[8 March 2010]
He who delights in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.
—Sir Francis Bacon
It’s not enough to simply survive. One has to be worthy of survival.
—William “Husker” Adama, Battlestar Galactica
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.
—Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
Reading a new Jeff Lemire comic is like uncovering a lost memory from childhood; sometimes painful, sometimes joyous, but always enlightening and worth the discovery. To Lemire, the journey and the destination have always been inseparable, as the whole point of the journey is to arrive at the destination that invariably holds a pure, emotional catharsis. But none of Lemire’s prior stories could have prepared comics fans for the debut of his first ongoing series, Sweet Tooth.
Once again, the central figure of Lemire’s latest masterwork is a young, alienated child. This time a boy named Gus, who has known only his father his entire life. Gus’s father, (who one can’t help but think is based on Lemire himself and who, a short while ago, named his son Gus), has warned Gus his whole life of the dangers of going outdoors, of the wrath of God, of death, of a world that is no longer what it once was.
Immediately, the reader knows things Gus doesn’t, chief among them being that of course the world has changed: Gus was born with antlers. And, apparently, all other children born over the last several years have also been animal/human hybrids.
The main themes of Sweet Tooth, at least in its first arc, seem to be betrayal and change in all of their forms. Change comes into Gus’s life the moment his father dies, immediately resulting in the betrayal of every promise he ever made to the man: wandering out into the dangerous world just outside their home. Change comes again when Gus finds himself under the protection of Jeppard, a sort of amalgamation of Mel Gibson’s Mad Max and Clint Eastwood’s William Munny.
Jeppard’s sense of reality is betrayed when he discovers Gus’s age, which seems to fly in the face of established facts regarding the beginnings of the hybrid phenomenon. Disturbingly, Jeppard and Gus accidentally come across a brothel meaning to cater to ‘changing tastes’, wherein young girls are forced into wearing animal parts. There is, of course, one final betrayal towards the end of the arc regarding Gus’s new protector, one so heartbreaking and terrible that waiting for the next installment feels intolerable.
Like most of Lemire’s work, Sweet Tooth effectively touches upon issues of maturation in secluded environments, isolation and the uncertainty of what is to come. All of this, of course, is amplified by Lemire stepping out of the box once again, throwing himself head-first into the midst of what, for him, is a new, unexplored genre. As a writer/artist who has made a career out of re-inventing himself with each subsequent work, it is very clearly the next logical step.
With all of this under consideration, Sweet Tooth very clearly comes across as a story crafted out of concern not just for the future of the Earth, but for our children. Gus’s harrowing journey leads him to a futuristic concentration camp headed by a man who would have disgusted Mengele. Such a figure is clearly something Lemire sees, not necessarily literally, but as a metaphorical danger that could emerge from the world that we ourselves have created.
Sweet Tooth exists, much like P. D. James’ Children of Men, to show us how we as a society undervalue the gift that is our children. Moreover, how grave a sin it is to expect children to raise themselves, and to not fully prepare them for a world where, one day, we will not be there to guide or help them. Lemire’s concern for the Earth itself is also palpable. His landscapes are either emaciated forests or horrifying, burning wastelands of an alternate 21st century, populated by cannibals, lunatics, pimps, thieves and rapists. If the setting of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the Beltway Sniper, calculated, methodical and terrifying, Lemire’s post-apocalypse is a more intimate, more terrifying threat. The quiet loner who you sat next to in math class before an anonymous call to the police led to the discovery of homemade bombs in his basement.
The world of Sweet Tooth, with all its admirable world-building, pulls off something most well-built fictional universes never can: it honestly creates the fear that anything could happen. And that this world, much like reality itself, is cruel, random, heartless, terrifying and altogether unexpected. In this regard, Sweet Tooth articulates a very different true-to-life than ‘real world’ comics like Ghost World or Road to Perdition. Consequently, Lemire’s latest opus has more in common with Vincent Bugliosi’s non-fictional Helter Skelter, Jason Aaron’s semi-fictional Scalped and the works of George Orwell and David Lapham.
Though a terrible cliché, the song lyrics are right: children are the future. Lemire believes this, and anyone who claims not to after reading the start of Sweet Tooth is either heartless or a liar. Through all of the horror and betrayal, and through Guses both real and fictional, Lemire is able to introduce his readers into a world he clearly has long-term investment in. Fans and the uninitiated alike would do well to give his latest tale a look.