For writer/artist Jeff Lemire, his new Vertigo series Trillium isn’t just an exercise in stretching his sci-fi muscles; it’s an exercise in stretching the boundaries of his creativity and artistic talent. The 8-issue mini-series takes place in both the future and the past as two explorers, separated by time and space, converge on the mysterious “Lost Temple of the Incas,” a place that’s purported to have potent healing powers. Our heroes, Nika Temsmith, a botanist from the year 3797, and William Price, an English explorer from the year 1921, are worlds apart, but become bound together by fate and circumstance over the course of Lemire’s latest creator-owned saga. Not only did the multi-talented creator hand-paint watercolors for half the book and design two drastically different time periods, but issue #1 is told in palindromic flip-book format with the two stories meeting in the middle.
To go deeper into the heady, cosmic world of Trillium, I sat down with Lemire to pick his brain about traveling through space and time, the perks of doing everything yourself, and why this might just be his most ambitious project yet.
N: As much as I’m digging “Trinity War”, today we’re going to talk about Trillium. First question: did you choose the name because it sounds super sci-fi or because it’s the symbolic flower of Ontario?
Jeff Lemire: Both. [laughs] It took me more time to find a title we could use for this book than it took me to write the first issue. We went through so many different things, but everything I came up with was already copyrighted by someone or taken. It was quite a process, but we finally settled on it because it sounded sci-fi, but obviously it’s also a flower and that works into the story I was telling, so it all worked out.
N: You should put that list of rejected names as a bonus feature in the eventual trade paperback collection.
JL: [laughs] That’s a good idea, actually. I think I burned it though.
N: Oh no! [laughs] In advance press, you’ve called this book the “most ambitious project you’ve ever done.” What makes it so ambitious and how does it compare to previous, more grounded works like Essex County?
JL: I think it’s bigger in terms of everything I needed to design and build going into it. Essex County and Underwater Welder were very grounded and based in real life, and even though Sweet Tooth was kind of sci-fi, the setting was very much the real world. This, in comparison, took a lot of pre-planning and design work to build a future world and populate it. It just took a lot of work. So, it’s ambitious in terms of scope. It’s a story that doesn’t just take place in the future, but also the past, so there’s a lot of research that goes into it. Researching things like Mayan culture and World War I just adds to the super-size of the scope.
N: Let’s talk about these two dueling settings. How much research did you have to do? Obviously, the future part is fabricated, but how much work did it take to make it seem authentic?
JL: For the stuff in the past, I’d been doing a lot of research on World War I specifically. It had become an obsession of mine in the past year; I was reading a lot of fiction set in that period, so I was doing research without actually intending to do so. I’d just been reading so much about the period and the War, so I had a lot of that stuff ready to go for his story. For her story, there isn’t that much research, but I wanted it all to have a common aesthetic, so it takes some time to build, design-wise. I think I spent around two months just doing the design and research stuff even before I did any storytelling or comic work on the page.
N: And the effort definitely shows, particularly in the book’s aesthetics. I understand that there are a lot of hand painted watercolors in the book, correct?
JL: Yeah, her story and everything set in the future is watercolor painted by me which gives it a more organic look that I thought would be more interesting. When you think of the future, you think of everything being sort of clean and pristine, so I thought it would add some interesting tension to make the future world more organic and loose. His story, which is set in the 1920s, will be colored digitally by Jose Villarrubia, who worked with me on Sweet Tooth. As their stories and worlds start to jump back and forth and blend, we’ll have some fun blending the two drawing styles as well. I’m used to doing a monthly comic for Sweet Tooth, but then adding the extra workload of painting all the panels myself… well, I didn’t really think it through. [laughs] Now I’m kind of feeling it, so hopefully it’s worth it.
N: Well, it looks fantastic. What inspired the choice for watercolors? Did Matt Kindt dare you?
JL: Uh, no, he didn’t dare me, but hanging out with guys like Matt and Ray Fawkes who do watercolor a lot kind of inspired me. I’ve been kind of afraid of color in the past, but Matt was a good teacher in telling me not to worry about color choices and just do it. You learn as you do it. I feel like I’m learning a lot and getting better with each issue. I always need to be learning and challenging myself or else the stuff just gets stale, so this is a way, after 40 issues of Sweet Tooth, to keep myself challenged.
N: It certainly seems like a challenging project to undertake. Do you find that you prefer handling both artistic and narrative duties or do you like working with other artists?
JL: I love working at DC with other artists, but at the end of the day, my real passion is always going to be these projects where I’m drawing it and writing it myself. I’m a cartoonist first and a writer second. This is what I love to do and, especially in that first issue, when you’re doing stuff like the flip book… I don’t know if you noticed, but each of their stories is an exact mirror in that, for example, page two will have the exact same layout and panel count in her story as it did in his. If I tried to do that working with another artist, it would be really difficult to coordinate, but for me I can do thumbnails and go back and tweak the script in order to get it to work. When you’re doing everything yourself, there’s a certain amount of control you have over how everything happens that you don’t find elsewhere and it’s really rewarding.
N: That’s crazy! Will every issue have that palindromic flip book structure?
JL: Oh, God, no. [laughs] No, just the first one, but I’m trying to do something unique with each issue to reward the readers who buy the monthly comic and not just the trade paperback. Things like the flip book won’t translate well digitally or in the trades, where the stories are printed one after another. In the second issue, I’m playing a lot with language and the conceit that she’s from so far in the future that her language has evolved to the point where they can’t understand each other. I’m using a lot of unique things in comics to show the ways in which they’re communicating visually. Each issue has its own special thing.
N: Do you find it it difficult at all to leap back and forth between the two genres?
JL: Not really; it’s kind of cool because I’ll spend a few days working on stuff in the future and once you start to get burnt out, you go back to the past and work on that. It’s been really fun so far and a good way to keep myself focused. Later on, the two worlds start to bleed together and their stories intertwine a bit more, I’m having fun finding ways to mash them up.
N: One last question: is there a preferred order for reading issue #1? Do you want people to experience the future or the past first?
JL: I know which one I wrote and drew first but I’m not going to tell because the order in which you choose to read them is part of the experience.
Jeff Lemire’s Trillium #1, published by Vertigo, is in your local comic book store now. What do you think of the new sci-fi romance series? Let us know in comments below or hit me up directly on Twitter.