From little Essex County to the big DC Universe


In 2011, the Canada Reads: Essential Novels of the Decade chose a graphic novel for the first time on their list, Essex County.

Jeff Lemire

Jeff Lemire

It was written and illustrated by Jeff Lemire, a Canadian graphic novelist who not only writes and draws his own stories, but also works on titles for DC Comics.

Lemire grew up in Essex County, a small farming community just outside of Windsor.

As he got older, he gave up on illustrating and writing and went to Ryerson University to learn how to make films.

“I went to Ryerson for film school, and near the end of that program, I started to realize that I wasn’t really interested in pursuing anything in film in terms of a career,” said Lemire. “It just didn’t seem to suit my personality, but I really wanted to tell stories and I’ve always loved drawing comics and reading comics.

After dropping out of film school, Lemire had to balance working and finding time to work on his comics. Realizing that he didn’t know how to further pursue his goals of having his work published, Lemire ended up at Sheridan College in the now-defunct Advanced Illustration course.

A page from Lemire's Tales From the Farm House, the first book in the Essex County series.

A page from Lemire’s Tales From the Farm House, the first book in the Essex County series.

“I didn’t really know about building a portfolio or getting your work out there, or really just more of the business side of illustration. I thought maybe I could start getting freelance work as an illustrator to support myself and do my comics on the side, so I took a one-year post-grad course at Sheridan.”

At the college, Lemire learned a lot about the business side of illustration and how to get his work to the next level.

“Even though I didn’t pursue freelance illustration after that I think a lot of the stuff, the business side of things I learned in that program really helped me to put pictures together and get my work to publishers and to be taken seriously. I think it was a really big step for me for moving into the world as a professional as opposed to someone working on his own and not really getting anywhere.”

In 2005, the same year he graduated from Sheridan, Lemire finished work on his first published work, Lost Dogs, after coming up with the concept while trying to participate in the 24-hour Comic Challenge.

A page from Lemire's first published work: Lost Dogs.

A page from Lemire’s first published work: Lost Dogs.

The 24 Hour Comic Challenge was created by cartoonist Scott McCloud after he created a new 24 page comic in 24 hours, without any breaks or prep work. He first completed it in 1990, and since then, many cartoonists and illustrators have taken the challenge.

“I did it while I was taking that course at Sheridan and what started coming out was Lost Dogs,” said Lemire. “I got about 13 or 14 pages into it an I started to realize that it was something bigger so I stopped the challenge and started working on it as a graphic novel for a couple of months.”

After completing Lost Dogs, Lemire submitted it as an entry to the Xeric Grant, which was created by one of the co-founders of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Peter Laird, as a way of giving back to up-and-coming, self-publishing cartoonists.

In the Spring of 2005, Lemire won $5000  from the grant and self-published Lost Dogs later that year, after which, he began on his next work, Tales From the Farm, which would become the start to the Essex County trilogy.

“It was originally going to be the one book, I completed that one and started working on my next title,” said Lemire. “It was when writing my next book, Ghost Stories, that I started to see parallels and things where I could actually cross the two stories over, and I realized that it was a part of a bigger story in an interconnected universe. It started small, but then it grew, like all my projects tend to do.”

The success of The Essex County books caught the attention of Vertigo comics, a subdivision of DC Comics.

“The Essex County books had been fairly successful in terms of an independent graphic novel, and a couple of the editors over at Vertigo were fans of the book so they asked me to pitch a few things,” said Lemire.

The cover to the Essex County collection, featuring all three books in the series.

The cover to the Essex County collection, featuring all three books in the series.

Lemire’s first title for Vertigo comics was The Nobody, an update on the H.G Wells’ Invisible Man story.

“I got a lot really well with the editors and everyone there, so they gave me more opportunities to pitch other stories to them,” said Lemire. “That’s where I pitched Sweet Tooth as an on-going series, and that took of so it was my first on-going book with Vertigo.”

Sweet Tooth is a story set in a post-apocalyptic world where there are human/animal hybrids, and has been described by some critics as “Mad Max meets Bambi.”

“I don’t remember exactly where the seeds from Sweet Tooth started but I know it was something that developed in my sketchbooks over a couple of years,” said Lemire. “This character with antlers kept popping up and then the more he appeared the more idea I got about this story and this world kind of grew around him.”

The first and last covers to Lemire's first monthly Vertigo series, Sweet Tooth.

The first and last covers to Lemire’s first monthly Vertigo series, Sweet Tooth.

While working on Sweet Tooth, DC started to notice him, and offered him work on the big name superheroes they have such as: Green Arrow, Animal Man and Superboy.

“I’m still doing my own stuff too and that tends to be my priority,” said Lemire. “During the day I’ll spend most of my time doing my own stuff, then I get to go play around in this shared universe with all these characters that I grew up with.”

The issue of Green Arrow that Lemire wrote.

The first issue of Green Arrow that Lemire wrote.

In his own titles, Lemire often sets them in Canada, or features elements of Canada in them.

“Well, I’m Canadian and I live here, and I think we have an incredible country with so much diversity with so many stories in it,” said Lemire. “I almost feel a responsibility as a Canadian story teller to do my part in reflecting the country and my place in my work.  It’s pretty much that simple, I want to tell stories about the place that I know and where I’m from. “

While working on his graphic novel The Underwater Welder Lemire experienced a big change on his life that affected his work – he and his wife became parents.

“I went from just newly married to having a kid and being a parent, and I think the character’s journey in that book sort of reflects that change in my life,” said Lemire. “It’s a pretty personal story even though it is fiction but whatever is going on in your life finds its way into work somehow, and that book is a pretty good example.”

Lemire's graphic novel, The Underwater Welder which took him nearly four years to complete.

Lemire’s graphic novel, The Underwater Welder which took him nearly four years to complete.

Currently, Lemire is working on a new monthly series for Vertigo called Trillium, a science-fiction title which he describes as “the last love story ever told.”

“I’ve always been a big science-fiction fan, and by science-fiction I mean hardcore sci-fi like deep space,” says Lemire. “I read novels about it when I was a kid and I think I was pretty deeply influenced by it. I always thought it would be fun to do something sort of set where you can build your own world and sort of work in that classic science-fiction genre.”

Lemire's current monthly series for Vertigo, Trillium.

Lemire’s current monthly series for Vertigo, Trillium.

As a graphic novelist who struggled for years to get his work out there, Lemire has advice for anyone who wants to get into the graphic novel and comic industry.

“Be yourself and write the comics that you want to read is my biggest piece of advice. Do something that’s fun to you and if you’re having fun and you believe in the project, chances someone else will too.”


Jeff Lemire’s blog where he posts news and updates about his work.