Jeff Lemire – Sweet Tooth (Comic Review)

(Based on issues #1-28 of the Vertigo series. According to comments I’ve seen in interviews, Lemire expects this to be roughly the halfway point.)

Sweet Tooth #1 cover

Sweet Tooth

Jeff Lemire is relatively new to the comics scene, but he’s quickly become known for his loose, expressive art. His figure-work has a sketch-like freedom to it, with lines on the face often having more weight than the actual contours that would normally stand out. It’s fitting, then, that his current title is about a world in which the human body is on the verge of falling apart.

Sweet Tooth is in many ways a typical post-apocalyptic story, in which the few survivors of a plague are at the mercy of cults, thugs, and militias who only claim to have others’ best interests at heart. The catch, though, is that all children born since the plague are all human-animal hybrids. The main character is a deer-horned boy named Gus, who has made friends and enemies as he explores the world. While the hybrids fit into the world thanks to Lemire’s art, they don’t make scientific sense. The series is dropping increasingly strong hints that the religious ramblings of Gus’ dead father may be more important than science.

Lemire writes and draws Sweet Tooth, and has managed to do both on a monthly schedule (along with writing a few new DC superhero series). It helps that his art is supposed to feel rushed and imperfect, but is impressive nonetheless. (A few fill-in artists, most notably Matt Kindt, have stepped in for occasional flashbacks. Kindt’s art feels in line with Lemire’s style, though it never takes advantage of the looseness to experiment with the form.)

Lemire does not write very strong characters, but he draws them with such power that they seem three-dimensional. His plots are much more convoluted than any individual character, though, with betrayals, mysteries, and different factions vying for control. I’m honestly not sure how to expect the current story to play out, and I think I will be equally surprised whether the main group of characters stays together or splits up.

Lemire’s other strength is in action scenes and dream sequences, when the abstractness of the scene lets shapes or panels flow in unexpected ways. Surprisingly, though, he doesn’t capitalize on this as frequently as a post-apocalyptic world would allow. Entire issues go by that feel like filler, and especially when the plot fragments to follow multiple characters at once, the pace slows to a crawl.

That’s not to say that there aren’t excellent portions of the story: The entire first arc, for example, is a fascinating read. One early issue is just a single scene, showing a standoff in a brothel, but the tense mix of action, morality, and danger seen through the eyes of a young boy is well worth reading. On the other hand, the last three issues have told a side story from centuries ago. It is relevant to the main story, but we have no real investment in those characters (and remember, characters’ actions are not Lemire’s strong point) and the important information could have come across in half that time. The two issues before those both happen after Gus is injured, and they have been taken up almost entirely with Gus’ dream sequences and the other characters’ attempts to help him. One issue of that would have been more than enough.It’s not in the traditional “decompressed” style, but it is slow. I’m not sure whether Lemire’s sense of pacing is just off from what I want, or if he is stretching it out as he tries to figure out what comes next.

At its best, Sweet Tooth is surprising and emotional, not to mention truly interesting to watch unfold. It deserves the devoted fans who are writing into the letters column and even getting tattoos. At its worst, though, it seems rushed and a little boring, and makes me hesitate to introduce it to new readers. I’m not sure which aspect will win out over the course of the entire series. It’s shown enough potential to get me firmly invested in the ending, but also squandered enough to keep me from recommending it at the present.

Grade: C+


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  1. January 17th, 2013

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