The Canadian comic book artist and writer Jeff Lemire has made me cry a number of times—certainly more than any other Canadian comic book artist and writer. It happened once or twice when I first made my way through the final 30 pages of book two in his beautiful and understated Essex County trilogy. As I read Sweet Tooth, the 40-issue monthly series that he brought to a close earlier this year, I probably shed tears once every ten issues or so. And I remember feeling a distinct pressure at the bottom of my throat through much of The Underwater Welder, his spare and mysterious graphic novel from 2012 about fatherhood and, yes, underwater welding.
Lemire’s work is driven by his characters and their emotions. He understands the importance of the quiet moments, and he is not afraid to let his art speak for itself, whether he’s creating a simple story about two brothers growing old together (see: Essex County) or a big post-apocalyptic road adventure about human/animal hybrid children (like Sweet Tooth). Or—as is the case with his newest creator-owned project, Trillium—a large-canvas time travel love story that reads like a slightly psychedelic meld of Avatar and some jungle-set adventure film from the 20s or 30s.
Trillium is an eight-issue monthly series from Vertigo that gets its debut this week with an oversized issue #1. The first installment is divided into two distinct stories that begin at opposite ends of the book, and then meet—both physically and narratively—in the middle. Nika Temsmith is a scientist from the year 3797 stationed on a planet far out on the edge of space, and working to establish communication and trust with an enigmatic alien race called the Atabithians. Mankind is dying off at the hands of an aggressive and intelligent virus, and the only effective vaccine requires trilliums—a rare flower growing in large numbers within the walls of the Atabithians’ village. Meanwhile, in 1921 a British explorer and shell shocked World War I veteran named William Pike is deep in the jungles of South America, searching for a mythic Incan temple that allegedly holds the secret to immortality.
I don’t think it’s revealing too much if I say that these two characters—the former soldier and the future scientist—eventually meet. The pleasure of Trillium #1 comes in seeing how they meet, and how Lemire brings his own distinct quirks and style to the conventions of these genres. Lemire was kind enough to speak with me about Trillium last week; what follows is an edited excerpt from that conversation.
Stephen Weil: Nika’s story in Trillium is your first try at classic science fiction. What made you want to do a story like this?
Jeff Lemire: I’ve always really wanted to do my own take on a sci-fi story. As I grew up, I learned to read on Arthur C. Clarke novels and stuff like that, and with comics like Saga [by Brian K. Vaughan] and Prophet [by Brandon Graham] being so popular last year, I’ve been influenced by those guys and how creatively vibrant those two books are. So it seemed like the right time.
Also, my other creator-owned stuff is fairly grounded in our world, so this was a chance for me to really do something totally different—to kind of refresh myself and design a world from the ground up. I got to design the look of the spaceships, the spacesuits, the planet, the aliens—all that stuff. It’s a lot of fun for me, and I hadn’t done it before.
SW: Does most of that world-building happen as you’re writing a script, or as you’re actually putting art on the page?
JL: A bit of both. Sometimes I’ll be randomly sketching, and I might draw some crazy character, or something that starts to give me ideas for a story. And other times I’ll sit down to write a pitch and it will come from that. With Trillium it came mostly from story, because I was still drawing Sweet Tooth when I came up with the idea, so I didn’t have a lot of time to draw and design things. It was mostly me at a keyboard coming up with ideas, and then at the beginning of this year when I finished Sweet Tooth I finally had time to get my sketchbook out and realize some of the stuff I had typed on the page.
SW: Did the future story and the 1920s story begin as two separate ideas?
JL: I don’t know that they were ever separate—at the time I was reading a lot of classic sci-fi, but I was also reading a lot of historical fiction and stuff set during World War I, and I became really fascinated by trench warfare. I’ve also always been really into the golden age of exploration. So it was really a way to create one project that I could jam all my interests in to.
SW: I’ve read that you’re hand painting a fair amount of Trillium. That’s new for you, right?
JL: Yeah, it is. In the last third of Sweet Tooth, I started experimenting a bit with painting, just in dream sequences and things like that, and I really loved doing it. So for this story I wanted to challenge myself. I really want to become a better painter, and the only way to get there is to force myself to do a lot of it.
SW: Is it hard to do on a monthly deadline?
JL: It’s very hard—I don’t think I anticipated how hard it would be. I’m used to writing and drawing a monthly comic, and I can usually draw an issue in about three weeks, but the painting probably adds another week to that. I definitely had to reassess my schedule once I realized how long it was going to take.
SW: One connection I see to Sweet Tooth is that you’re exploring the religion and myths of indigenous American cultures again. Have you done a lot of reading and research on this topic?
JL: Yeah. During the second half of Sweet Tooth I got really interested in native Canadian culture. It’s becoming a bigger part of my life, so a lot of that worked its way in to Sweet Tooth, and is going in Trillium as well. The history of native relationships with the first European settlers is a part of Nika’s story—especially with the aliens. My next graphic novel is going to be about that, without genre getting in the way.
SW: Many of the characters in your creator-owned work are kind of haunted by something, or dealing with the basic challenge of connecting to the world around them. What draws you to these characters?
JL: Those are naturally the characters and stories—for whatever reason—that I want to write. When you’re an artist and a writer, you almost don’t want to analyze where your stuff comes from too much, because that’s what it is: it’s your way of working things out. If you sit back and start to intellectualize everything, you might ruin whatever it is that’s working for you. So I never try to figure out where it’s coming from or why. I know the kind of characters I’m attracted to, and the kind of characters that seem to keep coming up, and I just kind of go with it.
Trillium #1 is on sale wherever fine comics are sold.