For Jeff Lemire, his new Vertigo series Trillium isn't just a labor of love — it's a way for the writer/artist to stretch the boundaries of his storytelling talents in new, innovative ways.
An eight-issue mini-series,Trillium unites two characters from very different places — a female scientist in the year 3797 who's stationed on another planet, and a male British explorer who just survived the horror of World War I.
The sci-fi intersection of the two time-separated characters also serves as a romance and mystery, while their very personal stories allow Lemire to examine the meaning of humanity itself.
The original pitch for the series was motivated by Lemire's desire to challenge himself in new ways. While Lemire has often written about small towns and male lead characters in his past creator-owned work, the writer/artist is tackling a futuristic world and female lead character in Trillium.
But the challenges don't stop with the story's content. The structure of this week's #1 issue is another example of how his ambitious goals have driven him down new creative avenues. Trillium #1 is told in a flipbook, with each side mirroring the other in layout and design. Each flip side ends at the same place, in the middle of the comic, with the two characters encountering the other in a mind-boggling way.
Trillium also brings Lemire back to Vertigo, the imprint where he just ended his hit series Sweet Tooth earlier this year. In between the projects, he's had his hands full writing series like Animal Man and Justice League Dark for DC, including the current Justice League crossover Trinity War.
Newsarama talked to Lemire to find out more about his approach to the artwork, why he chose the flip book structure of issue #1, and what readers can expect from future issues of Trillium.
Newsarama: Jeff, the way this first issue is structured in a really unique way. It's the story of how two people come together to interact, but it's told in two completely different narratives, on two sides of the comic. On one side is the story of a woman in the future, and the other side is the story of a man in the past.
Jeff Lemire: Yeah, the first issue is a flipbook, literally. So there are two stories, and you flip the book over.
Nrama: I wasn't sure which side to read first!
Lemire: Yeah, it's up to the reader which half they want to read first. I mean, I know which one I wrote first and which one I drew first. But I won't say, because I think it's fun to see who decides to read which story first.
Nrama: What did the flipbook structure offer you as a creator?
Lemire: The flipbook is like a perfect mirror. For example, page one of her story and page one of his story — they have the exact same layout, the exact same panel count and everything. And that continues right through so that there's perfect symmetry in terms of layout and panel design and everything, right up to the end.
It was sort of challenging to do that, but I knew stuff like that is also the kind of stuff that can be pretty rewarding if it works.
Nrama: So you were challenged not only as a writer, to write it in a way that can be done in those certain panel counts, but also as an artist, to make the story still work visually.
Lemire: Yeah, that's the kind of thing where I'm lucky I'm drawing it myself, because I can do thumbnails and then go back and tweak the script to make it match. It probably wouldn't be as easy to do if there were two people trying to coordinate that.
It did take a lot of planning for that first issue, to get it to work that way.
I also was trying to throw a lot into that issue, so there are a lot of 10 and 12 panel pages, trying to make it as dense as possible. I really wanted to set up both of the worlds completely in the first issue. So a lot happened.
And also, since it's a first issue, I really wanted to give people their money's worth and try to pack as much into it as a I could. So that's also part of it. But the high panel count actually ended up making it easier to match things up, because I had more room on each page to do things.
Nrama: You've got two characters who are both searching for something they deem important, but they're very different people. How would you describe these two characters?
Lemire: Yeah, the two characters are quite different. There's a guy from 1921 named William Pike, and without revealing any of the secrets to come, he went through something pretty horrible in World War I, as obviously, many people did at the time. But he's really scarred by his experience, him and his brother.
So we pick up with him after the war, and he's looking for something. He's looking for meaning, he's looking to reconcile everything he saw in the war and make some sense of life. That's led him to become an explorer. And he's exploring the Amazon jungle when we meet him.
That's the first character. And he's a pretty fragile guy, to be honest. He's always on the edge, and seems like he's going to break at any minute, really.
The other character is a women in the far future, in 3797, and she's a scientist working on a distant planet, trying to make contact with this strange, alien race. And she's sort of a linguist and an expert on alien life forms.
In many ways, she's the opposite of William in that she's very resilient and very strong. And she too has ghosts from her past that seem to be haunting her, but unlike him, they're not threatening to break her.
She's more of the hero of the piece, really.
Those are the two characters when the story starts.
Nrama: There seems to be this overarching theme of humanity, and two people who are searching for the meaning of what it means to be human. She's trying to literally save humanity, and I think he's looking for meaning.
Lemire: Absolutely, yeah.
Nrama: I'm not reading too much into that link?
Lemire: No, no. That's exactly right. Basically, her story is the end of time. You know? Time is running out on the human race, literally.
And his story is set in the golden age of British exploration where everything seemed wide open and new and exciting. Yet he's still empty and has no meaning in his life after what he went through in the war.
So it's when those two characters meet and these two worlds meet that, hopefully, I can say something about that.
So that's definitely a theme running through it.
And at the heart of it, it is going to be a love story, but hopefully one that's not predictable or conventional either.
Nrama: That's new for you. Didn't we talk about that before? That you are specifically trying to challenge yourself? That you're doing that on purpose?
Lemire: Yeah, yeah. It's all part of trying to do something new. I think you and I talked about the fact I was writing a woman too.
Nrama: Yeah, another new challenge.
Lemire: Yeah, Sweet Tooth and Essex County and Underwater Welder and most of my creator-owned stuff up to this point has focused a lot on male characters. A lot of that just has to do with them being pretty personal stories.
But this one I really wanted to have a female lead, just to challenge myself to tell different kinds of stories with different kinds of characters. So there are a lot of things I'm trying to do that I haven't done before.
It's challenging, but at the end of the day, it's the only way I can grow creatively. So it's been a lot of fun.
Nrama: Let's talk about the artwork. The color palette — those were similar on the two sides too, but were you using watercolors?
Lemire: Yeah, besides the layouts being identical, the other thing I was trying to do — something I'd become interested in near the end of Sweet Tooth and between the two projects — was watercolor painting my own stuff. Normally, José Villarrubia colors my stuff digitally, and I really like the look. But I've just been trying new things and enjoying watercoloring my stuff. I did a few sequences near the end of Sweet Tooth and enjoyed it.
So I decided, for her stuff — the stuff set in the future, which normally you'd think would be pristine and clean and technological, more digital looking almost — I decided to just paint all of her stuff, so it's even more organic and loose. So all her stuff's done with me watercoloring.
And then José did all the stuff in 1921, but he used the same palette. It just has a different look when he does it digitally, obviously. So you have two distinct styles.
And you'll see in later issues, as the two characters interact and the two worlds start to blend together, the two drawing styles will start to mix as well.
It's been challenging. Normally I pencil and ink the stuff and send it to José, but now I have a whole other stage. So it's going to be a pretty laborious project.
Nrama: As the series goes forward, you're not going to do every issue as a flipbook, are you? Because now their stories are combined.
Lemire: No. The first issue is the only one that's a flipbook. But I am trying to do something unique with every issue, just in terms of format or storytelling — something that kind of sets it apart.
The second issue is a lot about the two characters meeting and interacting. She's so far in the future that her language is evolved from his, and they can't actually understand each other. So I use the tricks of comic book storytelling to find new ways for them to communicate visually, and things like that, as the story goes on. So in the second issue, that's about language.
And then the third issue, I have some fun with the two drawing styles starting to mix together.
So each issue has its own little gimmick, but it's not really a gimmick, because it comes from story first. So it's not just a random kind of thing.
Nrama: The big concept behind this combines both a sci-fi story set in the future, but also a historical story set in the past. Characters from those two settings come together in this story. How did you come up with the idea to overlap those two things?
Jeff Lemire: Well, it's kind of a cheat, to be brutally honest, because two, two-and-a-half, three years ago, when I was working on Superboy, I was looking for other things to pitch to DC, and I pitched an Adam Strange mini-series to my editor at the time. But it was right before the New 52, so they weren't really accepting pitches at the time, because there were so many changes going on, so it got sidelined.
My idea for the Adam Strange story was sort of the idea that Adam and Alanna Strange were kind of caught in this loop and switching back and forth between Earth and the planet Rann.
I think the seeds of that pitch became Trillium. I took ideas out of it and changed them, obviously, and made them my own. It's been evolved into something completely different, but that initial idea of the two characters leaping back and forth from Earth to a distant planet was the impetus for what became Trillium. That was the root of it.
But it evolved into its own piece at that point.
When I was getting close to finishing Sweet Tooth, I pitched a different idea to Vertigo for my next project, which was maybe a little closer to Sweet Tooth than Trillium is. And my editor Mark Doyle called me out on it. He said, "It's a great idea, but if you do this right after Sweet Tooth, it me too similar," you know? So he pushed me to come back with something that would be a bit more... something maybe people hadn't seen from me before, that would be a bit more unexpected. And you know, that Adam Strange idea, I think I just went nuts with it and turned it into what Trillium became.
Nrama: This comic seems like so much work, Jeff. Not only did you have to work out the flipbook mirroring, but you also fleshed out two different worlds, with another language involved. Is this a labor of love and you've put a lot of extra time into it?
Lemire: Yeah. The first issue, especially, because of the world-building. I mean, William's world had a lot of research involved, as I researched World War I. But that's stuff that exists, so it's not that hard to build that world around him. But for her world, the future world, I'm creating something from the ground up, in terms of the technology and everything. So that took a lot of work. And designing clothing, and the how the aliens work. And then going back and painting, watercoloring, the issue took a bit of time too.
I think I started working on the first issue in January, and it probably took me until almost April to finish it, whereas normally an issue of a comic like Sweet Tooth or even the subsequent issues of Trillium I've done only take me about a month to do. So this first issue was three or four times as normal to complete, but there was just so much design work that had to be done before I could start.
Nrama: And it sounds like you're still challenging yourself in the next couple issues, at least, as well as taking the story in new directions.
Lemire: Yeah, issue #4 is where you start to get into the rhythm of the story, and you think you know where everything's going, and then... [laughs] and then at the end of that issue, the whole series takes a major left turn. So I'm really excited to get to that point.