By Matt D. Wilson
"Trillium" is a comic book about a lot of things. It's about a scientist and a soldier. It's about the future and the past. Life and death. The earth and the stars. Civilization and nature.
There's just a whole lot to unpack, and writer/artist Jeff Lemire only has eight issues to pull it off. In advance of the first issue, a two-sided flipbook which includes spotlight stories about both a far-future scientist and a World War I soldier, and which hits comic shops this Wednesday, Lemire took a few minutes to talk with MTV Geek about what he hopes to accomplish.
MTV Geek: This is a complicated concept for a comic, one that I would assume might be difficult to pitch. I would like to hear how you boiled it down for Vertigo.
Jeff Lemire: I think I have a bit of an advantage in that "Sweet Tooth" had been successful and I had been working with my editor, Mark (Doyle) and I had been at Vertigo for three years at that point, and had developed a good relationship with them. There was a certain amount of trust there. They kind of knew that any questions they had, they could trust I was going to answer them in a way that they'd be happy with. It wasn't like someone coming in off the street pitching something, whose work they didn't know, so I had that advantage.
I don't remember how I boiled it down. I actually think my pitch was pretty long and complicated. I think, at the end of the day, I kind of pitched it as the last love story every told, and they went for that.
Geek: That's a pretty good selling-point line, I think. One thing I think most people will notice when they pick this up is that one half is one story, and the other half is another story. You flip the book over, and it has two covers. Why did you decide on that format instead of breaking this up into two issues?
Lemire: My original pitch actually had it that way. It was going to be a nine-issue series rather than an eight issue series, and that's exactly what I was going to do. One issue was going to be one of their stories, and then the second issue the other one.
As I got into writing the script, I just started to see there was really interesting things I could do to create a symmetry between the two stories, create parallels and juxtapositions of things. And then the idea of the flipbook came out, and DC and Vertigo were really great about allowing me to do that and making it happen.
Once I knew I was doing the flipbook, it really opened things up for me in terms of playing with the format. The two stories are actually perfect mirrors of one another. By that I mean, page two of her story, the page layout and panel count, is exactly the same as page two of his story. That goes on every page. They're perfect mirrors in terms of layout, just to create this perfect symmetry and sense of connection between the two, an almost inevitability of the two stories meeting. That just became part of the storytelling; the format becomes part of the story. That's kind of something you can do in comics you can't do in other media. It's really fun.
Geek: The place I really noticed it was in the splash pages. I noticed the splash pages all came in the same place.
Lemire: Especially the first one, on page five of each story. It's very obvious, when you hit those two pages, because they're so distinct, you see that they're almost the same. That was sort of the key, where people would start to realize that every page was like that.
Geek: Talking about panel layouts a little bit, there are quite a few 12-panel grids in this book.
Geek: A lot of times, artists have the luxury of blaming writers --
Lemire: [Laughs] I blame myself often, trust me.
Geek: Why did you want to have so many complex grids?
Lemire: A lot of that came from what I just said, where there were originally going to be two issues, so I would have had 20 pages each. When we did the flipbook, just for budgetary reasons and to keep the book affordable at $2.99, we could only go a maximum of 28 pages. I could only have 14 pages for each story rather than 20, so I had to figure out a way to fit the same amount of story into less pages, so that's where the dense, 12-panel grids came from.
But in a way, I really liked it, even though it took a long time. I really like that that first issue is packed with story. It probably has three issues worth of story for the price of one issue. That's just something with comics, coming out every month, if you can give the reader something that's really worth the money and really full of story, I thought it would go a long way in winning over some readers.
Geek: It feels like the first act of something with a three- or four-act structure, all in this one issue.
Lemire: That's good. I also had to build her world completely and establish it in that first issue. There's a lot of information needed to get people into the book, so again, the 12-panel grid allowed me to fit a lot of that in there.
Geek: Speaking of the two worlds of this comic, I read the scientist's story first, and thought, OK. I know what this book's about. I've got a grip on it. I know what's going on. And then I started the soldier's half of the book, and it was more familiar, but also very different. There's the sci-fi/future story mixed with your exploration/post-World War I story. What led you to want to mix those together?
Lemire: It's sort of hard to remember now, where this all came from. I've always loved sci-fi stuff and I've always loved time travel stories. It's not a traditional time travel story, but there is a certain element of that to it.
It's also me, after "Sweet Tooth," trying to create a project that allowed me to do all the stuff I was interested in. I was really interested in World War I and that golden age of exploration, and also into sci-fi stuff lately, that world building that comes with sci-fi. It really was me just creating a story where I could mash all those genres together and have a lot of fun exploring all the different things I was interested in at the time.
Geek: There's a lot to mine in this. I was a little surprised it was limited to just eight issues. It just seems like there's such vast storytelling potential. Why limit it, especially compared to Sweet Tooth, which was quite a long story compared to this.
Lemire: I think there's two reasons. One of them is, after Sweet Tooth, that was 40 issues, so that was almost a four-year project. I wasn't keen to march right into something else that was open-ended, that could last another four or five years. I needed to do two or three projects that were smaller, that I could start and finish in a couple years, just for the sake of my own sanity. I wasn't keen to do another ongoing.
Also, this story, specifically, is about the end of the universe, so there is an end, and the end is pretty immediate. Sometimes it's good to have a clear ending in mind. You never know, with ongoing series, how long they'll last or what the readership's going to be like. You're taking a risk by building a world and launching a series and not knowing for sure whether you'll get to tell the story you want to tell all the way through. With a series like this, I knew I could tell a beginning, a middle and an end exactly the way I wanted.
Geek: The flipbook aspect of it. Is that just for this issue or is that going to continue?
Lemire: That's just for this issue. In every issue of the monthly book, I'm trying to do something different, that's unique like that. This is the only flipbook, but, for example, the next issue is all about language. She's from so far in the future that her language is so evolved that they can't actually communicate with one another. So I have a lot of fun in that second issue just playing around with different comic-book storytelling techniques to have them find new ways of communicating with one another, visually.
In the third issue, the two different drawing styles you see in issue one, I start to have some fun blending and mixing those, playing around with format that way. Every issue of the monthly book has something unique about it.
Geek: One thing that both sides of this issue share is the lead characters encountering natives. In one case, they seem peaceful and welcoming, in the other one, they are the exact opposite of that. I can see how you might go into writing that somewhat cautiously, because you don't want to demean anyone. How did you make sure not to do that?
Lemire: It's just doing research and having respect for the characters.
It's a hard question to answer without spoiling something that's coming. I know what you're talking about. The native tribes in Peru in the story seem like your traditional, pulp-story savages in the first issue, but without spoiling anything, that's not actually what they are or how they end up being portrayed. The story develops in a way that you realize why they act that way.
One of the big things of the book is exploration and encounters with other cultures, and how they react. Often they don't react well, and [the explorers] don't treat them well. We'll sort of see that play out. But it's really just having respect for the cultures you're portraying, even if it's the alien race of the future and they're fictional. You're still trying to treat them with humanity and build a real culture. There's a lot of work that went into that.
Geek: You talked about this being a romance. You called it an end-of-the-world story. If this is the first act of the story, what kinds of things can you tease us with for the second and third acts?
Lemire: The story kind of unfolds in the first half, issues one to four, in a certain way where I think you'll start to think you know where things are going. Then, at the end of issue four, the whole thing takes a huge shift and almost becomes a new series in a lot of ways. It's such a left turn, it throws everything you've gotten used to, the rhythms and the patterns, on their heads. It's something to look forward to.