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Jeff Lemire

The Beauty of Collaboration

Jan 20, 2012 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Two of the surprise hits of DC New 52 initiative were Jeff Lemire‘s trippy horror series Animal Man and his action-packed Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. Both made a big splash for the Sweet Tooth scribe. Here we talk for a spell with the inspiring young writer. He dishes back his thoughts on the collaborative environment of DC Comics, reluctant heroes, ceding control to artists, and remaining silent about the Mysterious Red-Hooded Woman. Also, see our discussion with his partner in crime, Scott Snyder (Batman, Swamp Thing).

Kyle Lemmon (Under the Radar): I was looking at the initial sales numbers for Animal Man, and they’re quite impressive for a super-hero that’s not as well known as Batman or Superman. Are you pretty happy with the fan reactions thus far?

Jeff Lemire: Oh yeah! If this book had launched outside of the whole New 52 thing, I think we would have been lucky to even continue publishing. I couldn’t imagine these sales numbers. Even in Vertigo’s heyday when they were selling 80,000 copies of Sandman, Animal Man wasn’t getting even close to these numbers. It’s overwhelming and really gratifying. People are really responding on a critical level and the sales numbers seem to be reflecting that.

I was just reading through a joint interview you did with Scott Snyder this morning and started thinking about the similarities between your two worlds. Both Animal Man‘s Buddy Baker and Swamp Thing‘s Alec Holland are somewhat reluctant heroes that are pulled into otherworldly environments. Do you see any parallels between your books and Snyder’s?

Swamp Thing and Animal Man are definitely horror books. They’re not just run-of-the-mill superhero comics. The nature of a horror story is that his antagonists reflect his greatest fears back at him. I think that’s why you’re getting that sense that these two guys are getting caught up in something out of control, as opposed to a traditional superhero comic where the hero is more proactive about fighting crime. Holland and Baker’s lives are being interrupted by this strange threat. They are reeling and reacting. I can see that parallel.

You mentioned in another interview that you weren’t completely happy with how The Atom and Superboy books turned out. Was that just because you were getting used to writing for a larger company like DC and ceding control to other artistic entities?

Yes, it was an adjustment for all of The Atom, and the first half of the Superboy run. That was the first time I was writing for another artist. Up until that point I’d been doing comics for quite awhile, but had always drawn my own stuff. It was a very different experience for me. It was also the first time working with characters that I didn’t completely know or control. There were a lot of factors during that first year. I was sort of learning as I went along. There were certain aspects of both books that I really enjoyed and I thought turned out really well. There are things now that I would do differently or better. That’s just how it goes in life. You get better as you get older. It was a different way of working and those books were my warm-up for the New 52. I got my mistakes out of the way and I feel much more confident in myself as a writer. I think it shows. [Animal Man and Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.] are a step up in quality for me.

Like many DC fans, I was excited to find the hooded woman in each issue of the New 52. Do you know if there will be anymore Easter egg items like that in future issues?

I think at this point the writers are past their first story arc [sixth issues] and I think what’s happening is that we’re naturally finding how the new world is fitting together. The more we read other people’s books or cultivate the worlds in our own books, we are getting a better picture of how the wider universe will connect. I’m starting to really connect with the other things that are happening in the Justice League: Dark line, specifically with Swamp Thing. Scott Snyder and I are planning a really big storyline for Swamp Thing and Animal Man. Those books will crossover in an event called Dead World.” We’ve been dropping little Easter eggs for that right from the beginning. We’ll also be including other DC characters in our stories. Little details will come back in big ways. I can only speak to my book at this point. I don’t know of any DC-wide Easter eggs that we’re all supposed to incorporate into our individual runs.

I can see what you mean based on the character dialogue in the first few issues. There are mentions of the Green and the Red and the Rot was mentioned in both books.

It’s slowly forming. As you get into issues five, six, and seven more revelations start stacking up. The books are obviously headed in a similar direction.

I really enjoyed your Essex County trilogy and both it and Animal Man deal with family issues on some scale. I was curious about your own family and whether any of your personal life has leaked into your stories?

Obviously, as a writer you’re always drawing from your personal experiences. That’s just natural. I don’t want to talk specifically about my family because it’s kind of personal, but in terms of Animal Man I had my first kid a few years ago and Animal Man is a father in the book. I’m drawing a lot of emotions and experiences from my life and putting them into the book. I’m channeling a lot of stuff there. I can relate to him the most out of all the DC characters. His life resembles my own quite a bit.

I like the idea that Buddy’s daughter is leading him into this strange world and he’s the one that’s kind of pulling back. He’s the hero of the book, but he’s afraid of being Animal Man.

Any time you have a family like that in a book you can really play with the dynamics. The wife character is really starting to develop into an interesting character. Buddy’s son also has a cool take since he’s jealous of his sister getting all of his father’s attention. He’s feeling left out. It’s really fun to try and make the whole family the stars of the book and not just Animal Man.

Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is almost the complete opposite of Animal Man. It has more broad strokes and action scenes. How do you balance out the over-the-top action and more nuanced character development of this covert team?

During the first few issues I wanted to have the action be all-out and very fun. Now I am trying to peel back the characters a bit and start to develop the history of Frankenstein as a hero. I want to show why this monster is trying to protect humanity and show the secret history of him throughout the 20th century. I want to evolve the character beyond a two-dimensional action hero as well. His awareness and consciousness expands as he experiences humanity throughout the eras of human history. I think there’s a lot of interesting potential there.

Some of the other DC New 52 writers are focusing on easy-to-digest story arcs with less of a focus on massive series and mega-events. It’s certainly easier for new comic book fans to latch onto these characters. What’s your stance on that plan for your books?

It’s kind of specific to each book. Some characters lend themselves to longer and more involved story arcs whereas others are more suited towards shorter and more palatable arcs. Animal Man will be one huge story that will run for as long as my run on the book will be. Frankenstein will be very different. That series will have two or three-issue storylines. They all add up to one big jigsaw puzzle. It’s specific to each character and the tone of each book. I like the license that DC has given each writer. We all have the freedom to decide how we approach our titles.

Do you work from home?

I have a studio about 20 minutes from my house. I bike to work every morning. I used to work at home. Like I said, I just had a kid, and it’s getting harder and harder to not just spend all my time with him. I had to create a separation there.

What are some of the disadvantages and advantages of creator-owned projects, which you’ve done in the past, and your current work on big DC titles?

There are definitely disadvantages and advantages to both. It’s great to have total control for the creator-owned projects. You don’t have to answer to anyone. That’s thrilling and freeing. At the same time, when you’re working for DC you get a collaborative energy that I don’t get when I’m working alone. It’s nice to be able to do both at the same time. I just want to be able to do my own thing. I can work on Sweet Tooth or enter into the super-hero world when I call up Scott Snyder to chat about our characters.

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Eric Garneau
August 5th 2012

Kyle, you are the first person I have seen to actually ask Lemire about his own family and how it influences his work. Thank you for that. It seems like the most obvious question, and I’m glad you included it.

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