When Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth first started in 2009 from Vertigo Comics, it was easy to draw parallels between it and titles like “The Walking Dead” and “Y: The Last Man”. It offered another post-apocalyptic settings with a strong character driven narrative. But once Lemire established his premise, it was clear he was telling a different type of end-of-the-world story. After setting up the desolate American landscape and exposing the central characters, “Sweet Tooth” became more than a story of survival and morality. It transformed into a bona fide mystery laced with themes of family, loss, and fatherhood. “Sweet Tooth” comes to an end on January 9th with issue #40, and it marks the end of one of the most charmingly original series of the past decade.
Early on in the series, Lemire develops the wasteland environment along with its titular character Gus, AKA Sweet Tooth, a little farm boy with antlers on his head. Gus, like many other children born around the plague, is an animal/human mutant hybrid. He earned his nickname, Sweet Tooth, because of his love for candy bars. Gus is instantly relatable with his deer-like eyes, staggered speech, and adorable antlers. It is this initial set up that allows readers to feel so much for innocent Gus once he ventures out into the dangerous world.
Gus and his fellow hybrids, along with a few humans, are not only trying to survive in a crumbled society, but also trying to figure out what the hybrids have to do with the end of the world. Add in religious fractions, scientists, and some deep-rooted Native American mythology, and you’ve got “Sweet Tooth” in a nutshell.
What has stood out throughout the series is Lemire’s profound message about human nature. Gus, who represents childhood innocence, faces a major change after he is sold to a group of psycho hunters and scientists in volume 2. At the so-called “Preserve,” Gus struggles to remain innocent and optimistic in a concentration camp, where children are kept in cages. Gus is tagged, experimented on, and tortured because he is different. Gus goes from having almost no contact with humans to experiencing the worst of human nature. He learns the heartbreaking truth that there are no more good people left in the world…
Enter Jepperd, the tragic ex-hockey player with a propensity for guns and violence. At first, Jepperd seems like a one-dimensional, Punisher-like killing machine. It’s tough to see past his rough and gruff exterior, to the man on the inside. Lemire’s hold off to reveal Jepperd’s character fits with the post-apocalyptic setting where nobody can be trusted. It takes a while to understand Jepperd as more than a bitter protagonist. There is a splash page early on in the series that shows Jepperd riding on a horseback across the frontier, a complex western (Canadian) hero. He journeys across the empty streets where corpses and skeletons are laid on the side, a powerful image that puts him in a necessary archetypal role. Lemire’s fantastic character building is essential for how the story has played so far, and I imagine it will play a big role in the finale.
Throughout the series Gus and Jepperd, two characters who seemingly have nothing in common, build and incredibly profound relationship. The story, while maintaining a sense of mystery, is about a child seeking a father figure, and a father seeking a child to take care of. After the escape from the Preserve, Jepperd stays by Gus’ side as if he were his own son. In a harsh world that doesn’t want either of them, they find each other. It is this emotionally driven character work that adds a sense of dread to the series. Danger is lurking around every corner, but what really brings out the fear is the possibility of death for the characters we have formed a bond with. No writer has made my eyes water more in than Jeff Lemire over the past few years, and “Sweet Tooth” is the epitome of his ability to weave emotionally gripping stories.
Lemire’s trademark sketchy artwork has remained consistently experimental and unique throughout “Sweet Tooth”. His style is darkly charming and playfully naive. In issue #24, during an outer-body experience, Gus floats out of his ear and drifts into the mouth of a gigantic skull. In a two-page spread, Gus wanders into a barren forest where skeletons of animal children are hanging from trees. In his dream state, a skeletal deer guides him towards a half-sunken wooden ship stranded in the middle of the desert. There is a dark and twisted elegance in Lemire’s work that is utterly mesmerizing as you read. However, it’s not only his rough linework and sketchy brush techniques that make the art stand out in “Sweet Tooth”, but also the imaginative panel layouts.
Lemire has a creative way of filling up the page with six-to-nine panels. During conversations, the panels cut back and forth between two people, looking at each other at the same eye line. This something you would see from Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography in Silence of the Lambs. This is an incredible achievement in Lemire’s artwork because he translated this cinematic technique into the comic book medium. He also experiments with panel layouts, sizes, and even page orientation in an effort to reflect the narrative arc, which does not happen enough in comics. Lemire takes on coloring duties as well for issue #40, and you can bet he’s put his heart and soul into the final chapter.
With the finale set for issue #40 this week, there’s not better time for the old cliché, “all good things must come to an end.” “Sweet Tooth” is a series that will remain in the hearts’ of readers for a long time. So long, Gus!
Feature by – Jorge Solis and Lonnie Nadler (Lonmonster)
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