(Welcome to Comics Rewind, a weekly column devoted to discovering – or re-discovering – great comics published some time in the past. Here you will find looks back at comics published in every era, from the Golden Age to the Modern Age, as well as retrospectives on the work of important comics writers, lists of “essential” comics, and evaluations of important works, as well as works worthy of a second look or a wider audience. Enjoy!)
I was late in discovering Jeff Lemire. I picked up the beginnings of his excellent Animal Man run, got addicted, and then, as with so many other comics creators, I went in search of other things. I found Sweet Tooth waiting for me, and though I thought it wasn’t really my kind of story, it ended up being among the most wildly entertaining things I’ve read in recent memory.
Gus has never left the woods. He’s never met anyone but his father, and he knows only what his father teaches him. Sometime in the past, a plague ravaged the world, and shortly after people started having babies that somehow had animal traits. Oh, did I mention Gus has antlers and deer ears? Yeah, he’s a hybrid.
Despite his father’s assurance that the world outside the woods is a dangerous place, Gus’ curiosity gets the better of him, especially after he finds a chocolate bar near the edge of the trees and finds he has a liking for it. Upon his father’s death, Gus decides to venture out of the deep woods (I worked in the title.) and see if the world is truly as awful as he was always told.
What I love most about Sweet Tooth is how organic it feels. Lemire is able to create an environment of genuine exploration, putting us in the same uncertain mindframe as his hero. There’s a story, and it’s a strong one, but it never feels like you’re being put on some kind of train that forces you to move from point A to point B and finally on to point Z. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with a story like that, but it’s always a rewarding experience to take a journey with a storytelling in which he or she patiently and gracefully unfolds the story for you, rather than just laying it down like rails. Sweet Tooth is one of those stories. Add that to a powerfully imagined post-apocalyptic world filled with an air of dread and black humor, and you’ve got a damn compelling comic.
Lemire’s art is perfectly suited to the story he’s creating here. It’s not anything messy or avant-garde or even particularly unconventional, but there’s something about the slightly warped shapes (particularly in Gus’ own face) of his pencilwork that just fits perfectly in this offbeat world. But beyond that, he’s also an artist gifted with a sadly rare talent for character-based drama. You see the confusion and pain and fear in Gus’s eyes through every single panel. That makes this more than a simple adventure. It makes it a human story, even if it is about a slightly inhuman guy.
Sweet Tooth is an addictive, wonderfully odd comic that’s got something in it for nearly every reader. If you’re tiring of superheroes, give this one a try. It’ll remind you of the joys of the weirder corners of the comic form.