Jeff Lemire is the creator of the acclaimed Vertigo series Sweet Tooth, which follows Gus, a nine-year-old, half-deer boy growing up in a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by a mysterious plague. We spoke to Lemire about building this zoologically screwball world.
First off, what was the inspiration for Sweet Tooth?
It came from a lot of inspirations mashed together — I grew up reading a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff and loving it. Like Jack Kirby's Kamandi series, you can see that in the half-animal, half-human hybrids, the last boy on Earth, a lot of those themes comes through. I had also been working on The Nobody, another graphic novel for Vertigo, so I was reading a lot of H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau, which is obviously a big influence as well. I think I always just wanted to try my hand at writing a big adventure story but treating it as a character piece.
A lot of your work — Sweet Tooth, The Nobody, even your current run on Superboy which takes place in Smallville — has a more bucolic or rural feel to it. What's the appeal of these natural settings for you?
In general, I feel so much of pop culture is set in the generic big city, particularly comics. I feel like there are so many other stories to tell. Why not take a science fiction comic and put the characters in a small towns to gain their particular perspective? A lot of that comes from me growing up in a small town on a farm, so that's what I know and what I'm comfortable with. My drawing style is also very sparse and minimalist, so a rural setting complements that.
How far do you have Sweet Tooth planned at this point?
At this point, I have the whole series fleshed out. I wrote the last issue a long time ago, and it's just a matter of getting to that point. I think the series is looking to be 40 issues long. I tend to write my beginnings and endings first — as a cartoonist and storyteller, I couldn't sit down everyday if I didn't know where the story was headed.
In Sweet Tooth, the children growing up after the plague are born half-mammal hybrids. Will we see the rise of another half-animal forms?
At this point it's all mammals, but in issue 14, we do see one reptile child to heighten the mystery. I don't want to give too much away, but yeah, we might see other forms coming.
What character in Sweet Tooth would you say you're most like?
I think both Gus and [the drifter] Jepperd. I kind of hold on to some of my imagination that I had when I was a kid, but there's also that old, jaded side which is typical of Jepperd.
Yeah, I read that you modeled Jepperd somewhat on Garth Ennis and Richard Corben's Punisher: The End. An absolutely brutal series.
Just in terms of how Richard Corben had drawn Frank Castle, I loved how he illustrated him as an older man and really worn out. I took my cue from that, and it became its own thing as the series went on. Jepperd started off as my attempt to do that grizzled antihero like Nick Fury, but then he became more than an archetypal character during the writing process.
For Superboy, he's had a bit of a convoluted history but he's also a very iconic character. What sort of influences went into your portrayal of the hero?
When I write Superboy and other DC characters, it's about boiling them down to core concepts. Superboy's has a recent convoluted party where he died and came back, so I thought the smart bet would be to really strip it down and simplify it and make it about a teenager living in small-town America. This Superboy, who's a clone of Lex Luthor and Superman, was born as a teenager and never had a normal boyhood, so the early parts of this series are his attempt to move back to this ideal normalcy that he never had. The problem is, he can never stop being a superhero because all of these crazy superheroic facets of his life prevent him from becoming normal.
What other projects are you working on at this point?
Between Sweet Tooth and Superboy it's a full schedule. I do have a couple projects which I really can't talk about right now though.
And finally, what comics have you been digging lately?
I've really been enjoying Jeff Smith's Rasl, which is a really great science fiction comic. There's Tumor by Joshua Fialkov and Noel Tuazon, which I really enjoyed. There's also Darwyn Cooke's The Outfit.
The second volume of Sweet Tooth ("In Captivity") and the second issue of Superboy will be released December 8.