It wasn’t long ago that Jeff Lemire’s days were spent primarily playing in the DC Comics/Vertigo sandbox. But the recent end of his exclusive deal has seen the critical standout fully embrace free agency with creator owned work with Image, Dark Horse, Valiant, and a new gig as the writer of All-New Hawkeye for Marvel.
In this exclusive interview, we talk to Lemire about Descender (his highly anticipated space epic from Image), working with Dustin Nguyen, the influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, why he’s embracing creator owned work, the challenge of following Matt Fraction on Hawkeye, working with Scott Snyder on Life After Death, and Snyder’s amazing eyebrows. Den of Geek: What can you tell me about Tim-21, Jin Quon, and Dr. Telsa? Jeff Lemire: They each kind of provide a different point of view into this universe, this world that we’ve created — Dustin and I. Without spoiling too much from the first issue, we kind of see this world, this galaxy at the beginning of the book, it’s sort of this booming and technologically advanced society. Sort of on the vanguard of the universe with many different races and worlds sort of working together to build something. And then as the issue unfolds, we kind of jump ahead and see the same world kind of after a disaster… an apocalyptic event sort of ravages it.
Each one of those three characters sort of provides a different point of view into that world. Quon really exemplifies the universe. In that he was the leading scientist in robotics and kind of at the cutting edge of everything that this society was built around and then we see him after and he’s very much fallen on hard times — much like the universe. Telsa is an interesting character. I don’t want to spoil too much about her yet, but she kind of provides the authoritarian point of view, I guess. And then Tim is very much… well, Tim is a mystery. But Tim is the most human character in the book even though he’s not human. He may be the key to sort of either bringing the universe back from the brink or totally pushing it over, depending on what happens.
You talk about Tim being the most human character in the book. There’s a great image that has made the rounds — we basically see Tim learning about what’s happened in the world and you see his eyes widen. There’s also a revelation early on — I don’t want to give it away — that he kind of just walks past. Is he capable of normal emotion? Is he going to gauge the gravity of the events that are around him and what he’s being thrust into?Yeah we’ll learn more about Tim next issue — in issue 2. In terms of where his humanity comes from, I guess you could say. Tim is a companion robot. Meaning he was sort of designed and created to adapt and evolve along with his human companions. So next issue will kind of see where he went from this cold machine that he was born as into this very human boy and how that happened. Tim is very capable of emotion and of reacting to things much like a normal boy would. Maybe even more so in his case since everything about him is so heightened and the circumstances are so extreme. Tim represents sort of the cutting edge of what robots had become where they basically almost become… they’ve kind of almost out-grown humanity in a way. He’s even more human than humans at this point. He can do everything we can do and more. Tim is very much the most advanced of the robots. We’ll see less advanced robots as well. Some who are much more typical… just machines, you know? Tools. Tim is special in a lot of ways. How far out is this going to go? It’s gonna be big of scale. One of the first things me and Dustin talked about when he came on board the project was that he really wanted to draw a lot of different environments and worlds. So I kind of took that to heart and I spent a lot of time developing and building this little galaxy, our universe that the book will take place in. I believe we have twelve worlds right now that we’ll be exploring and I tried to give them each a very distinct feel, look, and purpose within the story. Each of them have very distinct species that live on it with different cultures.
So it will be very big in scope. A huge canvas, really. But a very intimate story. It’s Tim’s story and sort of his point of view is what we’ll have. So even though the canvas is huge, we’ll be seeing it from a very small perspective, I guess.
What was it that made Dustin’s unique style the right fit for the story?There’s a couple of things. I’ve always loved Dustin’s work, particularly when he paints — he’s never really been able to paint a whole book before Descender, so it’s pretty cool that he can. That he’s fast enough to do that. With Descender, we’re dealing with technology, obviously, and these environments — some of them are very cold and sterile. And then Dustin paints them using watercolor. Which has a very organic look and medium, so you get this really cool visual juxtaposition on the page of this design technology done in an organic way. I think it’s really cool looking.And Dustin… what I love about Dustin’s stuff is his design sensibility. He doesn’t just draw a robot, he’ll actually figure out how the thing works on a three dimensional level. How it all fits together, and physically could be built in the real world. That kind of design skill, which I don’t have, is invaluable. He has a background in technical design, doesn’t he?Yes, he does. He brings that… not just building the world and the architecture — spaceships and things — but also the robots. The robots could actually be built in a three dimensional space. That’s pretty invaluable when you’re telling a story about technology, robots, and everything else. Not to have it just be stuff that looks cool to draw, but which is actually is feasible.Obviously, you’re an artist as well as a writer. When you’re working with Dustin or any artist, how much control are you able to comfortably surrender when it comes to the look of a book? Is this all his baby in terms the visual style, or is it a collaboration?It is, but we talk a lot about approach before he starts. One of the reasons I like Dustin so much is that we have a lot of the same influences and inspirations. So I knew that we kind of both approached visual storytelling in a similar way. So I can really let go and just let Dustin to do his thing, knowing that we’re both influenced by a lot of the same stuff on this like Stanley Kubrick, or a lot of manga and things. So [with] the pacing and the storytelling, we were both going for the same thing. And I knew that he could totally execute it.For me, it’s all about working with people you trust and people you like. If you like what they do before you even start working on a project, it’s much easier to let go and let them do their thing.
You mentioned Kubrick. What are some of the other influences — artists, films, paintings, comics, literature, even video games — that you’re drawing from to create this world?Well, no video games. I don’t play video games because I know that if I ever started, I’d never be able to maintain a career again. (Laughs) So I’ve never let myself play them. So there’s nothing there.
But certainly films, a lot of films. A lot of cinematic influences on Descender. Kubrick for sure, 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite movie. It has been since I was 12. I just love that film. And then, sometime maybe a year or two years ago, I went back and got into the Jack Kirby adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and then the series that he did afterwards which was pretty much unrelated to the film but it was sort of this wild cosmic Kirby stuff with Machine Man and all these other characters. And I think that that kinda worked its way into this a bit.I’d probably be lying if I said that Spielberg’s AI wasn’t an influence. I got to be honest, I didn’t really like that movie all that much. I love a lot of the ideas in the film, but I really wanted more from it. My imagination was kind of filling in the blanks, how I would execute similar things in a different way. That was an influence for sure.I know Dustin brings a lot of different things that I wasn’t totally familiar with. He’s read a lot more manga than I have, which he’s bringing to this. He always talks about the first generation of Transformers cartoons which I didn’t really watch, but I think he really loved. He is bringing a lot of that into it as well.Sony picked up the rights to this. They’re going to turn it into a movie. Are you involved in the creative side of the adaptation? Was this a goal of yours when you guys started working on it? To push this beyond just comics, and have it become something that can live in multiple mediums?It’s not. It’s never a goal of mine, to be honest. It’s great and everything. I’ve always just loved making comics, and that’s really where my focus is. Telling this comic with Dustin every month is all I care about. If the movies gets made and it’s good and everything, that’s awesome. It’s exciting and I’m glad and happy for it, but [it’s] certainly not the end game for us.In terms of how involved we’ll be, that’s still very, very early in the process. It’s just going to happen. Dustin and I are executive producers on the film. We will be involved with some capacity.It’s all still in the discussion phase of exactly how much we’ll be involved and everything else. We’re just getting to know each other, Sony and us. Like I said, right now, my focus is just the comic, and keeping the comic as good as it can be every month. Then, hopefully, they’ll have something strong to build off of.How far do you see this going? Do you have an issue count that you have in mind?Yeah. There’s a lot of mystery just inherit in the story of Descender. There’s sort of a central mystery that runs throughout it. And I really wanted to make sure I knew where that was going before we started, because I think a lot of times, there’s a nasty habit lately of people throwing out these cool mysteries,you know, and then scrambling to actually make it all make sense near the end of it, and it’s kind of unsatisfying.
So I want to make sure I really tracked it through. I have the whole series plotted out in pretty tight detail, to be honest. At this point, it’s got about 24 issues. I know from past experience that’ll probably double as we go. I know Sweet Tooth was plotted at about 24.
Then, once you have your basic story figured out, it kind of allows you to expand on different characters and let the story breathe a bit and then it grew into a 40 issue thing. Right now, it’s plotted at 24. I wouldn’t be surprised, if we’re successful enough, if it ends up being longer.
In terms of your head, because you have a lot of projects going on at any one time. How do you prioritize which one comes first? How do you get the most productivity out of each day? You mentioned avoiding video games. Are you ever worried you’re going to overextend yourself?
No. I really know what my limit is. I can handle a lot of work. I’ve always been able to. I’m a very focused individual. I come to my studio at about 7:30 in the morning and exit almost 5:00 PM. In that time, those eight or nine hours, it’s kind of laser focus on whatever I’m working on. There aren’t really any distractions or anything.
When you love what you do, which I do, it’s hard not to want to do it all the time. I’ve always been able to handle a lot. In terms of how I prioritize or how I juggle the different projects: what I tend to do is, for example, if I have a lot of ideas brewing in my head for Descender, I’ll just spend two weeks where I pretty much work on nothing but Descender, and I’ll write two or three issues.
I get all my ideas out for Descender until I have kinda exhausted myself. Then, I’ll just put it aside for two or three months, work on the other stuff and then come back to it. It keeps things fresh for me.
Working on the same thing every day, it tends to get stale. It’s good to have different projects to jump between like that. Descender is kind of my number one priority right now. That and my other creator owned stuff for sure, [they’ve] definitely become my priority in this last year.
Would you ever commit to another exclusive deal like you have with DC?
I don’t see the reason to at this point in my career. Things may change one day, but for now, I just don’t see… there are too many great people to work with out there. I’m working with Image, Dark Horse, Marvel, and Valiant right now. There are a lot of benefits to working with different companies,kind of diversifying yourself, and doing different things.
Especially right now, I feel like I’m shifting more and more to doing more and more creator owned stuff, and less and less work for hire. There just isn’t much need to go all in with one of the big two companies right now. It’s not where my head’s at.
Beyond the obvious, why is it that you’re more focused on the create your own stuff now, as opposed to the work for hire?
Creative freedom — obviously you’re building your own worlds, your own stories the way you want to tell them, with only yourself and your artist to answer to. That’s hard to give up. Also, you’re going to put in a lot of work and a lot of yourself into whatever you decide to do. Then, you look back 10 years later, do you want own that stuff still, or do you want it to have all gone to someone else? You know you got paid a paycheck to write it but then it’s just gone, all those ideas and all that energy put into something for someone else. It’s hard to do that when you can do something like Descender and build this world.
You know, Dustin and I own and control it forever. Whatever energy we put into it, we’re going to get back in some way creatively and eventually hopefully financially as well. You put that sorta energy into writing Spider-Man or whatever, it’s great and it’s fun while you’re doing it, but then, when you’re done, you’re just done and you don’t really have a lot to show for it.
Beyond the ownership part of it, just from a sense of playing in a sandbox, when you get a chance to take on one of these established characters, do you wish that these companies might let off the reigns a little bit and let creators run a little more wild instead of having this strict idea of what these characters are in these worlds?
Not really. They own the characters not us. I understand it. To be perfectly honest, my experiences about the DC, and now Marvel — they have been very hands off.
In my experience personally — I mean, I’ve heard other stories and other experiences — they’ve always been very open to me doing kind of what I want with those characters. That’s kind of why they hired me to do those books. It’s to kind of put my own spin and personality into them. So it hasn’t been too bad, you know?
At the end of the day, it is fun to write these established characters and you kind of get a kick out of it, but just right now, I’m much more into building my own stories and my own characters. I just feel like I need a break from doing so much of that stuff.
You’re working on Hawkeye with Marvel, how long of a commitment do you think you’re going to make to that? Is this a long haul thing? Is this just that you want to tell a story and then move out for somebody else to take over?
I’m not sure yet to be honest. Right now, I’m working on the first year’s worth of stories. It’s not a 12 issue story. It’s three different storylines. I built a bigger story for 12 issues. That’s where my focus is.
As I get closer to finishing those scripts, we’ll see where I’m at. Do I have more ideas for the character and stuff? Do I feel like I’ve told the story yet? Sometimes, you don’t know until we’re closer to the end. It’s hard to look much beyond a year at this point. That’s not to say that I won’t stay on that longer.
It was a great choice for Marvel. It’s an interesting choice for you in my opinion, because you’ve got a character that is not like the other established characters you’ve worked with before because Matt Fraction and David Aja redefined that character completely.
Is the challenge of following that and doing something new with it — but not going back to where it was before… is the challenge of following them part of what the appeal was for you to take it over?
Yeah, a little bit. It’s good to be challenged and to have those expectations on you, because it forces you to bring your “A” game and do something special. And I knew it would be my first work at Marvel, so I wanted to do something where I was really pushing myself and that pressure of living up to what Matt Fraction and David had done. It kept me very alert and very much focused on bringing my “A” game every month.
But at the same time, it just really comes down to if you have a story to tell with that character, and when Axel Alonso had offered it to me, I had really just got this idea for what I wanted to do — a story that I wanted to tell. I knew that if I told it as honestly as I could, and worked with a really talented artist that I felt confident that I could deliver something that was as good as what Matt and David had done, but also not just rehashing what they had done either. But yeah, the challenge of it is part of the fun, I think.
The other night, I saw on Twitter that you’ve been carrying quite a torch for Scott Snyder for a while. What is it about him that makes him so adorable?
It’s his eyebrows to be honest. He can arch one of them, really high. When he does that, it’s hard to say no to him. That’s from experience. Also, he’s a really good friend of mine. He and I, our careers have kinda run parallel. I was doing indie comics, and he was doing prose literature, and then we both got into Vertigo around the same time. Then, we worked at DC at the same time.
Through those shared experiences, we became really close. He’s become one of my best friends over the last five or six years. It’s great to have super talented friends like Scott to bounce ideas off of, and to inspire you to do your best all the time.
I know it’s far out, but you two are working together with Life After Death which sounds really fascinating. Can you tell me a little bit about the conception of that story?
Scott had this idea — it was originally a short story — about a world where a genetic cure for death had been found. The world had kind of been stratified by that. I don’t even know how it came out, but he just sort of threw this idea out at me one day when we were having coffee. There are certain elements that I don’t want to spill now, but when he described them to me, I just could picture them so vividly in my head the way I would draw it and I just told him right there that I really wanted to draw that if he ever did it.
It kind of grew once he knew how interested I was, it grew from this idea for a short story into something much bigger which is what it is now. I’m just really excited. It’s the first time that I’ll be drawing something of this length that I haven’t written myself.
I think it will push me into some interesting directions as an artist and also just to work with Scott. To get to work with one of your best friends on something like that, it’s fun. Also, if one of your best friends is such a talented writer as well, it’s going to be a great experience, I think. I know that we’re both really excited about it.
To wrap up, do you get the same satisfaction with something now that you’re writing but not drawing? Can you have the same satisfaction that you get with something like Underwater Welder or something else that you’ve done both sides of that is completely your story?
I think so. I didn’t think so until Descender and Black Hammer, the other creator owned book that I’m writing for Dark Horse right now. Up until that point, all my creator owned stuff I had drawn myself as well, so I’m obviously very attached to it. It was very personal work.
I always felt like I couldn’t get that same feeling from just writing for another artist, but Descender has kind of proven me wrong, because I feel as connected to that as I ever did with Sweet Tooth, Underwater Welder, or any of the other stuff.
I guess it really just comes down to… it’s not so much the hours that you spend drawing something. Obviously, you feel very close to it after a while. But I think that I put so much work into building a world with Descender and everything that I feel just as close to it as with my other stuff. Yeah. To answer your question, yeah.
What was it about Descender and Black Hammer that made you say, “I’m going to team up with somebody here”? Is it just too many stories that you want to tell right now? Or is it just that these artists were better for it than you were in your opinion?
I’ve been working on a graphic novel for Simon and Shuster, for the last year and a half. I won’t finish it until probably about April of this year. So I only have the time to draw one thing at a time, because it takes so much longer to draw something than it does to write it. At the same time, as we discussed earlier, I just really wanted to do more creator owned stuff and less work for hire stuff because it’s really where I wanted to move my career and stuff this year.
I knew that if I wanted to do more creator owned stuff, I would just have to work with other artists, because I can only ever do one at a time myself. It really came out of that.
Then, it became about the opportunity to work with artists that I’ve admired for a long time like Dustin, and building something with him and collaborate like that. It’s been great and I still get to draw my own stuff, too. I’ll draw a book with Scott next, and then something else after that. It’s great to get to do both.
Descender #1 will be released by Image Comics on March 4, 2015 with a variant cover by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, which you can get your first exclusive look at below. Be sure to tell your local comic book shop to order your copy today by using Diamond Order Code: JAN150567