2:30 PM CDT, April 6, 2013
On page 12 of issue No. 1 of DC Comics' latest reiteration of "Constantine," which tells the ongoing story of John Constantine — a.k.a. Hellblazer, the publisher's three-decade-old, morally slippery sorcerer/sleuth to the occult world (played by Keanu Reeves in the 2005 "Constantine" movie) — an airline stewardess explodes. Sure, she slips poison into Constantine's drink just before exploding; and sure, she kind of chants something to herself in the plane's lavatory, resulting in self-immolation. But in one panel she explodes; and in the next, Constantine, stone faced, is straightening his tie in the lavatory mirror, apparently unimpressed.
Flip the page: Now Constantine is traveling through Norway, eating lutefisk from a take-out box.
That, to an extent, is the comic book career of Jeff Lemire in a nutshell.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Most comic book writers/artists take one of two paths: They work in graphic novels and modest, everyday tales, telling recognizable, personal stories that hold more than a dose of the autobiographical; they are the comic book extensions of the literary writer. The other group of comic book writers/artists work for monthly comic publishers such as DC and Marvel, pumping out the further adventures of characters who, more often than not, were created decades earlier. The first group receives mainstream attention, and sometimes praise from the wider literary community; the latter (even its big stars) tend to remain known within certain circles.
Lemire is a big exception.
He is not only the most in-demand superhero comic book writer of the moment, but that rare voice distinguished by an ability to please diverging camps of readers: Lemire, 37, a Canadian, spent the first part of his career on ennui-drenched, aesthetically black-and-white storytelling, such as his great "Essex County," a Sherwood Anderson-esque portrait of an Ontario farming community; which led, five years ago, to the broader DC Universe.
And yet Lemire still swings between the personal and the big, from the often tender coming-of-age series "Sweet Tooth" to, well, "Superboy." Last year he had both an acclaimed graphic novel, "The Underwater Welder," about a young man's troubling memory of his father, and a pair of terrific DC series, the revamped "Animal Man" and the aptly named "Justice League Dark." In the last month alone, aside from continuing on those last two comics, he became the co-writer (with Ray Fawkes) of "Constantine" and the primary writer of a retooled "Green Arrow" series. This summer — swinging back toward the personal — he has "Trillium," a love story between explorers separated by thousands of years.
He spoke on the phone from his home in Toronto. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: Reading your "Green Arrow," a sentence in the first issue struck me: The Green Arrow finds himself on the defensive and says to himself, in this brief moment of reflection, "I don't like being a victim." Which is such an unusual suggestion of self-consciousness for a superhero comic ...
A: For me, whenever I get one of these older characters to write, a character that I maybe grew up reading, I find it's all about boiling them down to a sentence. For "Green Arrow," the character of Oliver Queen, a guy born into privilege, handed everything, yet he can never live up to his own expectations, I think a line like that comes from deeply set doubts: No matter what he accomplishes he will never feel that he's good enough.
Q: Sure, but there's also a hint of entitlement — no one likes being a victim.
A: Yeah, no kidding, and this is a guy whose privilege has made him brash and arrogant and unlikable. When I read the first 16 issues (of a previous incarnation) of this series, I didn't like the character at all. I thought, why not set out to break him, slap him in the face, "Now that you've lost everything, how are you going to be toward people?" Survival turned him into Green Arrow, hopefully rebuilt into something better.
Q: He's also one of the lesser "Green" DC characters — you seem drawn to marginal superheroes.
A: Well, sometimes you get offered (bigger) things and pass on them, too. I loved Green Lantern as a kid, and Green Arrow was always just, you know, around. I never thought much about him until I was offered him, then I thought about him, and he is grounded as a character because he has no superpowers. He is a guy tackling street-level crime. Which has a dash of noir. Plus, Superman: It's all so enormous and cosmic.
Q: Decades of mythology to live up to.
A: Which is why I like "Animal Man." Again, not well known, either. He is a father and husband, and all the superhero stuff revolves around his family life. Characters like that, as a writer, you have a freedom. You can spin them your way, but characters like Superman and Batman, so much has been done, there are expectations, a beaten path. Green Arrow, you can change a lot of things. Batman would sell three times as many issues as Animal Man, but for me, what then is the point of doing this? To just make more on royalties? I take more pride in having a character like Animal Man, creating something meaningful and successful, instead of jumping on Spider-Man, whose audience is there regardless of what you do with him.
Q: Why Constantine?
A: To be honest, that character kept me in comics. In the early '90s, superhero comics were not appealing to me anymore, and I would have stopped reading comics if it wasn't for (the edgier DC imprint) Vertigo and "Hellblazer." Because Constantine was cool, in the DC universe, not quite superhero level, but also one step ahead of humans. He was like this go-between who could step back and see that mistakes were made.
Q: Is it hard to keep so many comics spinning?
A: I have a system, developed out of necessity when I was just doing my independent books. I would develop like this complete tunnel vision, and work start to finish on one title. So with DC, as I got more and more books, I became organized. I learned how to work far ahead on one project. Instead of getting, say, one issue of "Animal Man" done then moving on to the next book, I started to work three or four months ahead and get all my ideas for a story out. Which means I am really only ever working on one or two projects simultaneously. If I do fall down on one thing, I have a buffer this way. It also just comes down to loving comics. I would do this even if I wasn't being paid to. So it's not hard to want to do it all the time.
Q: And yet, judging by work like "Essex County," then "Underwater Welder," even "Sweet Tooth" and the melancholy of your DC books — none of it suggests such a deep dive into superheroes.
A: I know, and I never aspired to write superhero books.
Q: Which may be why you're good at it.
A: Perhaps. To me, it's all about balance. For a while, I just wanted to do my own quirky indie books, then DC came along — but just doing superhero comics would never satisfy me personally, either. A big part of that balance is the personal work, which I draw and write. Drawing is my first love. My day doesn't feel complete unless I draw a page. Yet I am in demand as a writer, which is fine, but the tactile satisfaction of being at a drawing board, I don't get it from DC. So I spend a few hours drawing, then a few hours writing. I am writing another book right now, and it is totally unlike a superhero book, but it's too early to speak about.
Q: Is it set in Canada?
Q: Are you a militant Canadian?
A: I think so. I have a lot of respect for Canadian authors and cartoonists, and I like to think that I am part of that heritage. I grew up in Essex County, in Ontario, and when I was 20, I moved to Toronto, which is when I got into comics. Seth and Chester Brown — that older generation of Canadian cartoonists inspired me then. When I first came to Toronto, I would see them walking around! It's how I realized that real people do this, and maybe if I stuck with it, I would be with them. Which sounds silly, but when you grow up on a farm, making a career out of comics is as realistic as playing in the NHL. You forget: Real people make comics.
Christopher Borrelli is an entertainment reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
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