No Stranger to Fiction #22: “God Was a Straw Dog”
Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth shifts up a gear with the current "Animal Armies" arc, reaffirming its writer's position as one of the top cultural observers working in comics today.
Now it’s so tantalizing, this little smell of success
The monkey demon keeps me screaming, he won’t let me rest
Oh someone, won’t you listen
And help drive those demons away.
‐-Stan Rogers, “Try Like the Devil”
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain,
The jails are made of tin
And you can walk right out again
As soon as you are in.
There ain’t no short‐handed shovels,
No axes, saws, nor picks,
I’m bound to stay
Where you sleep all day
Where they hung the jerk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
I’ll see you all this coming fall
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
‐-Harry McClintock (allegedly), “Big Rock Candy Mountain”
On his album Slow Train Coming, Bob Dylan sang that “Man gave names to all the animals / In the beginning, a long time ago.” George Orwell told us, in Animal Farm, what happened when those animals gave themselves their own names and built their own cultures. Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planète des Singes, more commonly known in English‐speaking countries as Planet of the Apes, showed us what happened when their culture overtook ours. Now, finally, Jeff Lemire has begun to show us what happens when the line between man and beast, concluding lines of Orwell’s novel notwithstanding, is irreversibly blurred to the point where the imaginary grabs the real by the throat, choking the life out of it in an attempt to get the real to repent for its crimes and sins.
This, of course, is the world of Lemire’s Sweet Tooth, a sort of potluck concoction of the universes of P.D. James, George Miller, Michael Haneke, Hunter S. Thompson, Philip K. Dick, John Arcudi, Sergio Leone, David Lapham, Nikos Kazantzakis, Denny O’Neil, Brian K. Vaughan, Joseph Campbell and Miguel de Cervantes. The most recent issue, #14, continues the series’ current arc, “Animal Armies”, as the deer‐boy Gus and his fellow hybrids finally escape from the military camp, Jeppard and his friends mobilize a cult of hybrid‐worshippers to take down the camp and Abbot and Singh, unseen in this issue, still roam the grounds of Gus’s childhood home.
Yet the most important moment in the issue comes during Gus’s escape, when “Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.”
The moment comes in the midst of Gus leading his fellow former captives through a sewer‐like tunnel with a flashlight after being told to “just keep crawling until you see the light”. One is reminded, intertextually, of Andy Dufresne, tunneling his way through miles of fecal matter in order to escape Shawshank. Hearing strange sounds in the water at their feet, Gus calls out to Johnny, the man who freed them, hoping against hope it’s him. Suddenly, Wendy, the pig‐girl introduced in the last few issues, is bitten by what we all know to be an urban legend: a sewer alligator. It comes and sinks its teeth into her arm, drawing blood. She calls for Gus, even as the alligator stares at her with human eyes. Gus, taking a nearby brick, defending his friend in a way that would no doubt horrify Jeppard, whom he learned such violence from, smashes the attacker’s head in until his face is nothing but a bloody mess.
Crystallizing human nature, once again, in just a few simple pages, Lemire speaks volumes about the stories that we tell ourselves to rationalize the world around us and to rationalize our own actions. Urban legends are used to justify childhood and adolescent fears; don’t have sex at Makeout Point or the Hook‐Man will kill you. Everyone knows that. Coupled with the notion that Gus’s father may be the root cause of the plague responsible for the state of the world and the existence of the animal children, we have science, a man who may have tampered with things he was never meant to touch and could never fully understand. With the end‐result of these potential experiments being what they are, we have evolution presented to us as a disease.
Is Sweet Tooth #14 a seething condemnation, then, of science and city life and the ways of the “new world”? Of course not. Such a reading of this story would limit the depth and intelligence of Lemire’s narrative. In fact, anyone familiar with the Abrahamic religions (which, in the very least, would be nearly half the planet, given the over two million Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims and 12‐18 million Jews alive today) is familiar with the story of Cain and Abel, two brothers who, respectively, became the first murder and murder victim.
Thinking on Sweet Tooth, then, if Gus’s father really did start the plague, that makes him the divine architect of this brand new world. These hybrids, then, would be his children. Now, while it’s doubtful his father even knew the alligator child existed, let alone favored him to Gus, the parallels are still there, as they were in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: this is the first murder of one sort of life‐form by another in the recorded history of their existence. It’s history, and, eventually, mythology.
And even so, it continues. Donald Rumsfeld once defended American troops’ looting in the seized Baghdad: “Stuff happens and it’s untidy,” he said, “and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.” Gus’s crime is untidy, yes, but is it justified? In defending Wendy, did he have to kill the other child? He may have been “feral” or “ignorant”, as we have seen in previous issues, but there must have been other ways. There are always alternatives to murder.
Unless...unless murder is in Gus’s nature, and it wasn’t just Jeppard’s nurturing of him. In that sense, Gus could be the comic page’s answer to Dexter Morgan, with Jeppard taking the role of the policeman Harry Morgan, teaching him the way to let it all out without destroying people who don’t deserve it.
On Battlestar Galactica, after Gaius Baltar kills Alex Quartararo to save the life of Cally Henderson, the spectre of the Cylon called Six tells him “Now you’re a man”. This notion appalls, even disgusts Baltar, who until this moment has had no real backbone to speak of. Six goes on to tell him that murder is “man’s one true art form”, and that’s she is “so proud of” him, that “it is what makes [him] human.” Baltar, still in shock, retorts “Is it? Not conscious thought? Not poetry, or art, or music, literature? Murder. Murder is my heritage.”
Gus may not have been born, as his lack of belly button indicates, but he certainly has the DNA of man running through his veins, both genetically and intertextually. It’s suggested Gus’s father was a gifted scientist; perhaps he was also a writer.
And finally, that poor adolescent alligator child, the one who hid in the sewers...what was it that made him hide there? Why not follow the light to the end of the tunnel, like Gus, Wendy and the others eventually do? What made him stay in the waters, so close to freedom, so far from military imprisonment, to stay in a prison of his own making? Is there something in his DNA that told him that alligators, in tales of horror, are supposed to be in places like dark sewers, ready to attack? What if he wasn’t feral? What if he looked in the mirror, saw a monster, and decided to live up to that image?
The dwellings of the anonymous alligator child, then, become a pubescent identity issue, uncomfortably tying this issue of Sweet Tooth, perhaps serendipitously, with current headlines.
In the space of a scant few pages, Jeff Lemire shows how science, urban legends, religion, nature, nurture, adolescence, puberty and modern warfare are all connected, how they are all parts of a whole that, itself, is a frightening concept that defines human behavior. He has shown us how they all connect, which strings go through which holes, and how the whole system is wired up. With Sweet Tooth, Lemire has presented us with a diagram, a map, a clear guide to human nature.
And, most frighteningly of all, he’s shown us how every single one of these “aspects” of who we are, these concepts that allegedly define us, are all actually the exact same phenomenon.
How tragically, and fatally, animalistic of us.
“The only saving grace of the present is that it’s too damned stupid to question the past very closely.” ‐-H.P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model”
Weep for yourself, my man.
You'll never be what is in your heart.
Weep, little lion man
You're not as brave as you were at the start.
- Mumford and Sons, "Little Lion Man"
So come out of your cave walking on your hands
And see the world hanging upside-down.
- Mumford and Sons, "The Cave"