Review: Sweet Tooth, Vol. 1: Out of the Deep Woods

Sweet Tooth vol. 1 : Out of the Deep Woods 

Written by Jeff Lemire

Art by Jeff Lemire

Colors by Jose Villarrubia
Letters by Pat Brosseau 



$9.99 / 128 Pages / Color / Paperback

Vertigo

 
By all accounts Jeff Lemire is a very nice man. But despite the mellow, easygoing demeanor showcased on podcasts and in interviews, it's evident that he spends a great deal of time hunched over a drawing table contemplating new methods of milking us of our tears. Perhaps he thinks of this as a public service. After all, a good sob is healthy every now and then. But I want you to keep this all in mind the next time he's promoting a book, perhaps on a Talksplode or Don't Miss. "This man wants my money and my lacrimal secretions. And I'm okay with that."  
 
I often wonder if he tests early drafts on orphans. Defenseless Canadian orphans huddled in the snow. "Don't remove your tear funnels just yet. One more page about the tragic hockey players, children. We need fuel for the Despondency Drive." 
 
In the case of Sweet Tooth, Lemire has combined two classically saddening totems of western culture, Cormac McCarthy's post apocalyptic Hop On Pop adaptation The Road and the last fifteen minutes of Disney's Bambi. The result is a spectacular fable about an antlered boy trying to survive the nightmarish world of next-week. Gus is a mutant, one of several children born with some minor animalistic quirks–in his case, some deer parts–in the wake of a world-wide plague that wiped out much of humanity. The boy has known only the deep woods and the cabin he shares with his widower father. The old man instills in Gus a profound fear of God and just about everything else, promising that if he were to ever venture out of the trees, he would be consumed by unholy fire. The boy loves his father, but by the age of nine he's overwhelmed with curiosity about the outside world. He experiences prophetic dreams about a big man with impossibly blue eyes. Prophetic, because that enigmatic figure steps out of his nightmares only to rescue him from a pair of would-be poachers. Soon, Gus and big Jepperd are off and running, two against the world. There are those who would love to get their hands on a rarity like an antlered child. With the wide-eyed, doe-eyed Gus and the foul-mouthed warrior Jepperd, it functions a lot like a really grim western. A medium rare Shane with genetic cole slaw.
 
In a market saturated with post-apocalyptic fiction, Sweet Tooth has just the right balance. Just the right amount of grit, just the right amount of heart. And plenty of mystery. Lemire leads you by the antlers through some truly affecting horror, and it's somehow just as lyrical and human as those tales from Essex County. 
 
What's most compelling about Sweet Tooth is Lemire's steady hand at world-building. It's all in the frequency with which he rations out information. We've seen an increasing number of post-apocalyptic worlds lately, but it isn't just the fine details that make one any more interesting than the other. It's the rhythm and tempo of the revelations. Lemire's like a really good stripper. He doesn't just rip off the layers so everything's all there at once. Even the shoulders are a tease. In issues, this may feel like a slow burn, but the result is an even keeled little voyage into the heart of darkness. there are terrific stretches of quiet, real economy. And then, out of nowhere, a bloody encounter with masked marauders. The pacing is masterful. The secret behind all this is Gus, who's perfectly, purely innocent. Having spent his whole life in the woods with a very religious, very cautious father, the boy knows about as much about his world as we do. As readers, we discover more and more of the landscape with him, as Jepperd ferries him out onto the highway and into the wider, toothier environs. What's also really nice is that the initially simple Gus isn't just a hick. As the story progresses, he starts asking more informed questions, making decisions on his own. He's learning and taking action, which is really satisfying. He's no super sleuth, but the boy's well on his way to a classic hero's journey. 
 
As always, Lemire's artwork is incredibly expressive. If, at first glance, it seems somewhat rudimentary, that's because it functions best as a narrative and not as a series of pinups. I personally prefer Lemire's work in black and white or with a limited palette. Here, the color tends to isolate the forms and shapes in a way that doesn't really suit the artist's style. This takes next to nothing from the book overall though; just a subjective preference. Alternatively, there's certainly a warmth that comes from the coloring, and that's much needed at times. Would a black and white Sweet Tooth be too stark, too bleak? Either way, Lemire captures just about everything that needs to be said about a character's humanity or lack thereof in those carefully sculpted faces. Every crease and wrinkle counts.
 
Much, much more of this, please. I'd be really happy to see a book like this go on for however long Lemire wants it to proceed. It's a country cousin to Y The Last Man, and whether it stays as intimate as it has been or expands out to an even more epic scale, it's a fable worth attention. My heart goes out to the Canadian orphans, but long live Gus the antlered chocoholic!
 
Hunt down Sweet Tooth: Out of the Deep Woods on Amazon.
 
Story: 5 stars   Art: 4 stars  Overall: 5 stars
 

Paul Montgomery keeps checking his scalp for antler nubs. Find him on Twitter or contact him at paul@ifanboy.com. 

Comments

  1. I second this suggestion.  I really enjoyed the first arc.  I need to read Essex County.

  2. Great review, agree on all points.

    The third issue really showed me how amazing this series can be. Shame it can be such a slow burn sometimes though. Reading it in issues does have it’s faults. 

  3. I picked up the $1 first issue based on iFanboy’s praise for Essex County, and have been hooked ever since. It’s one of my favorite monthlys actually, and I’m always stoked when I see it on the pull list.

    @TheNextChampion I think with the last couple of issues Lemire is really getting the hang of the monthly schedule. I’m sure it’s great in collected form, but there’s something about getting a monthly fix vs. a bi-annually fix. (I have Walking Dead for that!) 

     

  4. @Paul Great job Paul. I’m an enormous fan of Jeff’s work, and proud to call him a buddy on top of it. So while I don’t pretend to be impartial, I can say emphatically that he’s one of my favorite creators in the business today. I think even he would admit in an honest moment that he wasn’t sure his artistic style would play into an ongoing book at Vertigo, and it’s so encouraging to see that it has. The strength of his storytelling is only going to get better too as he gets more comfortable with the monthly form, after cutting his teeth for years on long form OGNs.

  5. Jeff Reid (@JeffRReid) says:

    Lemire grabbed me with that first issue and I’ve been reading it monthly since then. And that’s the only Vertigo book I can say that about. Usually, I just wait for the trade with those books. But he sucked me in.

    And well written review, Paul. And thank you, Canadian orphans, for testing out his fine product for quality control purposes. You are the real heroes.

  6. Great review. Sweet Tooth is one of my favourites these days. Love Lemire.

  7. I subscribe to all the Comics but I am getting the trade too! I have to share this with others 🙂

  8. Love Lemire’s other work so i’ve been waiting a while for this first trade. Can’t wait to see how Lemire’s work plays with full color. Bravo to Vertigo for the price-point. $9.99 is a great value. 

  9. i bought the trade suckers! i get the whole story in one shot!for less money!hahahahhahah!

  10. "Lemire’s like a really good stripper."

    If that quote doesn’t make the back of the next trade there is no justice. 🙂

  11. Fantastic book!  A great part about it is that we get a monthly piece of Lemire’s work, instead of having to wait for OGNs.