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Øyvinds julekalender, luke 20: My interview with Jeff Lemire

I 2013 var den canadiske tegneserieskaperen Jeff Lemire gjest på Oslo Comics Expo, og jeg tok meg tid til en prat med ham. Jeg var også i gang med tankene rundt det som ble den store Marvel-saken i D2 i 2015.

I dag er Lemire en av de mest produktive, suksessfulle og mest varierte i bransjen, og her er hele intervjuet mitt.

Foto: Image Comics

ØH: What would you say is your most important theme as a writer. Wilderness, fatherhood, or ice hockey?

JL: All of them? I think it’s all a product of where I grew up, in rural Canada where it’s really sparse. I’ve lived in Toronto for 15 years, but I’m still more informed by things that happened early in our life. I grew up in a very isolated area in Essex County, and there wasn’t a lot of other kids around. No-one shared my interests, and I felt very isolated as a kid. Obviously hockey is a big thing for the Canadian identity, and it felt like it united everyone, even the kids in the comics.

ØH: In your work there really is no separation between the underground and the mainstream, whereas for the older generation something like Joe Matt coloring Batman was made into a big sellout?

JL: I think that’s typical for my generation, meaning the cartoonists who emerged in the last five or ten years. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, there was a big split between mainstream comics and the more personal, autobiographical alternative comics. I identified myself with cartoonists like Joe Matt and Seth, and they had to separate themselves from the mainstream to create an identity for themselves.

But I feel that my generation grew up reading both superhero stuff and independent comics, and as we developed and emerged as creators the boundaries between genre work an more personal comics went away. I don’t know why, but today you see that there is just as much genre stuff in indie comics,  being treated in an interesting way as slice-of-life stories and personal stories. At the same time I feel like more and more independent writers and artists are also doing superhero stuff, everything’s seems to be blending together and the walls are falling down.

ØH: But has it become easier today to make comics without doing any mainstream work?

JL: When I started doing comics, before Essex County and Lost Dogs, I never aspired to do superhero comics at all. I couldn’t care less. The stuff I wanted to do and the stuff I was doing was so far away from superhero comics that I never anticipated getting the opportunity. As far as I was concerned I was getting a day job, and would be working on my comics in my spare time. Ironically, doing those personal books ended up opening doors for me at DC Comics. So when I was handed the opportunity, it was too fun to not be giving it my best shot, and I really enjoyed doing it, so I kept on.

ØH: How important was working for Vertigo on your journey from indie comics to superheroes? Vertigo is sort of a a middle ground, with lots of opportunities to write personal stuff within genree as science fiction, horror and fantasy. Was it an important bridge?

JL: I had one major benefit working at Vertigo, I was one of the artists who got the chance to both write and draw an ongoing series, along with David Lapham’s Young Liars and Paul Pope’s stuff, and that allowed me to be even more personal.

ØH: I guess you, as well as me, grew up on the DC superheroes who became the foundation of Vertigo?

JL: I grew up reading Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Animal Man, which all became Vertigo books and got me into independent stuff as I grew out of the superhero stuff. And today [2013] I am writing both Constantine and Animal Man. Obviously it started with Alan Moore, and continued with Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman, who blew things wide open. What they were doing back in the 90s is what the mainstream is like today. Obviously it was way ahead of its time.

ØH: How do you get assigned to superhero comics?

JL: I was writing and drawing Sweet Tooth, and some of the DC editors liked it, so I got the chance to to a story with The Atom. I really enjoyed that, and they kept offering me more, since I was both reliable and competent. As long as I still can do my independent stuff, superheroes are fun to do. If I had to make a choice I would obviously choose the independent comics, but as long as I am able to juggle it I’m all good.

ØH: What are you juggling now?

JL: I’m writing Justice League Dark, Animal Man, Green Arrow, and a new Vertigo book, Trillium, which is a science fiction series. I’ve plotted the first three issues of Constantine, and there’s another DC book to be announced [Justice League United], but I have to cut down on the DC writing soon, because I’ve reached a peak. I’ve also written my next graphic novel, which I will start drawing as soon as I finish drawing Trillium [Roughneck, which was released in 2017]. I really like having lots of different projects, and when I burn out on drawing I can go work on a script for Green Arrow.

ØH: Have you had any offers from TV and movies?

JL: Not really [Gideon Falls is coming to TV in 2019]. I’ve had some conversations, but nothing serious. I am not really interested, to be honest. I am so busy with comics, and I do really prefer comics. Working with TV or movies feels like a step backwards, creatively, because I get so much more freedom in comics, I can do what I want, and I am happy doing it. I don’t know why I would do movies, except for the money of course.

ØH: When do you see Hollywood digging into comics for real? Not only for the characters, but for the stories as well?

JL: I guess it was the early 2000s, when they started developing Marvel and DC properties into franchises, like the X-Men and Spider-Man movies. This was when they really did start becoming more faithful to the storylines that had been built into the comics universes over 40 or 50 years. And also translating it a lot more faithfully, and obviously it seems to have struck a chord, because now it has exploded, with three or four big movies every summer, which seem to be based almost directly on comics storylines from the last five or ten years.

ØH: Wasn’t Marvel’s Ultimate line important here, because they offered updated version of the classic storylines?

JL: It’s true. All the Vertigo guys went to Marvel in the early 2000s, and writers like Brian Michael Bendis, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, and Mark Millar were all doing stuff that was faithful to the original stories, but also updated it and made it accessible to younger readers. And Hollywood needs things to be accessible for a mainstream audience.

ØH: But why do you think the movies caught on so well? Even in Norway, were the comics at best have been a marginal phenomena?

JL: I am not sure why. The interesting question is why the people who enjoy these movies don’t go out and buy the comics, because that doesn’t seem to be happening. But it certainly has caught on, even though I feel that Hollywood has gone a bit bankrupt creatively speaking, when they use all these rich universes with characters and stories that have been laid out for them, which they can just take and steal and appropriate for themselves.

ØH: There can’t be many comics left that haven’t been optioned for a movie?

JL: I know, everything’s either been optioned or is in development. Essex County was optioned a while ago, but it has just been lost forever, which is fine with me. But I also feel that a lot of the people making these movies are comics fans, and it’s fun to see how much comic influence there is in Hollywood. At the same time the whole superhero thing took off, it was a whole string of other stuff, like Ghost World and American Splendor, and genre things like 30 Days of Night.

ØH: Who’ve been the most important writers in this development?

JL: The Marvel stuff is really informed by Warren Ellis and Brian Michael Bendis, who has a widescreen, cinematic storytelling approach to superheroes. Look at Ellis’s work with The Authority, that’s exactly what we see on the big screen now. I feel The Authority was at the vanguard, then the Ultimate line followed. But Warren Ellis moved on.

ØH: I guess Mark Millar stepped into Ellis’s spot, he has changed the way people make comics. Every miniseries from Ellis reads like a Hollywood pitch.

JL: Yeah, absolutely. It’s strange when it comes back around, and dangerous when writers and artists in comics are not influenced by anything other than other comics. They just read comics. Or see movies based on comics. I guess even Sweet Tooth is influenced by movies and cinematic storytelling.

ØH: You’re also working on the DC relaunch «The New 52», which is quite different and more complicated than Marvel’s Ultimate universe?

JL: It’s sort of a mix between a relaunch and a refiguring, it’s kinda all over the place. Marvel and DC are both rebooting themselves more often, and we see it the same in the movies as well, with Spider-Man and Superman.

ØH: It’s also interesting to witness how Grant Morrison has been less successful in Hollywood than Mark Millar? Maybe Morrison’s too complicated?

JL: That’s a good point, his work’s a lot more complicated and a lot more ambitious. Morrison plays around with the actual language of comics, which is not easily translated into movies. I am influenced by Morrison’s level of ambition, and with Animal Man I’m walking in his shoes. It’s hard to underestimate the influence Morrison and Alan Moore has had on the mainstream, they completely reshaped what they were working on.

ØH: Was it daunting to write Animal Man?

JL: When I first started doing the superhero stuff, with The Atom and Superboy, I was still struggling with the difference from my personal stuff and writing superheroes for another artist. Those two projects were a testing ground, where I made some mistakes. Afterwards I felt more confident, I managed to let go of the visual side and let it be more up to the artist, while I focused on the character. I was looking at Grant Morrison’s stuff, and representing it for a new audience at the same time I was putting in something of my own stuff.

Now I feel that I’ve breached the gap between the superhero stuff and the personal stuff, which makes it a good point where I can retreat into more personal comics, while I keep some of the audience, so I can do it fulltime. Eventually I would love to do one DC book monthly, to keep my fingers in the pot and play with the universe.

ØH: Tell me about Trillium.

JL: It’s eight issues, a sci-fi love story that follows two narratives: One in the far future, with a female scientist on a distant planet on the edge of colonized space. The other story is about a British explorer in the Amazon in the 1920s. These two characters will eventually meet, and the universe starts to unravel as they crisscross across time and they fall in love. I’m not able to talk about the graphic novel I’m doing for Top Shelf, but it’s definicitely about ice hockey, and it’s very Canadian, with no fantasy or sci-fi element. This will be my first comic since Essex County with a more grounded approach. [Roughneck ended up being published by Simon & Schuster in 2017.]

ØH: I guess in 10-15 years Hollywood’s will be using the more personal genre stuff that is being made today as fuel for their movie machine?

JL: Yes, after endless recycling ad rebooting of Avengers and Justice league, the only place to go would be the independent stuff, like Saga and Prophet, the Image books that are a lot like Vertigo in style. The Vertigo titles are too complicated, both with the legal stuff with Time Warner and the connections to the DC universe. Some of today’s comics are natural for TV shows, just look at The Walking Dead. I think you’ll see more things like The Walking Dead turned into tv series, today television’s a lot more creative than Hollywood. Sweet Tooth would make more sense as a tv series than a movie.

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