Getting Graphic: Sweet Tooth by Daniel Reynolds
There is a lot to be said these days about the end of the world. Now, I'm talking about your crushed by a meteor, too much genetic tampering, wiped out by aliens, set aflame by war type of global wasteland. Forgive the preoccupation, but it seems like real drama these days comes from stories of bleak devastation. And it is off in this wild corner of fiction where you'll find a comic book called Sweet Tooth.
The story of Sweet Tooth shuffles at you like odd and twisted creature, with its rough illustrations and dark, mysterious tone. The reader is introduced to a boy, Gus, raised in the woods. He has odd visions, a taste for chocolate bars and, well, he's got deer antlers growing out of his head.
Yes, antlers. That was my initial reaction to Sweet Tooth. I saw the first cover, judged immediately, and put it aside despite the fact that the creator, Jeff Lemire, is an acclaimed Canadian comic creator. I admit, I took one look at that scratchily drawn cover with its kid and his antlers and moved on. Oh, what a mistake I made.
Eventually, I returned to the book and quickly realized my terrible error. In truth, Sweet Tooth is a unique, minimalist masterpiece. At the outset, it assembles the usual archetypes for an end of the world story: the innocent hero, the grizzled guardian, the menacing villain, the rogue wildman, the desperate scientist. We've seen these characters before in everything from Mad Max to Margaret Atwood's Madd Addam trilogy and yet, their deployment in this story powers a different engine.
In this version of the end of the world, a disease has driven the apocalypse and wiped out large swaths of humanity. As the narrative winds on, Lemire appears to be gradually building towards some explanation, but in the beginning there is no clear reason why. As if this status quo weren't disquieting enough, normal babies are no longer being born; they are all emerging as animal-human hybrids. Hence, antlers.
In all this, our hero Gus emerges from the wilderness. Immediately, every character he meets is drawn to what he, as a hybrid child, may mean to the survival of the world while providing some answer as to its destruction. There are characters that are protective, like the powerful Eastwood-like Jeppard or the desperate, befuddled Dr. Singh, and others, terrifyingly menacing like Abbott or the Cult Leader.
Granted, these are all just names right now, and my brief descriptions won't particularly prepare you for a full exposure to these and other characters. And really, that is what is astounding about Lemire's work: the unique clarity and power of his voice. His ability to forge a seemingly simple story about father and son into a tale that gradually grows into a harrowing experience of horror and eventual hope is breathtaking.
Using the elemental tools at his disposal: images, some words, and the space between panels, Lemire has crafted sequences that overlay the action of the story with Revelations-like religious scripture, recorded science journals, visions of the past and Disney-like cartoon dreams. The effect? A comic like no other. Please try to avoid my mistake and appreciate the antlers. Understand that Lemire's art style lends itself perfectly to the story. It is at once rough and harsh before moving into a startling, desperate warmth. Ultimately, he has achieved here what is really the goal of a good comic book. It unifies image with dialogue, builds it into a unique structure, borrows from familiar archetypes and pronounces in a clear, distinct voice its intent.