With this week's announcement of DC's new slate for summer 2015, one name was noticeably absent: Jeff Lemire. The critically acclaimed writer, who became an indie darling with comics like Essex County and Sweet Tooth, had been among the architects of DC's New 52 the last few years.
But to those who've watched Lemire's career, it's no surprise that he's backing away from DC — he'd recently started branching out to work on comics from Dark Horse, Valiant and Marvel after his DC exclusive contract ended.
The latest passion project for Lemire? The new creator-owned, sci-fi comic Descender. The title, which launches in March, is such a hot property right now that Sony scooped up film rights before the first issue event hit stands — and did so after competing in a pretty heated bidding war.
According to most early reviews, Descender is worth all the attention. The story begins in a universe where, 10 years ago, a race of giant machines caused a disaster of massive proportions that wiped out billions. In the years following, all artificial intelligence was wiped out and robots became illegal, but nobody understood what led to the disaster.
Enter a young, artificial boy named TIM-21, who's been asleep for the last 10 years — and just might hold the key to understanding what happened.
As the final order cut-off for Descender fast approaches (reserve your first printing copy now), Newsarama talked to Lemire to find out more about the story, how TIM is connected to Gus from Sweet Tooth, and why the writer is taking a break from writing DC Comics.
Newsarama: Jeff, let's just get one thing out of the way, since DC announced this morning its new line for June, and you were noticeably absent after having been pretty involved with their comics in recent years. It looks like you're backing away from DC. Can you explain why?
Jeff Lemire: There's no drama behind my decision to move away from DC. Dan and everyone at DC and Vertigo have been very good to me. I just felt that I needed to try some new things. There were great opportunities for me at Valiant and Marvel and I'm doing more and more creator owned projects at Image and Dark Horse, so it just felt like the right time to move off if JLU with all the changes happening in June.
I certainly hope to work with DC again in the future, but for now I'm focusing in other projects.
Nrama: OK, then let's talk about Descender. Let's just start with your general description of the series. What's the set-up? What's the premise?
Lemire: It's a science fiction story about a young boy who's a robot, who's been inactive for 10 years. He was shut down, and when he wakes up, he discovers that the universe is a very changed place. All robots have been outlawed and they're hunted and destroyed now.
There's a mystery surrounding his origins that may hold the secret to what happened to the universe and why it happened.
So this young boy quickly becomes the most hunted robot in the universe, with various factions from the various planets and races hunting and helping him along the way, as he hops from world to world, trying to discover the secrets of his origin.
Nrama: The main character in Descender, this robot named TIM-21, has a really sweet way about him. He reminds me a bit of Gus, from your Vertigo comic series Sweet Tooth. That same type of innocence.
Lemire: Yeah, I didn't do that on purpose, but I feel like I'm drawn to similar characters all the time, for whatever reason. There's a real lineage between Sweet Tooth and TIM-21. They're both these sort of innocent characters in a very scary and violent world.
In this case, I think TIM's humanity is what makes him unique, because although he's a machine, I sort of see him as the most human character in this book, in a lot of ways, as it goes on. The universe is such a terrible place that it's really hardened mankind and made them much more calculating and much colder, whereas TIM hasn't had those experiences, so he's stayed the ideal version of humanity.
Nrama: I've always been drawn to stories about robot and their humanity. It's almost like a mirror on ourselves.
Lemire: Absolutely. Yeah.
Nrama: I remember hearing someone describe it as the "Pinocchio theme," where an innocent being isn't quite a real boy, but ends up showing just how horrible humans are.
Lemire: Yeah, I've always found robot stories kind of fascinating. There's something so arrogant about us creating robots that are more and more human looking or acting. It's like we're playing God. Let's create something that's a reflection of us, but it's inferior.
But then, in this exaggerated science fiction example of that, where these robots become so advanced and so human, that they actually start to out-evolve us and make us obsolete. They become the gods in a lot of ways.
And then you see this giant robot that appears in issue #1 that creates a disaster that sets off the story. He's so huge and beyond human understanding that we see the things we've created have become something so far beyond us. Our arrogance, or that reflection of ourselves that we saw, sort of turns against us.
It's fascinating, and it's very much at the core of Descender.
Nrama: You and I have talked so often about the things in your real life that inspire your comics work. What was going on that influenced you to come up with this idea?
Lemire: It's a few things. Dustin and I are both parents. I think he has three kids, and I have a son who just turned six. And you look at the world they're growing up in, and it can be pretty scary, to think of what the world might be, when I'm not around to take care of them anymore.
It certainly influenced Sweet Tooth, that kind of innocent character lost in a terrible world. And it's here again in Descender.
But I think, with Descender, there's maybe another angle too. I look at my son, and his relationship to technology, and I think back to when I was six and how wildly different the world is, in that regard. I see him using an iPhone and all this stuff, and then I think back to when I was six. We didn't even have computers in our houses at all yet. This is a huge gap between our experiences as children.
I think that was on my mind too — how technology has changed being a kid. I think that influenced the idea behind Descender.
Also, for all the comics I've read in my lifetime and how much I love comics, I'd never been able to get into manga. Then last year, I think I was talking to Scottie Young, and he started talking about manga and all this stuff I should be reading. So I finally gave it a chance. I read Akira for the first time, and Urasawa's Pluto. And those two books just blew my mind. They were two masterpieces that I should have read a long time ago, but I hadn't. So I think they both influenced Descender as well.
Nrama: I can see how that might inspire this story.
Lemire: Yeah, especially Pluto, which is kind of a retelling of the Astro Boy comic, this young robot/android character. And there's just so much heart and emotion in that book. I really fell in love with it. That was really a big influence.
I don't know if the storytelling style of manga itself was a big influence on Descender. I feel like maybe not so much. But certainly the themes of that book, and looking at Akira, the sort of environments he creates in the post-apocalyptic world of Akira was definitely an influence.
Nrama: I assume, since this is an Image book, you kind of hand-picked this project with Dustin. What was your discussion regarding the art style for the book?
Lemire: Yeah, I only have the very basic idea for the story before I talked to Dustin. And Dustin's an artist I've admired for a long time. I've always loved his stuff. And when I'd meet Dustin in person, at conventions and things, I'd see his sketchbooks and some of his personal work outside of comics and he does a lot of watercolor stuff, which I always thought was so beautiful.
So when I talked to him about working on something creator-owned, he said he really wanted to fully paint a comic — he's always wanted to do it, but he's never had time at DC with the deadlines and stuff.
So when I knew he was going to be painting Descender, I got really excited because I just love the way he watercolors.
And then this story in particular — it's a book about technology in a lot of ways, so he'd be designing a lot of robots and technology, and even the spaceships and the worlds we're seeing, which are technologically advanced.
But then he executes it in watercolor, which is a very organic-looking medium. So you get a very interesting look on the page, when you see these technological things rendered in a very organic way, and I really love that.
Nrama: It gives the story some warmth, instead of that cold look that's so common for sci-fi stories.
Lemire: Yeah, and the other thing I love about Dustin is he's really great at drawing kids and bringing a lot of humanity and emotion to their faces. And obviously that was important with this story. He gives a lot of emotion to TIM.
Nrama: How long is Descender going to be?
Lemire: At this point, I have it pretty tightly plotted out. I'm not a big fan of introducing a bunch of new mysteries into a story without really knowing where they're going, because you just end up struggling at the end to make sense of them, and make it all seem like you planned it all along.
So I really wanted to make sure that I had this whole mythology planned out and the whole mythology figured out. So I spent a lot of time plotting the book before I started writing scripts.
Right now, it's plotted as a 24-issue story, but I know from past experience from Sweet Tooth and things that that will only grow. Once you get your basic story figured out, it give you room to let certain characters grow and let the story go off in tangents that you don't plan.
So right now we're plotted at 24 issues minimum, and I wouldn't be surprised if we end up doing more like 40 or 50 issues, if we're successful enough.
Nrama: Why did you take this one to Image?
Lemire: First of all, I think all my favorite comics right now are being published by Image. And all of my favorite creators are working at Image. So it just felt like there's something special happening there right now, with creator-owned stuff.
It's like a renaissance, a golden age, really, of creator-owned stuff. All the stuff I'm loving right now, from Saga to Southern Bastards to Wicked and Devine — just all these incredible books that are so diverse and different from one another. And they're all finding an audience. It's hard not to want to be a part of the excitement surrounding Image.
And just from a practical business standpoint, you just can't beat Image's deal right now, their contract. Dustin and I can retain complete control and ownership of everything.
Nrama: And did you really sell this comic as a movie already?
Lemire: Yeah, we sold the film two weeks ago; Dustin and I sold it to Sony. So that's also very exciting. And that's something we couldn't do, unfortunately, at other companies.
Nrama: Right. Or at least, you wouldn't be the ones owning and selling it.
Nrama: Can you tell me anything about that process at all?
Lemire: Yeah, it's pretty early in the process, to be honest. I mean, there was a lot of interest in Descender as soon as we announced it at San Diego last year, just based on the basic concept and that first promotional image that Dustin did.
We started getting a lot of interest from various Hollywood studios.
So it just sort of happened really quickly, where as soon as we had the first issue ready to show people, my agent started showing it around to some of those people who had shown interest, and it turned into this thing, you know, where there was a bidding war and various studios were competing for it.
Nrama: That's awesome.
Lemire: It was pretty surreal.
And having Descender become a film would be great, and it's exciting and everything. But me and Dustin are very much focused on the comic right now, and making the comic all it can be.
If all that other stuff happens, it's great. But we're still very new to that whole thing, so we don't know how involved we're going to be yet, or what's going to happen. But nonetheless, it's exciting.
Nrama: Yeah, I think when fans hear about comics being sold as movies before they're even published, they tend to question whether they weren't just written as movies in the first place. But I think your fans are familiar enough with your work to know you're a comics person.
Lemire: Yeah, comics is my passion. I wouldn't say I couldn't care less about the movie stuff, because obviously, from a financial point of view and everything, it's great. And it'll allow me to do things like Descender for longer.
But creatively, having a film made is not the end game for me. Having a great comic is. And that's really what I can control and what I'm passionate about. And Dustin's on the same page.
Nrama: So Descender kicks off in March? And retailers are placing their orders now?
Lemire: Yeah, and the first issue is actually 30 pages of story for $2.99, so it's extra-sized, and it's fully painted. We're both really proud of it. So if you're reading this interview, please go ask your comic shop to order you a copy to help support it, because we really want to do the book for a long time.