Pissed Off Book Reviews: Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth

Today marks the beginning of a new series of posts for me. As I intend to continue my "Songs That Made Me Like the Band" posts—though I probably need to come up with a better name—I intend to continue these as well. For these, I realized that there are some books and stories in the world that simply make me angry. And I'm not talking about being angry because I'm offended or because the book sucks; I'm angry because I'm jealous that I didn't think of it first—or have as much talent as these authors/creators/illustrators. The more angry I am, the better the story. To kick this whole thing off, I'm taking a look at the beautifully ugly world that is Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth series.

After reading Lemire's Essex trilogy (you can see my snippet reviews here, here, and here), I tracked whatever else I could: The Nobody and the first volume of Sweet Tooth. I enjoyed both, but it was Sweet Tooth that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Unfortunately for me, the library did not have the newer volumes, and my lack of funds kept me from purchasing them. Luckily for me, I happened upon the graphic novel section of the library the other day and was happy to discover that they’d finally acquired the next three volumes of the series.

In short, I devoured them. I read all three within the span of an hour or two and wished and wished that volume five was available. (This one, I have, in fact, preordered. Broke or not, I need this stuff.) 

These books are amazing. Where I wasn’t 100 percent sold with the first volume, I had no idea that this story would build into something that would piss me off. And these books have angered me to no end, with their amazing characters, ugly—albeit fitting art style—and page layouts to melt the face.

The series has been compared to Mad Max, and it's an apt comparison, as these are set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. But then you have to toss in the hybrid kids—all of the children since a plague ravaged the world have been born half-human, half-animal. We follow the exploits of one of these offspring, Gus, a.k.a. Sweet Tooth. There's what's left of the government, turned militia, who stops at nothing to find a cure for the mysterious plague. A large chunk of the population has a religious devotion to the hybrid kids, figuring that they're the next step in evolution. And there are the survivors, simply trying to scrape out a living in this decimated world. If it sounds bizarre, that's because it is. However, odd as the premise may be, the characters are what carry you through this stark and violent world.

Lemire has this way of humanizing everyone and everything in his stories. It doesn’t matter if he’s writing about the titular deer-boy child stumbling through the apocalyptic world in his naïveté or if he’s writing about the gruff and brutal anti-hero of the lot or if he’s writing about the doctor forced into unethical experimentation in order to find a cure. Each one of these folks exemplifies everything that is wonderful and horrible in each of us. Even if you don’t like these people, you can’t help but care about them, want them to make the right choice, to keep their moral compasses intact, and—above all—you want them to survive. They can’t give up, because it would simply be too heartbreaking, and the outlook for the future too grim. Besides, the art has already painted a grim enough picture...

The rough lines and misshapen proportions and oversized heads and other defects most artists would erase and rework until they looked right, these imperfections Lemire leaves intact. But they compliment the story perfectly. It gives the whole series this honest and raw feel that not only reflects the world that Lemire has created, but it also shows who these characters are. They’re imperfect, and Lemire isn’t trying to hide that fact. At all. And those that tend to look like monsters, often are. To the casual viewer, the art might look childish or even unskilled, but you’d be fooled. All you have to do is look to his layouts to understand that there is a genius at work here.

The layouts, you say? Yes. Mother. Fucking. Layouts. This guy is a genius. I’ve never freaked out about a page’s design, but these books do some of the coolest things that I’ve ever seen in any comic to date. Most are very untraditional, and most are a reflection of the arc/theme of that particular issue. For example, one issue is modeled after a children’s picture book and even has to be turned sideways in order to read the thing. Another issue has HUGE panels that fill up almost the entire page, but there is a small bar that runs across the bottom with one of the characters dictating into his tape recorder, which—of course—compliments what’s happening in the larger panels. I would say more, but it’s best if you simply see these things for yourself. In short, Lemire creates the best possible ways to tell his story, stepping WAY outside of the traditional comic panels and ultimately producing one of the most interesting story presentations that I’ve seen.

In the end, these books aren’t for everyone. And many might take a look at them and think I’ve lost my mind. But give them a chance, take the time to inhabit this ugly and beautiful world that Lemire has created, and I have a feeling that it’s a dreamscape that you’ll be just as angry about as I am.

Anger Rating (out of 5)