Jeff Lemire on ‘street-level’ Green Arrow, superhero inspiration

Feb. 24, 2013 | 2:56 p.m.

"Green Arrow" No. 17. “The challenge for me, when taking over the title... was really to try to approach it as if it's a first issue,” Lemire said in a statement. (DC Comics)

"I’ve just been reading tons of old sci-fi," Lemire said of gearing up for his new undertaking, "Trillium," expected this summer. (Vertigo)

Superheroes were never in Jeff Lemire’s plans.

The Canadian cartoonist read DC and Marvel comics as a boy, but when he started creating his own work in the mid-’00s, he gravitated to small, human stories, published in such acclaimed graphic novels as “Tales From the Farm” and “The Country Nurse.” Then Lemire did a one-off book for Vertigo — an “Invisible Man” riff called “The Nobody” — followed by the recently completed 40-issue post-apocalyptic fantasy series “Sweet Tooth.”

While working on “Sweet Tooth,” Lemire was asked by Vertigo’s parent company DC to try his hand at penning a couple of their ongoing titles, which ultimately led to Lemire’s takes on “Animal Man” and “Frankenstein” becoming a core part of the company’s “New 52” relaunch.

Now, at a time when DC has been taking a lot of heat from fans for shuffling creative teams and dropping titles, Lemire has become one of the company’s core writers, and a surprising success story, given that he’s first and foremost an indie writer-artist.

Recently, Lemire was asked to take over writing “Green Arrow,” with art by Andrea Sorrentino. Their first issue shakes up the title’s status quo right away, taking away the hero’s livelihood and putting him into conflict with an archer named Komodo who’s even more skilled than he.

With the character now appearing on TV every week on the CW’s hit series “Arrow,” the title has become one of DC’s potential breakouts, and Lemire says that when he came on board with issue No. 17, released earlier this month, he “had to take a look at what was working and what wasn’t.”

His main challenge: Make the title character more likable.

"Green Arrow" (DC Comics)

“Green Arrow” (DC Comics)

Lemire explains, “Oliver Queen, Green Arrow, was this kid who was born into privilege and always had everything he ever wanted, and inherently that made him not very relatable. So what I did was strip him down completely. In my first arc, he loses everything — his money, the company — and as a result he kind of has to remake himself into something new. I really took the approach of making it a gritty, street-level superhero story, which I was interested in.”

The result is a version of Green Arrow that more closely resembles the tone of “Arrow,” though while Lemire likes the TV show — “You never know what they’ll be able to get away with on network TV, but I feel like they have tapped into that vigilante feel I like,” he says — any similarities are purely coincidental.

“The show hadn’t even premiered when I started working on the book. I think I’d plotted out the first two issues before I ever saw it. It’s just happened that the more grounded, realistic approach to the character that I took probably lends itself to people who are enjoying the TV show being able to jump on board the comic as well.”

Lemire adds that DC has given him the freedom to make Green Arrow his own – and also “Justice League Dark” and “Constantine,” which he’s now writing in collaboration with Ray Fawkes — though he understands that he’s serving a larger legacy, alongside dozens of colleagues who are all writing “the DC universe” story.

In fact, Lemire says that’s one of the main appeals to him of doing this kind of work.

“When I do my own stuff that I write and draw myself, I kind of miss that collaboration that I get working on superhero comics, where I get to work with different artists and other writers and editors and get to be part of the shared universe.”

A big part of that collaborative pleasure for Lemire is seeing other artists conceive what he’s imagined. He says that when he began writing for DC, he used to include detailed page layouts with his scripts, until he realized that the less he explained, “the better the results.”

Now he keeps the visual cues in his scripts to a minimum, and lets his artists add their own voices to the comics.

“Everyone has their own storytelling style, visually, when you’re laying out comics. But that’s the joy of it, especially because I still get to draw my own comics and flex those muscles myself. It’s really fun to see other artists interpreting my ideas in different ways. Sometimes I can take those things and incorporate them into my own art. Surprise is the best thing about collaboration. Because when I draw my own comics, I know what they’re going to look like before I start.”

What’s been most unusual about Lemire’s rise through the DC ranks is that he’s also become one of this era’s most acclaimed indie comics creators. Just last year, Lemire’s Top Shelf graphic novel “The Underwater Welder” — a gorgeously rendered and poetic story about a father-to-be grappling with his troubled family history — made multiple lists of the best comics of 2012.

Soon he’ll start drawing his next “more grounded and personal” book, which he spent a couple of months scripting after “Sweet Tooth” ended. Before he can get to that, though, he has a 10-issue Vertigo limited series, “Trillium,” which he’s just begun “working on in earnest.”

“I’m pretty sure ‘Trillium’ will be starting this summer,” Lemire says. “It’s a sci-fi book, and I’ve just been reading tons of old sci-fi novels from guys like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl, and that’s been really fun.”

Ultimately, Lemire’s attitude toward these DC and Vertigo projects may be the key to how well they’ve been received. Even if he never asked for the opportunity, he seems to approach each new assignment with the thought of how much he’ll enjoy doing the research, and flexing new muscles.

Lemire says that outside of what’s required for his work, he doesn’t even read that many comics these days. (He lists Matt Kindt’s Dark Horse series “Mind MGMT” and Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra’s Image title “The Manhattan Projects” as current faves.) But that’s not meant as a knock against the medium, any more than Lemire’s lack of devotion to superheroes means he doesn’t love writing their stories.

It’s just that it’s all symbiotic to Lemire.

“More and more I find myself going outside of comics,” Lemire says, “To get inspiration and then bring stuff back in.”

– Noel Murray

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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"Sweet Tooth." (Vertigo)

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