Going Back Into The Woods With Sweet Tooth

Nov 14, 2020
Cover of Sweet Tooth #1
This is a story of fear and friendship. This is a story of passage and rebirth. But this is also a story of sacrifice and redemption. A story of hatred and love. - Sweet Tooth #40
When Jeff Lemire first announced that he was returning to the world of Sweet Tooth earlier this year, I was both amazed and excited in equal measure. I've been a huge fan of the Canadian writer and artist since 2009, when DC's now defunct Vertigo imprint introduced me to his talents, and the world of Gus and Jeppard, for just one dollar. Sweet Tooth is, for me, one of the finest comics series of the twenty-first century so far, and here I'll outline just why I love it so much and why you should read it (and the new miniseries Sweet Tooth: The Return while you're at it). Before that though, there's the matter of the surprise; Sweet Tooth had one of the greatest endings of any story in recent memory (personally, it ranks alongside TV's Mad Men and Breaking Bad as the most satisfying of codas) so the fact that Lemire feels he has another story to tell from the post-human age is a very unexpected development.

This is a story...

Sweet Tooth originally appealed to me as I'm a sucker for a post-apocalyptic story: from Mad Max to The Road, I've always found stories that speculate about the fall of humanity, or the last days of mankind, to be really fertile ground, allowing creators to look at that most fundamental of questions - who are we? When the trappings and motivations of modern life are stripped away, can we find any meaning beyond mere survival? From the outset, Lemire found a unique spin on the idea of the end times, and gives it so much heart and feeling, it's impossible not to be drawn in. Society has collapsed due to a mysterious plague, but only as the first arc unfolds does the true scale of the apocalypse become apparent. Our eyes for this story are provided by one of the most memorable and compelling pairs in comics, and the cause of so much of those feels.

The central relationship of the book revolves around Gus, (the eponymous Sweet Tooth) and Tom Jeppard. Gus is a human-deer hybrid, who has been raised in isolation by his mysterious father. When he passes away, Gus ventures away from the deep woods which have been his home for his early childhood, and then encounters Jeppard - an alpha male with seemingly ulterior motives towards young Gus. As the series progresses, it's amazing to watch Gus, who is a total innocent, slowly become more tough as he spends more time with Jeppard and, conversely, watching Jeppard regain his compassion and humanity as he begins to care for Gus and the other hybrid children they encounter in a plague-ravaged world. 'Hybrid' is a perfect term for who Gus ultimately becomes - without spoiling the fantastic final chapter, Gus shows that he's become a composite of both characters, and that's why the future, one both strange and familiar, is in such good hands.

Re-reading this series, I was struck by how skillfully Lemire finds the balance between plot and character development, but also how well he uses dreams and dream-imagery. Like me, Lemire is a fan of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, and it's clear to see some Lynchean influence in the sequences where the unconscious takes centre stage. I'm still in awe as to how he does it, but the writer/artist knows how to elicit an emotional reaction from his readers like few other mainstream creators do. I consider myself to be a pretty cynical sort, but Sweet Tooth is a book that repeatedly pulled on my heartstrings. Looking through the final five issues again over the last few days, I wasn't surprised to find the tears welling up once more. I think that's one of the things that truly sets it apart from other post-apocalyptic tales; it makes you think and feel.

How will it all end?

It's also a joy to read such a singular vision: Jeff Lemire wrote every issue, and illustrated virtually the entire run (another favourite, the brilliant Matt Kindt, illustrated the three-issue arc 'The Taxidermist' along with contributions to issue #19 with Nate Powell and Emi Lenox. Powell returned again in issue #34). With colours provided by both himself and the great José Villarubia, Sweet Tooth never dipped in quality, or had an arc that felt like filler. In an interview with Damon Lindelof at the end of the third deluxe collected edition, Lemire says that he didn't know how long he would be given by DC - he had in mind how to end the story after ten issues. As the series ran on though, he found an amazing blend of plot, a rich cast of characters (including my own favourite, Bobby) and a mythology that was pitched perfectly. We're told why some think the virus has decimated humanity, but it's never fully confirmed; Lemire wisely leaves it up to the reader to decide. Whereas it adds a welcome layer of mystery to the story, it never detracts from the saga of Gus and Jeppard.

Then we come back to that ending. It's wonderful, sad, triumphant, wise, heartbreaking yet happy. In a story all about the end of humanity, it manages to extol our best virtues, whilst reminding us of some of our biggest faults. When I read it for the first time, I was so elated that a series that I'd cherished and championed for four years had finished on such a perfect note.

Looking back at our PCG reviews from the final issue, it secured a rare set of three 10/10s from us - despite our differing tastes in comics, this one was seen as a triumph by us all.

Cover of Sweet Tooth #40

One final thing leapt out at me from the interview with Damon Lindelof: Lemire says "I can't see myself returning to the world" but yet here we are in the most apposite of times, returning to a world ravished by plague. I trust Lemire implicitly - his work is never anything short of superb, and I really do believe that he has come up with a good reason to return to the woods with Gus. We shall see how that plays out over the next few months.

One final thing, in case you didn't know, is that Sweet Tooth will soon be on TV; in a series executive produced by Robert Downey Jr for Netflix, if it catches even half of the magic of the original it will be essential TV. But before that happens, get ahead of the curve and read (or re-read) Sweet Tooth. It's a story, and then some.

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