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Why We Love Jeff Lemire’s ‘Sweet Tooth’ [Preview]

Sweet Tooth is the story of Gus, a boy with antlers in a post-apocalyptic America who lives alone in a log cabin until the promise of candy (hence the title) compels him to leave home behind and begin what’s half a classic hero’s journey and half a simple fight for survival. Gus is but one of many hybrid children born since the mysterious world-ending plague, and he’s joined by a seeming savior, Jepperd, an ex-hockey bruiser (think the Hanson brothers from Slap Shot) turned shotgun-wielding badass.

The recently-released third volume of Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth demonstrates that he’s willing and able to play the long game with this most excellent Vertigo series, deftly weaving together solid character work and an intriguing plot with the unity of creative vision that only a dedicated writer/artist can provide. We spoke briefly with the author about his work and previewed pages from Sweet Tooth: Animal Armies.In the first two volumes of Sweet Tooth, Jepperd quickly took Gus under his wing, and what followed was an epic of betrayal, loss, hate and desperation bound together by a small light of hope. Dealing with themes of prejudice, man’s fear of the unknown and man’s relationship to his environment, Sweet Tooth is a truly compelling story, weaving together pieces of science fiction, fantasy and survival horror to create the kind of creator-owned series Vertigo was founded to publish, merging indie and ‘mainstream’ sensibilities to create a story with truly wide appeal.

That the story of Sweet Tooth unfolds in such a riveting way prompted us to ask Lemire about his plan for the series, which is his first long form work.

I definitely have always known the ending. It’s fully formed…I even have a rough draft of the final issue written. This book is all about a journey, both physically as the characters move across this decimated landscape, but also internally. Each character will end up very different by the end of the series. So it was crucial to know where it was all going.

Having said that, the middle section of that journey is still totally open. Where they’re going is clear, how they’re going to get there leaves me a lot of room to expand the story and develop new characters. At different points my overall plan for Sweet Tooth has grown from 24 issues to 36 to now at about 50 issues.

I’d always wanted to tell a long form monthly serial like this. it’s what I grew up reading and I wanted to try my hand at it. And I’d also always wanted to try and do my take on an action/adventure sci-fi story as well. The monthly format provided a lot of challenges at first. I’m used to an open page count where I can let the story breath and take as long as I want on a scene. Here I had to learn new ways of being more economical with my storytelling. But it also provides a lot of fun opportunities like having a great cliffhanger at the end of each issue. The fun for me now is experimenting with the expectations of a monthly comic. Doing silent issues, or playing with the actual format like I did with #18, where we did a “sideways” storybook format.

The third volume, Animal Armies, is on sale now and ramps up both the action and emotional intensity, with a pack of feral hybrid dog-children, a guilt-ridden scientist, plans for wholesale slaughter and a decent number of nice, big explosions. Lemire’s chunky, unglamorous style perfectly suits that dark material, demonstrating a skillfulness with portraying emotion that allows the art to be as integral to the storytelling as the dialogue. We asked Lemire (whose modern classic Essex County: Tales From the Farm is being developed for film) about the process he employs to those uncommonly satisfying ends.

The writing and the art are not separate jobs for me. It all happens together in a much more organic way. I do start with a rough script just to break down my scene s and make sure I can fit everything in 20 pages. It also lets me get a rough draft of dialogue down too, as it comes to me. Then I thumbnail the book, and inevitably it starts to change from that original script as I visualize things and play around with pacing and page layouts. Then I start penciling and inking and again my layouts and dialogue are being tweaked and changed at every step as I get more and more into the details of each scene. A month or so after I’m done with an issue, my editor will send a lettered version to me. I then take another pass. tweaking dialogue and shifting things around.

As long as the rest of the series maintains the momentum and drive of the first three volumes, Sweet Tooth will end up as one of those self-contained extended serials you could hand to anybody with a passing interest in sci-fi or post-apocalyptic stories.

Sweet Tooth: Animal Armies, as well as volumes 1 and 2, are available now in finer comics shops and bookstores and is also available online from retailers like Amazon. The following is a sequence from Animal Armies, and you can click here to download the very first chapter of Sweet Tooth as a free PDF from Vertigo.

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