On Tuesday, August 31, 2011, “Justice League” #1 dropped, officially beginning the experiment known as the New 52. DC Comics was not just relaunching all of its titles, it was doing so in a new, clean(er) continuity, in an attempt to revitalize and enthuse the fan base. It was an unprecedented move that bore good, bad, and mediocre comics.
Over the next year, we’ll be discussing each of the New 52 titles with a member of its creative team. We’re not taking any clear path through these books, but hopping from title to title, line to line, in an effort to spotlight the breadth of the initiative.
Today, we speak with Jeff Lemire. At the onset of the New 52, Jeff was just dipping his toes into the superhero world after years of doing very small, personal stories. His “Animal Man” is one of the most singular and idiosyncratic comics of the era, and holds up incredibly well, ten years on. We talk with Jeff about loss, family, editorial leaving him alone, and the art of Travel Foreman and Steve Pugh.
Jeff is writing more comics than you’d think humanly possible, as well as serializing his new graphic novel through Substack. Follow him on Twitter (@JeffLemire), and make sure to re-read this run if you haven’t already. You won’t be disappointed.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I think your “Animal Man” run is one of, if not the, most well remembered runs from the New 52. Part of that is that it felt like such a personal book, and it came out in a sea of books that felt anything but personal. How did you managed to get a such personal title through within this sea of very editorially driven titles?
Jeff Lemire: Looking back, it was a, just a convergence of different things. I might have to go back a little just to explain. [At that point] I’d mostly done indie comics, I’d done “Essex County” and these things where I do all the stuff myself, you know, and they were all very personal books. “Sweet Tooth” was much the same, where I was creating it myself at Vertigo with very little editorial oversight in the way that you get from DC or Marvel, where everything’s connected. So that’s really all I ever did. Probably about a year before the New 52, I got a call from Dan DiDio and Geoff Johns to write some stuff for DCU. I had never written for an artist before; I’d only ever drawn my own stuff.
So I did a couple things I did. There’s these the Atom backups [in “Adventure Comics” – ed.] that I did with Mahmoud Asrar, who, you know, would go on to be a superstar himself. I didn’t know what I was doing. You know, I’ve never written for an artist. So it was just like, the learning curve was super steep; it was my first attempt to try to do that. And then I did the “Superboy” title, which again, it was like the real learning well, how do I do the thing that I do?
And then, the New 52 kind of came in and wiped everything away that we’ve been working on, and we’re like, “Okay, well, we’re doing this now.” And, and I was kind of tapped on the shoulder to be part of that, which was flattering and nice, you know, and if I remember correctly, it was like this thing where the the editorial people would come to you and say, “What about these books?” Like, what about “Suicide Squad?”, or I don’t remember what else they they approached me for back then. And I’d write up a little pitch and send it in, and then you kind of never hear anything about it. I think Dan really wanted me to be a part of it, but none of the stuff they were throwing at me was really striking a nerve. You know, like, they just didn’t seem like good fits. And I think eventually, they kind of asked me, “Well, what would what do you want to pitch? What would you want to do for this thing?” And and I pitched that Frankenstein [“Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.” – ed] book because I loved the Grant Morrison one. And they’re like, “Okay, cool, et’s pitch that.” I think it was Matt Edelson was the editor who called me one day said, “What about Animal Man?”Continued below
And, and it was like, immediately, like, “Oh, shit, yeah, that would be awesome.” I love the Grant Morrison stuff, and all my work is about family. That that’s a superhero who is about family. And it was just perfect: the perfect book at the perfect time for me as I’m trying to figure out how to write for the artists, the central themes are right in my wheelhouse. The early Vertigo stuff was really what kept me reading comics in my teenage years, so I have such a deep connection to those early Vertigo titles. And so I just approached it like that, like: I’m just gonna procede as if I was continuing the Vertigo book. I think I kind of just kind of snuck it in, because they had so much going on. They were put spinning so many plates; they had their big characters that they needed to land like Superman and Green Lantern and stuff, but then the other stuff that they were filling out the 52 titles with, I really think it was just them just throwing stuff against the wall to see if one or two of these things stick
So they I didn’t really have any expectations for “Animal Man.” So there wasn’t a ton of pressure of what I should write. Like, if I was writing “Superman” or “Batman,” like Scott [Snyder] was writing, there are a lot more eyes on that, because this has to be a hit. Whereas with “Animal Man,” it was just like, “well, let’s see what happens.” And I just, I kind of got away with it. And then I think by the time they realized how dark it was, it was kind of a hit. So they just kept their hands off; “let’s not mess with it.” So I just sort of snuck it in, to be honest with you.
My son would have been two at the time, so I was a new parent writing a book about a dad, and it just was just perfect, schematically, for what I was dealing with in life.The horrors and fears of Buddy Baker were great metaphors for the everyday fears of being a parent. And I just wrote it from the heart, and it did really well. It launched pretty big; if I remember correctly, I think we did about 70,000 the first issue. I don’t think anyone expected “Animal Man” to sell 70,000 copies. So they were just like, “okay, just keep doing what you’re doing.” I’ve done a lot of work for hire, and it’s sometimes the stars align, but it’s very rare. That was one where it just aligned and they just were hands off enough and let me do it.
In the beginning of the second year is when you and Scott Synder did the ‘Rotworld’ crossover. Was that something that came about organically or did DC say “hey, these books kind of touch each other? Would you guys like to work together?”
JL: It was all us. Scott and I were really good friends, and we kind of connected because in 2010, or whatever, when when I got called to write stuff for DC, they called Scott and I on the same day for whatever reason. I think Dan was just in a mood that day where he was going to look at some of the Vertigo guys and see if there was anything there and “American Vampire” and “Sweet Tooth” must have been like the books of the moment. So he picked Scott and I, and so we bonded over that. And we’re kind of like figuring this this out together; we were each other’s support system of navigating all of this; it can sometimes be very political, like the the editorial structure and dealing with different writers and different editors and stuff. And when I got “Animal Man,” he was doing “Swamp Thing,” and I would tell him what I was doing and he would tell me what he was doing. So we said, “let’s have this common mythology,” like it just it just built over this friendship. Once we established that, we just started talking about well, “how can we do something really big that really bring these common kind of bring a combination of what we’ve been building?”Continued below
[‘Rotworld’] was us pitching that to Dan, and I think we had to go through a few pitches because we want to use a lot of different DC characters in that crossover rather than just Swamp Thing and Animal Man. So we had to sort of, again, navigate the politics of “well, can we use Hawkman? Can we use these other characters?” And so there was a bit of back and forth from the pitching. I remember going to New York with Scott to pitch it.
You worked with some amazing artists on that book. But whenever I think of that book, I go to Travel Foreman as the guy whose work really meshed with your writing in such a unique way. Well, did you have any input on who was drawing that book?
JL: I didn’t know Travel. I don’t remember who else was mentioned when I did my pitch, but Travel must have done the first few sketches of Buddy, and they were just outrageous. It was mind blowing, like, “what the fuck? This is not what I expected. Wow, this could be really cool.” Sometimes they’ll put you with an artist and you’re kind of like, scared to scared to look to see what they do, but then this was like, “Whoa, shit.” This is actually really cool.
The success of that book, as much as it kind of established me as a writer, I think Travel deserves just as much credit, because he the visual language he created was just so unbelievably imaginative and unique for what was what was going on in superhero comics at the time. It just looked like nothing else. It was just so mindblowing and exhilarating to get those emails and see how he would take those ideas and not just live up to what I had in my head, but then just go further.
I didn’t really get to know him personally very well, it was more of a professional relationship. I think I remember there was some personal stuff going on his life he had mentioned at some point, and he was having a hard time with the darker themes of the book. So he just couldn’t keep it going, unfortunately. But then, like I said, I had read all the Vertigo stuff, and as much as I love the grand Morrison stuff, I actually really love the Jamie Delano run more.
It’s a really underrated run.
JL: It really is. Steve Pugh had drawn that, and more than anything, my run was an extension of the Delano’s run. So I was like, when we needed an artist, I was like, “what about Steve Pugh?” We brought him in, and he was able to kind of draw in a style that felt connected to what Travel had established, but also you really brought the humanity to those characters. So I was really lucky to work with those two guys.
You mentioned the family being the core of the book. I was reading that book as it came out, and when Cliff died, I remember thinking like, “they’re never gonna let this stick.” And you do a really great job of letting the audience come to the realization along with the family that no, this is the end for him. And I was wondering if DC had any pushback against that, because, you know, death in comics is nothing new. But the death of a child in comics is oftentimes is a) rare, and b) can oftentimes be really lambasted. A couple of years before that, James Robinson had killed Roy Harper’s daughter Lian, and people were outraged that this character would be killed. So was there any sort of pushback from DC about, about taking the child off the table?
JL: No, its actually the opposite. I kind of got cold feet, and wanted to, like, bring him back through comic book ways, and they really said “No, don’t do it, make it stick.” And so when they said that, I just really leaned into it and was like, “okay, so let’s do this, let’s make this about parents who experienced this loss. Let’s see that in a superhero book, because I’d never seen that before.”Continued below
If he was just going to come back into the story, that story would have no resonance. So once I knew that we were really going to keep him dead, I made that about this book about loss, and this family and this marriage kind of dealing with the worst possible thing. And again, in a mainstream superhero book that that wasn’t really something you would normally do or get away with.
Why do you think you were getting cold feet about it?
JL: I just love the family and the characters. I really loved that character. And I thought, “are people gonna hate that we killed one of them?” It just felt like a big a big move. It should be something that gives you pause, and if you’re not taking it seriously, then you’re not taking the character seriously. So it was just me really thinking it through.
Not counting the “Swamp Thing” issues in ‘Rotworld,’ the series lasted approximately 30 issues. Was that was that decision yours? Or did DC want to close the door on the book?
JL: I think it was both. The sales were, you know, with anything, the sales start to decline over 30 issues or whatever, you know, and the excitement of the New 52 is starting to wear off. So, it came to the point where, well, we can keep it going, but it’s probably not going to go forever. So I maybe I can ended on my own terms, and make it feel like a complete, cohesive work. And I was lucky at that time; the book had been successful enough, and the other stuff I was doing was successful enough that I had a little bit of leverage and clout. And so I said, “one of two things can happen: either cancel the book or I leave and we bring on a different writer and artist.” And I did not want that to happen; I didn’t want someone else continuing that. It felt like a creator owned book to me. I sort of said, “let me end it.” And Dan was really good about that, and even let me draw some of the last issue and put my stamp on it that way. So yeah, I wanted to do it on my terms. And they let me.
The finale of the book is, quite honestly, one of my favorite New 52 issue. The bedtime story that Maxine is telling Buddy is just beautiful and heartbreaking. It’s a wonderful, wonderful way to end the story. And amazingly, I mean, Buddy’s been us since then, but that’s still kind of feels like a pin in the Buddy story. And I wonder how you feel all these years later about the fact that that that story kind of feels like a very logical conclusion to the Buddy Baker solo “Animal Man: stories? Does it make you happy that the story’s been paused where you left it, or are you missing that character?
JL: Selfishly, you want your thing to be to be the thing that stands the test of time. I’m not naive enough to think there’s not going to be more Animal Man stuff. So in my mind, that’s the end of my story. After I’m done with a character, I just don’t pay any attention to to what they’re doing with the character. I never read or look at the next the next iteration, because I’m done with it. So yeah, in my mind, Buddy’ss story is done anyway.
But actually, it’s kind of good timing that this interview, because this morning, they announced that I’m doing a Swamp Thing book for like DC’s Black Label and, actually, it’s kind of a coda to the “Animal Man” book as well. I won’t say any more about that, but it’s it is sort of a coda to what I to what I had done in that series.
Well, that just made my day.
Looking back on the New 52, in general, what are your feelings about that era?
JL: Personally, it was really good, because I thrived in it with “Animal Man,” and then later with “Green Arrow,” I found two books, that I was able to really do my thing and can establish myself as a writer, which has paid dividends over my career. When you’re looking at the DC universe as a whole, you’re really invested in it at the time, but then there’s been two more reboots since then or something, and you wonder, “what is the impact of it?” But at the time, it felt exciting to be a part of it. We felt like we were trying to do something big and bold. And I knew that it wasn’t all working, but it was kind of nice to take a big swing, and be part of that.Continued below
But in terms of its legacy and things like that I you know, I don’t really know what how fans think of it now. You know, in terms of just the actual books and stuff. Again, I think it’s been lessened by like, with the reboots since. I think the problem as a whole with with with Marvel and DC now is that nothing feels permanent, or none of the stories feel like they really matter anymore. Because I feel like it you know, every every few years, we just they just reboot everything again.
As a teenager, I was reading comics from the 70s and 80s, without any of the context of what was happening in the meta-narrative, or outside the pages of the books, at the time. So I wonder if those reboots will feel like reboots to kids in 2030, looking back on this versus, you know, how it felt when we were in it.
JL: I think certain books will stand the test of time, and just, they’ll exist outside of whatever was going on with the universe or the whatever. They’re just good stories.