“This is a Story.”
In the time surrounding the year 2010, the post-apocalypse story setting was near beaten to death by the mainstream horde of apocalyptic fiction. Television, film, games, and comics were swarming with stories of varying quality of people surviving in the ruins of our society. This oversaturation undoubtedly caused many to become fed up with the entire post-apocalypse subgenre and dismiss it entirely for several years. In that time though, there were a few standout tales that have stood out from the deluge to become modern classics. One of these is Jeff Lemire’s folk-style comic tale, Sweet Tooth. Lemire’s expert handle on dialogue, characterization, and pacing over a long-form story works in concert with his unmistakable art style and original concepts. As a result, Sweet Tooth stands as not only a gem of post-apocalyptic storytelling but as one of the most memorable comic stories in recent decades.
Writing & Plot
Sweet Tooth begins in a cabin in the woods in the midwestern United States. Gus, a hybrid boy (half-human, half-deer in this case) lives in hiding with his father after a cataclysmic plague wipes out most of humanity, leaving the rest to fend for themselves in often brutal manners. Gus’s father advises him to never leave the safety of the woods, or else the remaining “sinners” will capture and kill him. Unfortunately, the plague reaches all humans at some point, and one night Gus’s father dies of the illness. As Gus ventures out for more supplies, he is found by a pair of “hybrid hunters,” people who capture hybrids and take them to military researchers in hopes of finding a cure for the plague. See, hybrids, which started being born in place of normal humans at the start of the pandemic, are immune to the plague. However, Gus is saved by a hardened survivor by the name of Jeppard. The grizzled fighter offers to take Gus to a place of safety, and the main body of the story begins. On the road, they meet a cast of villains and supporting characters of all manner, origin, and cross-species DNA that color this comic’s world.
One of Lemire’s great strengths as a storyteller is his ability to take familiar tropes and combine them with wildly original concepts (see Black Hammer). This post-apocalypse already holds many genre-familiar sights, such as human brutality and desolation. The main character pairing, with the young boy Gus under the protection of the experienced older survivor Jeppard is reminiscent of many other “on the road” stories. The story itself is laced not only with the fantastical nature of the hybrids, but with questions of religion versus science and the humanity’s relationship with nature. The story is just as much about Gus growing out of his father’s single-minded mentality and learning to see the good in the people that have it – and to do what is necessary against the evil. The development and pacing of Gus’s character guided is with a patient hand. His innocence contrasts with Jeppard’s – and the entire world’s – brutality. He acts as a beacon of hope for so many, even as he learns how to navigate this new world without losing what makes him such an endearing character.
Lemire practices characterization via dialogue to an expert degree. Each character has their own style of delivery based on the context of their character. Gus was raised by a poorly educated father and so his use of simple colloquialisms and sloppy grammar are fitting. Bobby, a groundhog hybrid, received almost no education, so he refers to himself in the third person and uses “am” instead of “is.” There are so many more examples of this; from Jeppard’s “less is more” vocabulary to Dr. Singh’s distressed intellectualism. The individual dialogue is so well composed that even without the artwork, it would be easy to decipher who was speaking just from reading the lines.
Speaking of artwork, Lemire’s is admittedly a bit hard to comment on. The visuals are purposefully lo-fi, and a combination of almost amateurish and expert skills. His art in Sweet Tooth can go from meticulous facial detailing in one moment, to looking like a hastily scribbled sketch in the next. This is in no way an insult. Lemire constantly shifts style and detail based on the context of the current scene. The less detailed and messier sequences are usually dreams or visions, drawn to represent a foggy distance from the story’s reality. At the same time, Lemire’s attention to detail in character moments and action sequences is still fantastic. He portrays wide ranges of emotional expression and turmoil on a single page. Lemire’s pencils are aided by Jose Villarrubia’s fantastic colors, which dip into the surreal at times (watercolored purple and gold skies, at one point) but stay fitting to the context of whatever is going on in the plot. Villarrubia managed to match exactly the stylistic touch Lemire was after, creating an aesthetic that is folky and unpolished but also gorgeous and perfect for the kind of comic being made.
Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth does what a great post-apocalypse story should by transcending the shackles and tropes of its genre. The brilliantly unique plot, cast of loveable (and hateable) characters, unforgettable art and one of the most touching endings in modern storytelling culminate in one of the most outstanding comics in recent decades. To quote one of the passages: “This is a story of a little boy with antlers and a big man with guns who found each other and learned there was still some good left in the world…this is a story of fear and friendship…of passage and rebirth…of sacrifice and redemption…of hatred and love…of innocence and age.”
“This is a story.”