This review first appeared in Aoife’s Kiss #43.
Disaster and dehumanization have always gone hand-in-hand in apocalyptic fiction, but few works in the genre pair these concepts with such elegance as Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth, an ongoing comic book series from DC’s Vertigo imprint. The series literally embodies this duality in its premise: a lethal virus has put humanity on the endangered species list, but, as the few survivors of the initial outbreak await their inevitable extinction, they give birth to a new generation of half-human, half-animal children immune to the disease. In an eleventh-hour attempt to find a cure for the plague, the last remnant of the scientific establishment collects these animal children as specimens for the vivisection table. Meanwhile, tribes of neoprimativists dressed in animal masks hunt down the hybrids to serve as blood sacrifices to their new gods. This premise underlines the dialectic at the heart of the book, which explores the tensions and concordances between the civilized and the primitive, the artificial and the natural, and the human and the animal.
The protagonist of the series is a deer-human boy named Gus who finds a protector in Jepperd, a former hockey player who promises to lead the antlered preteen to a reserve for animal kids. Jepperd’s cynicism contrasts with Gus’ naivete, and the rocky father-son relationship that develops between the two as they each face their own personal struggles creates an emotional connection to the work often absent from similar action-adventure stories. Suspicion soon falls on Jepperd as it becomes clear that his motives are not as he first presents them. Together with a handful of other survivors, they brave their Midwestern wasteland against dangers both human and otherwise.
Sweet Tooth towers above Lemire’s most recent graphic novel, a retelling of the H. G. Wells classic The Invisible Man titled The Nobody, but falls just short of his magnum opus, the Essex County trilogy. To Sweet Tooth‘s credit, the series avoids the occasional sentimentalism found in Essex County. The emotional beats in Sweet Tooth are sparser, but always poignant. Lemire puts his Canadian pedigree on display with Sweet Tooth‘s grueling depiction of endurance amid a harsh environment, a–or, as some critics have argued, the–defining theme of Canadian literature, and the comic taps into this national tradition through the conventions of its postapocalyptic setting. What marks the series as outstanding within this glutted genre is the skillful way Sweet Tooth uses these shopworn tropes to raise interesting questions about human nature. While comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road might not be entirely unwarranted, Sweet Tooth is closer in literary quality to another postapocalyptic comic series with a similar approach, The Walking Dead. Lemire’s title offers a much fresher take on the genre than either, though, and for that alone deserves attention from fans of these types of stories.
The plot revolves around the problem of what defines humanity, whether our ability to reason, our capacity for faith, and our need to honor our dead, or, less optimistically, our readiness to exploit one another, our tendency toward bloodthirsty zealotry, and our temptation to despoil the natural world. With the hybrids, Sweet Tooth takes a page from H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau to show the beast within humanity. The animal children are a welcome change from the atomic horror style of mutants that end-of-the-world fiction has for so long used to put a deformed face on the degradation people suffer in wars and other catastrophes. While this innovation by no means revolutionizes the genre, the way the hybrids symbolize the connection between humanity and nature with such succinctness points to Sweet Tooth‘s level of sophistication above most of the recent crop of ecodisaster works, which tend to squander their literary potential on blunt homilies.
Although taking an ecological slant to the apocalypse is far from groundbreaking, Sweet Tooth also combines religious overtones with its hints of environmentalism to generate an intriguing ambiguity as to whether the story will settle into a pure science fiction mold or offer a more supernatural explanation for its mysteries. Sure, one could read Sweet Tooth as a retelling of the Garden of Eden story set in a deep ecology milieu, but the series is far less tedious than a greenwashing of Genesis might sound. The tension between the material and the spiritual is one of the many binary oppositions that Lemire establishes, only so that he can dissolve the division between the two.
The artwork complements the subject matter well. Lemire’s sketchy lines bound stylized designs that also possess a realistic sense of rounded depth. His style captures characters with the expressiveness of cartoons, but also the imminence of live sketches, a combination that generates just the right amount of creepiness, given the narrative context. Sweet Tooth departs from the black-and-white art of Lemire’s previous titles to offer full colors by Jose Villarrubia. The tones range from vibrant to muted according to the mood of the story, and so on rare occasions seem too dull for the always-nervous line-work, but otherwise the pallet serves the book well. The compositions are for the most part free-ranging and possess a vivid sense of childhood whimsy, disrupted at appropriate moments by visual brutality. In traditional comic fashion, the covers have tended to amp up the symbolism, perhaps a bit too much, but overall they give the series an expressive face that portrays the subtle changes in mood between story-arcs.
Every issue of Sweet Tooth experiments with form in some way, for the most part through novelty in panelization, but sometimes the series switches formats entirely, such as the issue designed like a children’s picture book. Sweet Tooth‘s narrative seldom outright demands that Lemire play with the rules of comics in these ways, so the liberties he takes sometimes come across as gimmicky. That said, the formal inconsistency gives the comic an endearing quirkiness, and in the long run grants the series a paradoxical uniformity. Other artists have already attempted many of the experimental aspects of this work before, but to see all these oddities together in such concentration creates a new effect.
Sweet Tooth is about as good as comics get and ranks among the best titles ever published by DC’s Vertigo line. The mature-readers imprint has always faced stiff competition from indie publishers, but this series proves that Vertigo can still hold its own. The way Sweet Tooth unites action-adventure with intellectual depth plays to the strengths of the comics form, and makes this title a great place to start for anyone curious about what alternative comics have to offer, since the potential for the medium that Sweet Tooth demonstrates stands to impress readers more accustomed to prose.