why I came to Toronto actually, I went to Ryerson to do film. For some reason that’s where my interest went. And then, when I was in the film program, the third year of a four year program, I kind of got disillusioned in film. I just felt the stories I wanted to tell and the things I wanted to do would just be really hard for me to do it. You have to juggle a crew and actors – there’s just so many different people involved in the process, it was hard to get your vision out directly enough. I tend to be a pretty – I work best on my own, and it just didn’t seem to fit my personality. 

I think at the time I just started popping into the comic shops again just to see what was going on. I kind of rediscovered them, I started reading the European guys and the independent guys, I just completely fell in love with drawing again. You know by my fourth year I almost didn’t even want to finish the film program, I just wanted to stop and start doing comics right away. I saw the film thing through, and then as I graduated – I think it was 2000? – I literally got a restaurant job and just started literally, every day, six or eight hours a day, drawing comics. I did that for a good eight years until Tales from the Farm got published.

Howard: That is an inspiring story.

Lemire: It was a lot of hard work and discipline, and the early stuff I started doing was just… horrible (laughs). You just have to just keep doing it, just keep moving and hopefully you see something at the end of each day that gives you enough of a spark that you know you’re getting better and you just keep going.

Howard: Did you find a big difference between doing film and comics?

Lemire: Oh I think it’s huge, they’re very different mediums. A lot of people think comics are just storyboards for film, which is … complete bullshit. They’re completely different languages, they’re completely different mediums. Other than that it’s a visual storytelling medium, there’s not a whole lot in common with them. You can use comics in such different ways than just straight forward film. I find them to be unique mediums, I find comics to be a lot more potential for storytelling, actually, than film. For me, anyway.

Howard: Do you think there’s a different kind of story that can be told – I was just speaking with Adam Bourett who has just finished his book I’m Crazy, and he uses a lot of magic realism, and he says –  he’s trying to describe a lot of different states of consciousness where there is a mixture of dream and reality – and he said that somehow in a drawing the reader seems to be able to tolerate that difference better than in something that is realistic like a film.

Lemire: I think the great thing about comics, if they’re good, their drawing should be completely personal, it should almost be like their handwriting – you know what I mean? 

Howard: I do, really believe that – but of course not every comic because some do use other images, like clip art and what have you. But personally I attach really to the line.

Lemire: I attach to a more expressive – that’s what makes it so unique, from book to book, the drawings can look so different. There’s such a direct connection to the author – it’s like you’re seeing their thumbprint or their handwriting, whereas with film, because it’s a photograph you’re immediately detached, there’s an artificial distance between the audience and the artist.

Howard: And a different expectation.

Lemire: And obviously you’re taking a photograph of something so it’s going to be a realistic representation, whereas in a comic you can draw a bird very realistically, or it could be just a couple of lines. I could say the same thing, but in different ways. I think you have that range to tell the story. It’s…. limitless.

Howard: How did you begin Sweet Tooth? How was the move from Top Shelf to Vertigo? That’s two questions, sorry.

Lemire: No, that’s ok – there was actually a step between them. I had done a book for Vertigo called The Nobody which was a graphic novel loosely based on H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man story. I had finished the Essex County story and actually one of the publishers at Top Shelf was friends with one of the editors at Vertigo, and he kind of hooked me up. Doing something for Vertigo would get my work out to a completely different audience. Also DC, Vertigo, pays a lot better than Top Shelf can, so it was a chance to make some money. That’s how I got hooked up with them, and I did that graphic novel with them.

Probably about three quarters of the way through that, the working relationship with Vertigo was so good that I think they wanted to do something else, and I certainly did, and so I pitched an ongoing series which was Sweet Tooth, and it got accepted. Yeah, that’s how that happened. I’m still working on books for Top Shelf, but Sweet Tooth is a monthly thing, it always comes first in terms of deadlines and that. Top Shelf is great, they’re happy to wait for my next book, I’m just gaining more readers all the time with DC, so it’s only going to help them when I do their books.

Howard: I’m interested in that model, the ‘living wage’ model for ‘alternative’ cartoonists that seems so.. far removed from possibility in North America, but in other places it happens – in France it happens, in Japan it happens, Spain, Argentina – but not so much here. 

Lemire: No, it’s tough, it’s hard. I was lucky enough to get in with Vertigo, which is owned by Warner Brothers and DC Comics, so they can pay a healthy page rate. And at the same time I get to do a completely personal free work. I’m doing the stuff for them that I would be doing for Top Shelf.

Howard: That is, to me, really a watershed situation.

Lemire: It’s not common, that’s for sure. I think, so many guys get into doing stuff for DC or Marvel as an artist or as a writer, and it’s such a struggle for them to do personal work, they have to go from doing superhero stuff to somehow convince them that they can do something else. Whereas I came at it a different way, I had done this personal work, and that’s what got me in the door there, and so that’s what they expected, so I’ve started off on a different foot than those guys. I don’t know.

Howard: I really hope this is the beginning of something. Or am I mistaken, has this happened before, but it’s really come to nothing?

Lemire: You know as far as I know there’s not been another writer or artist.. cartoonist… who’s done a regular monthly book for Vertigo. It is kind of a.. a first. Maybe if it does well enough there will be more.

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