A Few Words on Jeff Lemire
By Michael David Sims
11 May 2012 — Until recently, I had read very little of Jeff Lemire's work. Off the top of my head, I had read the first two or three issues of Animal Man, some of his Superboy run, and the first issue of Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE. So I was mostly unfamiliar with him, only knowing him by his growing reputation, as well as my deep love of those Animal Man books. So I thought he was the perfect choice to start off this new series of articles.
The idea is that I'm going to take a look at comic book writers who've made names for themselves in recent years, focusing specifically on three series that gained them their acclaim. First, the one that made people realize their potential. Second, the one that made people turn their heads. Third, and this will vary from writer to writer, either the one that made people buy books on the strength of the writers name, or, if they've already broken out, the most recent storyline that's receiving a fair amount of press — good or bad. In the case of Jeff Lemire, I've read Essex County: Tales from the Farm, Sweet Tooth: Out of the Deep Woods, and Animal Man: The Hunt.
Right of the bat, let me say that from the quiet farm life of Essex County to the dystopian rural world of Sweet Tooth to the near-superhero realm of Animal Man, there's a very clear narrative path for Jeff Lemire. One book has led directly to the other, and, when you read these books back to back to back, it's an easy — and somewhat obvious — line to see. But that's not a criticism. It's simply an observation of where the man is coming from and where his ideas are generated. I don't know the first thing about Jeff Lemire, but I would venture a guess that he's a farmboy — or at least accustomed to rural living — with deep, sentimental ties to the natural world. This point of view is so different from the one we see in most modern comic books and it's refreshing. His work is that new, different voice the industry needs but is maybe more than a little afraid of.
It's one thing to praise him for these three quiet, under-the-radar series, but it's another thing to accept him writing The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, Batman, or something we think has to have the same tone from one writer to the next. And that's the problem with the industry. Instead of accepting creators such as Lemire on bigger books, we'd rather pat them on the back for making Animal Man and / or their own Vertigo series a success. It comes off as, "Oh, how cute! You did something with that quirky animal book." This attitude shows our limited view of the industry. "Change," we say we want. "New, fresh voices," too. But when they arrive with never-before-seen concepts, we run scared. That's on us. We don't want change; we want safety and familiarity. And Jeff Lemire brings none of that. He brings what the industry should be: different, ahead-of-the-curve, and limited by nothing.
If you're not reading a Jeff Lemire comic because he's on smaller books that don't have "Bat," "X," or "Avengers" in the title, that's on you. For one month, spend your $2.99 or $3.99 on something other than a book that continues to fill your hundred-plus issue run. If you're not reading a Jeff Lemire comic because you've tried him before and found him not to be your taste, fine. Great, actually. At least you tried. But if you haven't tried, do, because what Jeff does better than anyone else in recent memory is he takes very high concepts and makes them compelling by putting characters first. This grounds the reality he's working in — the reality he's building — thus making it our own reality for a brief moment in time. It's a marvelous thing he does. Each time I finish a Jeff Lemire story, I feel myself slowly sliding back into reality, as if I'm coming down from a long, satisfying trip; you know reality is where you'll end up once more, but you're still connected to wherever your head — or, in this case, the author — took you.
With most comic books, when the final page leads to the back cover, the experience is over and I go back to my daily life without batting an eye. When a Jeff Lemire book comes to a close, there's a need to decompress. I think, "What did I just experience? And where will I go from here?"
In the best of stories, I might close a book and, realizing these characters will live on in the world the author created in my mind, wonder, "Where will these characters go next?" And that's a very satisfying feeling, to have fictional works come to life so perfectly that you can't help but wish them well in the background of your imagination. Though Lemire's works leave one feeling the same way, they also change you so you must reexamine your own life. Again, "Where will I go from here?"
In Essex County: Tales from the Farm, through friendship, imagination, and mourning, Lester discovers he can move on with his life after his mother's passing. It's a long, hard journey for him, but he makes it out the other side and he's stronger for it. In my life, my wife and I suffered an accident, and it's been a long, hard road of recovery — both physically and emotionally. Neither of us are where we were before the accident, and we never will be (scars won't ever let us forget what happened), but, with each other's love and support and the aid of doctors, we'll get there. Eventually. Lemire's Lester, too, will never be the same, but he's healed in some way, and that's all Shana and I can ask for. That's what Essex County taught me; it taught me that we're both strong, and that life happens and all you can do is hold on.
Similarly, Animal Man: The Hunt took me to a place where I had to rethink my stance on life and death and personal preservation. Throughout the story, as he realizes his daughter is being groomed for a war she's too young to fight, Buddy constantly begs to be put in her place. Granted, a father being protective of his daughter is nothing new to life and / or fiction, but Lemire's handling of Buddy is what sells the scenes. By the time Buddy yells, "You want me to fight in some war, that's fine, but leave her out of this," he's no longer a character; he's become a very real father with a never-ending need to protect his child. Later, he doesn't even think, he simply acts when Maxine and the rest of his family are in mortal danger. Me, for whatever reason, I'm never not thinking about my own mortality. It's an obsession I'll never break. Every moment of every day is filled with the knowledge that one day I will die, and this is unacceptable. It fills me with unimaginable dread. And being an Atheist, I see no afterlife; one minute my switch is on and I'm here in this world — in this moment in all of cosmic time — and the next it's off as if I never existed. Forever. Imagine that thought creeping throughout your brain every day. That's me. That what drives my self-preservation. My safety, above all else, has always been my top concern. But marriage changed that. It was right around the same time I read these issues of Animal Man — which was about a year after the aforementioned accident, mind you — that I finally realized something: in the moment before everything spiraled out of control, I didn't see death coming at me; I saw it coming for my wife. My new wife. My wife of four days. And I didn't think. I acted. In a blink I wrapped myself around her, my own life be damned. The end could come, but not for her. And though I had that epiphany before I finished reading Lemire's first Animal Man arc, his characterization of the selfless family man that is Buddy Baker sent me back into that headspace. There are things bigger than me, and it's not Death or Forever. It's Family. Capital F.
You might read Animal Man or Essex County and find yourself coming out with a different experience, and that's the way it should be. Stories should not leave the audience with a singular emotional experience. They should touch us all in different ways. You might walk away from Sweet Tooth: Out of the Deep Woods feeling justified in your belief that everyone will betray you, whereas I was touched by Jepperd's sense of justice for the downtrodden. Outside of filling stories with rich characters and moving plots, what you leave with is not for the author to decide. He can only help guide you down the path of self-discovery. What you leave with is, however, dictated by your own life experiences, and Jeff Lemire is tapping into that like only a master craftsman can.
A version of this column was used as the script for episode 513 of Earth-2.net: The Show.