For someone who was largely working solely on creator-owned and/or small press comics only a little over half a decade ago, with instant classics like The Nobody, The Essex County Trilogy and Sweet Tooth to his name, Jeff Lemire’s meteoric rise to comics superstardom seems shocking on the one hand, inevitable on the other. His unique, smalltown Canadian upbringing made him the ideal candidate to write corporate-owned characters like DC’s Superboy and even Marvel’s Old Man Logan, two wholly dissimilar characters bound inextricably by their rural isolation and the tough decisions they’ve had to make.
His resume has grown and grown and now includes, but is not limited to, runs on iconic characters in series like All-New Hawkeye, Bloodshot Reborn, Extraordinary X-Men, Green Arrow and the upcoming Thanos. He’s continued, both as a writer and an artist, to grow his resume out further into even more creative-owned works, among them titles such as Black Hammer, Trillium, Descender and the upcoming A.D.: After Death, illustrated by Lemire and written by friend and collaborator Scott Snyder, perhaps best known for his smash-hit New 52 run on Batman.
But with this impressive, ever-expanding body of work, what are Jeff Lemire’s finest comics, both past and present? Who in their right mind would be able to even choose?
Well, we can only try.
The Nobody, written and drawn by Lemire and released in 2010, translates the story of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man to a Canadian fishing village called Largemouth in the year 1994, as a mysterious drifter, of dubious identity and even more dubious mental health, causes quite a disruption upon his arrival in town. Drawn in black and white with some blue hues mixed in for emotional resonance, this is a book that can easily draw in even the non-comics fan, connections to classic literature aside. It’s an emotive, evocative yarn less about a specific time and place (although it is that, too), and more about universal growing pains and the struggles one can face upon maturation, themes of identity, self-worth and belonging permeating the entire graphic novel. Lemire’s work here would normally be the apex of any other creator’s career, but he was only just getting started.
Later that year he debuted Sweet Tooth, his first monthly ongoing series, which is where the accolades really started coming in. A forty-issue apocalyptic tale often described as “Mad Max with antlers”, the series focused on Gus, the first human/animal hybrid child born in a world where all children now have distinct animal features. A horrible plague has destroyed much of Earth’s populace. Is Gus’s birth to blame, or was it merely an omen? After his father’s death, Gus leaves his family’s land for the first time, and meets Jeppard, a gruff Clint Eastwood type who vows to protect him as they search for answers – and a haven safe from mad scientists, poachers, and even worse villains – together. A literate story that calls to mind writers as disparate as Orwell, Lovecraft and Kazsantzakis, Sweet Tooth is an important work of 21st century literature – not just comics literature – for its ability to force its readers to ask questions and consider realities that we would all normally shy away from. It asks us to be held accountable for our actions, and to truly respect and honor those we love, and it does so in a way that we cannot let it, or Lemire, down.
At the moment, perhaps Lemire’s most impressive works are two wildly different series. Following successful, brief runs in recent years by writers like Warren Ellis, Brian Wood and Cullen Bunn, Lemire has lit a flame under Moon Knight. Lemire’s take finds the title character trapped in an institution for the mentally ill, surrounded by patients who may or may not be his closest friends, all under the thumb of evil gods who serve as rivals to Moon Knight’s patron god Khonshu. As the series progresses, adopting elements of both Scorsese and Kubrick (Taxi Driver and The Shining are recalled, both visually and thematically), it becomes clear that something has set Moon Knight into a terrifying fugue state. His true identity a secret, even from himself – multiple choice is the rule of the day in Lemire’s work – Moon Knight struggles to pull himself out of an increasingly Lynchian nightmare. Like that’s ever worked out well for anyone.
Finally, there’s Black Hammer, Lemire’s newest series with artist Dean Ormston, combining his indie comics sensibilities with his knowledge and experience with superhero characters. After a cosmic event that seems to have removed several superhero genre characters from their home universe – including analogues for Doc Savage, Captain Atom, Mary Marvel and the Martian Manhunter – this random assortment of heroes and villains find themselves cohabitating in a small farming town they cannot leave. If they have any hope of surviving in a community that largely holds outsiders in disregard, and if they ever desire to find out where they are and return home, they have to band together not as a team, but as a family. And, more than death rays, monster armies or world-conquering dictators, may be the most challenging battle these outcasts have ever faced. It’s not just the best new comic book series of 2016, it’s one of the very best series of the year, period.
So why not dive into the emotional, intelligent and sublime world of Jeff Lemire? There’s so much to choose from, and he really does have a story for everyone.
No matter who you are. Even if you’re a delusional hero with three real names, struggling against imaginary deities, or you’re well and truly a nobody.
By Kevin M. Brettauer