If there are a few people dressed in plaid shirts and wearing antlers wandering the streets of downtown Toronto this weekend, Jeff Lemire can be very proud.
Lemire is a graphic novelist, comic book artist and the creator of a character named Sweet Tooth, a plaid-shirted deer boy whose real name is Gus and who has his own monthly comic. When Lemire was at Comic-Con in San Diego last month, he discovered a few readers were paying him the ultimate compliment: Amongst all the fans dressed as super heroes, there were also four Sweet Tooths at the annual comics and fan boy convention. So, if a couple of Sweet Tooths attend this weekend's Fan Expo in Toronto, Lemire will have more confirmation that there is room in the world of comics for his dark, troubling visions.
Set in a world ravaged by some mysterious plague that has led to the birth of hybrid animal/human children, Sweet Tooth is the violent story of an isolated innocent, mistreated and exploited by those around him. It is published by DC Comics' indie-spirited Vertigo imprint. Lemire also writes (but does not draw) several mainstream DC titles including Animal Man and Justice League Dark.
On the other side of the street, he is the graphic novelist whose grim rural trilogy, Essex County, was released in 2008-09 by Top Shelf Productions, a U.S. publisher specializing in alternative comics and graphic novels. The melancholy story of family secrets in a small farming community, it was inspired by Woodslee, Lemire's hometown in Southwestern Ontario, a place where working as a comic book artist seemed as likely as playing in the NHL. Essex County was nominated as a finalist on Canada Reads in 2011, the year the CBC Radio show was dedicated to the most essential Canadian books of the last decade.
Literary traditionalists quickly voted Essex County out of that contest, but Lemire himself is not going anywhere: The 36-year-old artist's burgeoning career is a testament to the way the line between the traditional smash-kerpow-zowee comic book and the newer, serious-minded graphic novel is blurring.
"We saw on Canada Reads that prejudice against the medium persists ... but someone like me can bridge the gap and exist in both worlds because it is not as separated as it used to be," Lemire said during an interview in his east-end Toronto studio. "Superhero comics in the last decade have become much more sophisticated. Fans demand a high level of storytelling ... not just eye candy of superheros punching each other. People keep saying it: Comics aren't just for kids any more."
Still, juggling the two types of books can get complicated, at least at a practical level. Monthly comics demand full-time work: A number of Sweet Tooth runs to 32 pages with as many as six panels a page, and takes Lemire three weeks to create at the rate of several pages a day. Using his own rough scripts, he writes and draws at the same time, inking the art by hand – he only uses the computer to scan art and send it to publishers – before passing it on to a colourist to be coloured. That leaves him a week every month to work on the more complete scripts for the comics he writes but does not draw, texts that read a bit like movie scripts and that have to be fully fleshed out to give the artists instructions on the images in each panel.
"It's a treadmill. You don't have time to get writer's block," he said, adding, "It's a much more condensed style of storytelling. It's been a good learning experience for me, teaching me how to be more economical."
He is currently at work on the 39th and penultimate number of Sweet Tooth, and got another artist to draw the comic for three months so that he could write and draw a sequel to Essex County.
The Underwater Welder was published this year by Top Shelf and is currently number six on the New York Times bestseller list for graphic novels. It tells the story of Jack, who works as a welder on an off-shore oil rig, whose wife is pregnant and who is anxious about forthcoming fatherhood.
"Normally those two worlds – the superheroes and the independent stuff – don't mix but I note with The Underwater Welder that people who read my DC stuff are checking it out. I think I put my unique voice into all my work and people respond to that."
Lemire, who profited from art classes in high school but is otherwise self-taught as a graphic artist, first heard about the profession of underwater welder from a colleague at one of the restaurants where he worked before comics started paying the bills three years ago. The father of a three-year-old boy, also named Gus, Lemire felt that underwater welding seemed like a good metaphor for parenthood.
Whether they come with antlers on their heads or diver's masks on their faces, Lemire likes his metaphors big, off-beat – and very visual.
Jeff Lemire will be appearing at Fan Expo in Toronto Saturday and Sunday. Visit www.fanexpocanada.com for more information.