Jeff Lemire Works Through the Horror in Gideon Falls
March 15, 2018
Jeff Lemire's work is violence. Ask him about it and he'll tell you why: because comics are.
"Whatever comics you read when you were young," Lemire muses, "if they were mainstream superhero comics, they're full of this kind of cartoon action violence, and you're immersed in that. But that violence never really has consequences." Of course, Lemire concedes, comics would grow up to examine themselves and their violence, spending the '80s and beyond in deconstruction and parody and metafictional exegesis—but maybe they became too clever for their own good. Few creators in comics have been as fascinated with exploring violence in the stark, quiet, and devastating way Jeff Lemire has: violence both external and internal, subdued conflicts between, and within, people navigating loss, loneliness, mental illness, and faith. Lemire has done this in hundreds of stories in countless genres, but Gideon Falls, which debuted last week, has Lemire teaming up with frequent collaborator Andrea Sorrentino, colorist Dave Stewart, and letterer Steve Wands to try his hand at something new—horror.
"I've never done horror yet, and I felt like that was something I was interested in. A lot of that comes from the decision to do a book with Andrea Sorrentino," Lemire says of his artist on Old Man Logan and Green Arrow. "The work that Andrea does and the things he likes to explore in his artwork—doing something that was a little darker, possibly a horror book or a psychological thriller—Gideon Falls just grew out of our conversations tailoring stuff to his wishlist." Horror’s a difficult genre to approach in comics. When it comes to horror in other media—namely film and television—an arsenal of proven tools exists to unsettle and startle audiences, manipulating primal feelings with music, editing, and the suspense of watching lives unfold in linear time. Comics don't have those tools, but they do have a few of their own. "What I'm trying to do in Gideon is just... a mood, a feeling of unease that is consistent, and having that be the drum under everything," Lemire says. And to do that, he wants to dig into his characters’ heads. And yours.
Gideon Falls follows two parallel stories that initially seem unrelated. In an unnamed city, a young man named Norton suffers from an unspecified mental illness. He's paranoid and compulsive, searching through garbage piles for evidence of something terrible and supernatural that he believes is coming to devastate. Meanwhile, in the small town of Gideon Falls, Father Wilfred, an old man full of regret, arrives to take over the local parish left behind by the passing of its previous priest, Father Tom. Separated by great distance, the two both experience phenomena that may or may not be real, and through Sorrentino's distinctive linework and Dave Stewart's moody colors, the world starts to look a little bit wrong. "There's a man of faith, and he's struggling with that," Lemire says, "but Norton has a different sort of faith. He believes in these things he's seeing and these things he's experiencing in his mind, and he believes in them so feverishly that that's almost his faith, his religion, something that no one else can see except him. But he doesn't give up that belief." According to Lemire, Gideon Falls' biggest influence is David Lynch’s ominous benchmark, Twin Peaks, but what's remarkable about the comic is the way that it forefronts a number of themes that Lemire has been exploring in his career for over a decade.
If you know Jeff Lemire's name, then there's probably one thing that springs to mind about his career: he's staggeringly prolific, able to juggle a tremendous number of projects in very different genres as both a writer and an artist. Gideon Falls is his third ongoing series at Image, following Descender, his sci-fi epic with Dustin Nguyen, and Royal City, the personal family drama he both writes and illustrates. Add to that other series still in the works, like Bloodshot Salvation at Valiant, The Terrifics and Inferior Five at DC, and a burgeoning new universe kicked off by his Dark Horse series, Black Hammer, with three series and miniseries under its banner: the forthcoming Black Hammer: Age of Doom, Sherlock Frankenstein & the Legion of Evil, and Doctor Star & The Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows.
All of these works offer tremendously different stories, but Lemire historically plants shared threads in them, not only with each other, but throughout his massive bibliography: graphic novels like Roughneck and Essex County, series like Sweet Tooth and Moon Knight, experiments like A.D.: After Death and Trillium. Threads of violence and faith and characters struggling with the frailty of their minds.
"You don't want to look too closely in the mirror sometimes," Lemire laughs when asked about his penchant for returning to the same themes. Like loneliness. An air of melancholy drifts through much of Lemire's oeuvre, which is full of characters who are either alone or forced into isolation. It's something he acknowledges, even if he's reluctant to explore it in conversation—to him, that's what the comics are for.
"I use the work to analyze stuff, so I hate to really talk about it—all these things that reoccur in my work over and over again for a reason. It's probably a big part of who I am and who I was and how I grew up," he sighs heavily, reaching for words. "And the way I was, especially in my early 20s when I was developing as a person and searching for my voice as an artist and a creator... I think I was a pretty lonely person with a pretty lonely lifestyle. It gets in your DNA, and it gets in all your work, and it becomes part of your voice and who you are, as far as the things you are exorcising and dealing with psychologically. So you work it out in the work so that you can function in real life."
Through these explorations, Lemire has demonstrated both a gift and fondness for exposing the deepest interior cogs of his characters, and working with collaborators who help to convey the truth of characters in their most lonesome moments with few words at all.
"One thing that comics as a medium can do better than film or television, or maybe any other medium, is express the internal lives of characters visually," he says. "On each book, you find the right artist and the way they [convey] what you want to express about the characters."
He talks about how Andrea Sorrentino's expressive and psychedelic pencils convey the mental anguish of Gideon Falls or how Dustin Nguyen's quiet, heartfelt paintings give Descender its distinct, contemplative take on well-worn science fiction tropes of androids and giant space battles. That's the kind of stuff that keeps him in comics—the way art and words can put the reader in a character's head along with them. And Lemire's characters are often people who live in their heads—afflicted with mental illness or used as vehicles to explore violence. Be it Moon Knight, Bloodshot, or Gideon Falls’ Norton, Lemire's work is interested in those who must realize that their minds are not entirely within their control. And some of those characters have lived with him for a long time.
"The Norton character really came from personal experiences. He was the first fictional character I came up with," says Lemire. "Before I started doing comics, I was in film school, and one of the short films I made featured this character. I think he comes from a place that was very much where I was at at that age, when I was in my 20s. I struggled pretty heavily with anxiety and depression and was in a bad spot for a number of years—I started making comics and channeling that into something obsessively. So I found an outlet for that, and a lot of things have changed in my life since I was 20, but a big part of it was working through a lot of things in my work."
In both Gideon Falls and in conversation, Lemire is careful to never diagnose Norton—he's not a mental health expert and doesn't want to pretend to be. His approach is informed by his own history as a young man, one in which he never sought professional help himself, and perhaps where he might have been had comics not saved him. Lemire's work is a unique exercise in comics-as-exorcism, and while he's loathe to talk about himself directly, he frequently makes it very clear: it's all there, in pages and panels.
Therein lies the strength of his work as a creator: across stories both grounded and fantastic, they've always been, at their core, about people trying to escape their own heads. Be it running from loneliness in search of love in Trillium or Descender, the inertia of family and home in Essex County or Royal City, or the mundanity of the real world weighing down inspiration in Black Hammer. All ask us whether or not we'll continue to live in our heads or push out past them, whether we succumb to violence or overcome it. Sure, in Gideon Falls, Jeff Lemire is finally out to scare you. But maybe the truth is he always has been.
Joshua Rivera is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in GQ, Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, and Paste. He tweets too much @jmrivera02, where you can probably find him talking at length about the plot of Metal Gear Solid.