The End of 'Sweet Tooth': A deep dive with Jeff Lemire about wrapping up his acclaimed comic book saga
Jeff Lemire isn’t just one of the most acclaimed talents in comics, he’s also one of the most prodigious. In 2012, the Toronto-based writer/artist’s illustrious output included the monthly serials Animal Man, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E and Justice League Dark for DC Comics (all of which earned Lemire an Eisner nomination for Best Writer), and the much-praised graphic novel The Underwater Welder published by Top Shelf Productions. But this week, Lemire’s workload officially becomes one title lighter when DC’s Vertigo imprint releases the last issue of his epic fantasy, Sweet Tooth.
Launched in 2009 and concluding with its 40th issue, Sweet Tooth was set in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by “the sick,” a mysterious plague that may or may not be connected to the emergence of a new kind of life that may or may not be an abomination of nature, a human-animal hybrid. The series centered on Gus (also known as Sweet Tooth), a young boy with antlers and weakness for chocolate, and his relationship with a tragedy-curdled brute named Jepperd. Lemire’s tough and bleak yet emotionally resonant stories tracked their often deadly journey to find answers, safety and a new beginning came to a wrenching end in issue 39 (we won’t elaborate or spoil), and so issue 40 (on sale Jan. 9) represents a meaty epilogue that reveals the fate of Gus and his world. We recently spoke with Lemire, 36, about the work of creating Sweet Tooth, his influences and process, and the experience of bring a very ambitious and personal project to a satisfying close for himself and readers.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is the part where I play Barbara Walters and try to get you to cry. What was it like drawing the final issue of Sweet Tooth? I imagine it must have been quite emotional.
JEFF LEMIRE: It was a weird experience. I pretty much had that issue fully conceived since the beginning. When I pitched the series I knew most of the beats of the last issue. But that was four years ago. The journey to this issue, getting to those scenes, getting to draw them was pretty long. Doing a monthly book is very time consuming. There are some days you’re so sick of it and you wish you could work on something else, and there other days where you’re completely energized by it, where you discover all over again what excited you about it in the first place. So after three years of that, to finally get to the place where I could draw that last issue, and execute to those scenes, was really gratifying and fulfilling. It’s also bittersweet, because you know it’s the last time you’re drawing the characters in any significant way.
You said you had the last issue in mind since the beginning. Does that include the last page, last panel?
Absolutely. The earliest pitches I sent Vertigo had, beat for beat, the last issue, written out. The ending was always there. It was always the middle part that was rather fluid, that changed and grew as we went along.
So what was it like drawing that last page? Or is it one of those things where you drew the last page, like, a couple years ago, and you’ve had it locked away in a safe?
No, no. I always draw everything in order. Even when I do an issue, I don’t skip ahead, even a panel. So the last page was the last thing I drew. All the pressure of everything like deadlines is behind you at that point, because you’re at the end. I didn’t rush it. I savored it and took my time with it and just had fun drawing, because when you’re on the monthly grind, you don’t always enjoy every day sitting there, drawing.
Did you celebrate in some way after you finished?
No. I’m so busy with other projects. The next day, it was right back to work. I didn’t have time to celebrate in any other way.
Let’s go back to the beginning. What was the inspiration for Sweet Tooth?
Well, up until that point, I hadn’t done a serialized book. I had done graphic novels and stand-alone stories, so this was, in my mind, a chance to do something long-form and ongoing and genre based. It would be an action-adventure story with horror, sci-fi and fantasy elements. I was always a fan of post-apocalyptic stuff, and I really wanted to try my hand at one of those kinds of stories in my own way. As for the idea of animal-human hybrids and hybrid children… I really wish I did know where that came from! For some reason, I started drawing this kid with antlers — I didn’t even know when that started – and a story emerged: A kid with antlers, living in a cabin in the woods with his dad. It evolved from there. When I got the chance to pitch a book to Vertigo, it was all about building a story that made sense out of it. Organizing my thoughts and putting it into narrative.
Is that how it normally works for you? Not quite knowing where the ideas come from, following them where they lead? Or its is more conscious and calculated?
No, I’m not an intellectual by any means. I write and draw from the gut. I often don’t know what my stories are about until they’re done. And then other people start talking about them, and I look back at what was going on at that time in my life and I go, ‘Oh, okay.’ And then I start to put some things together.
So now that you’re at the end and you can look back: What do you think Sweet Tooth was about?
I really think it’s about trying to look at the world in a different way. What I mean by that is, if you look around at the state of the world, it’s pretty easy to see that it’s not a great place. There’s a lot of terrible things going on in the world. We’re not treating each other very well. It’s going back to that idea that we’re all connected, and getting back to a simpler way of life. Gus and the hybrid kids really represent that. They’re the innocence of childhood. When you’re a kid, you’re not as corrupted by the world at large. You’re not corrupted by prejudices. You’re much more open-minded. Much more interested in the world around you. Sweet Tooth is about the world returning to that kind of place.
I felt that theme throughout the work. As the mystery of the hybrids unfolded, the prevailing perspective expressed by the adults in the book was that these creatures represented something unnatural, a tragic consequence of the plague that killed much of humanity. Instead, what seemed to emerge was that this new form of life represented nature’s fix – or maybe some mystical-spiritual fix – for the problem of irreparably screwed-up humanity itself. At least, that was my reading.
Yeah, the first half of the series was all about the mystery of the plague, and where the hybrids came from. But answering those mysteries was never what the book was about. It was always just the catalyst for the plot to move forward. Really what the book was about was what came after the plague: This new race, this new species, and what they meant for mankind and what they represent. I was always more interested where the kids ended up than revealing the mystery of ‘this is how it happened.’
So what was your feeling from the get-go about your obligation to give the reader answers to those questions?
I knew I wanted a mythology that made sense. I didn’t want to keep laying out mysteries that were never solved. I wanted to have some sort of resolution to that story. But I was always more interested in revealing some kind of emotional truth about the characters than revealing some grand pseudo-scientific reason for why these animal-kids could exist. I tried to leave some mystery and some ambiguity to it, so it could be left to some degree for interpretation. But I also wanted readers to piece together things like a jigsaw puzzle, and get some clear picture of how these things unfolded. But again: This was secondary to where the characters themselves ended up.
You mentioned you were a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction. Can you give an example?
The biggest influence on the series was a comic from the 1980s called Scout by Timothy Truman. I loved that book. I was 10 years old and it blew my mind. I still re-read it every couple years. It was a thrill for me to get Timothy Truman to do the variant cover for the final issue of Sweet Tooth (see below). When they asked me whom I wanted to get for the variant cover, I think I could have probably chosen some really popular artists of the moment. But Timothy was a much more sentimental choice, and really cool.
TV critic Heather Havrilesky recently wrote an essay for Vulture about shows like Revolution or The Walking Dead that are set in a post-apocalyptic milieu, and she put forth an idea that I thought was really interesting: Her perspective was that these stories aren’t horrible nightmares but rather wish-fulfillment fantasies of a sort. As a storyteller who just finished such a yarn, what’s your take on that?
I think there is something to that, and it gets back to something I talked about earlier. If you look around at the world at the moment, for a lot of people, it’s a scary place, and there’s a lot of bad things going on. Not to over-simplify everything, but we are living in an era where there is a lot of fear and a lot global tension. These stories allow you to face that, but in a way that’s fun, that’s a release. But we are all looking for a better way, or a different way, to make real change in the world, or change the course we’re on. Maybe these stories indulge that urge to wipe it all away and start afresh.
You mentioned that the middle part of the Sweet Tooth saga was very fluid. Could you offer an example of something that changed along the way?
Totally. When we got to issue 25, 26, I was also working on The Underwater Welder, the graphic novel I had been working on for a couple years. I was really stressed out, personally. I needed to get the Welder done, but when you’re working on a monthly comic, you just don’t have the time to devote to it. It was really stressing me out, and it was starting to affect my work on Sweet Tooth. I talked to my editor at the time, Mark Doyle, and we were brainstorming ways to get me time to work on the Welder, and take a little break from Sweet Tooth, knowing that it would be good for both projects. So I came up with the idea that Matt Kindt – who is a really good friend of mine – could draw three or four issues, so I could get a chunk of time to draw the Welder. [Matt Kindt is an equally celebrated comic book creator, best known for his Super Spy graphic novel/collections and the current serial Mind MGMT, published by Dark Horse Comics.] When that happened, it felt weird to me to have someone draw the main storyline, with Gus and Jepperd and everyone. So I thought it would be cool to stay within the world but show a different time period [effectively taking a break from the main storyline]. That’s how the whole origin story – “The Taxidermist” arc, which Matt ended up drawing – came about. That was never really part of my original plan, to go back in time and show the origin of the plague in that way. That developed out of necessity. But now looking back, I can’t imagine the series without that storyline, because it ended up informing so much of the end of the series.
Gus and Jepperd: One of the great relationships in recent comics. Innocence incarnate, matched with this man who’s been warped by the violence of the world. What did you like about that relationship?
I loved how they started off as polar opposites, and I loved the juxtaposition, the violence of Jepperd and the openness and big heart of Gus. I wanted to begin there, and then take them on this journey where they begin to influence each other, and you see Jepperd slowly start to soften and open up, and conversely, you start to see Gus exposed to the horrors of the world and his relationship with Jepperd preparing him for that, and gaining the things he’s going to need to survive in this world. Two characters influencing each other, becoming more alike – that was a really interesting thing and fun journey for me, and a really easy touchstone I could always return to ground the stories. In the last issue – without spoiling too much – you go a little further in the future, and you see Gus, and he’s become the best of both of them. He maintains that heart and that optimism that we need to thrive, but he also has those things that Jepperd had, to help him make the tough decisions and help this race survive the trials they’re going to face.
Their influence on each other – and the tension of that influence, especially Jepperd’s impact on Gus – was one of the things that really kept me riveted throughout the series. Jepperd had something to offer Gus in the way of teaching him how to survive this cruel world, but I worried those same lessons would cost Gus too much of his innocence, even damn him.
I was very careful [with that idea] throughout the book. Gus never took another human life until the very last moment [of issue 39], because that last act of violence would be the last step he had to take to enter Jepperd’s world or fully embrace who Jepperd was. We have this idea of hybrids throughout the book, and I wanted to end in this place where Gus had become a hybrid of both of them, of himself and Jepperd.
How difficult was it to write Gus? You have this character who’s a kid, and more, a metaphor for innocence, and yet there’s so many ways that combination can go wrong. He could be too cute, too sentimental, even downright irritating. Gus never went there, at least for me. What was the key to writing him?
For some reason, I have always had a really good ability to write children in a way that’s realistic but not annoying. The key to that is underwriting them; peel back the dialogue and keep it simple. When you’re around real children, they often don’t say a lot, and often it’s their body language that tells the story, especially when they’re around adults. So it’s always about underwriting and being a good self-editor. But it’s also this: Over the course of working on Sweet Tooth, my wife and I had a kid, and being around a child and stuff, you kind of draw from that. It couldn’t help but influence the writing.
Another thematic concern of Sweet Tooth is religion. Gus was raised on some dubious theology. “The Taxidermist” dealt with the hostile collision between powerful, evangelistic Christianity and the spiritual tradition of an older culture. Is Sweet Tooth ultimately cynical about religion? Or is there a place for religion in Sweet Tooth’s world?
No, I don’t think Sweet Tooth is cynical about the subject. I think it’s about trying to find some universal truth about spirituality that we can all embrace. No matter what religion you come from, there are certain things in common among all religions – this idea that we’re all connected, or the idea of returning to nature, which I think is a very spiritual idea. That’s what the book is about. It’s about forgetting all the dogma of our different religions and finding a more pure way of looking at one another. Religion is a big part of the book, and I’m not embarrassed or ashamed to write about those things. I grew up in a pretty religious house. My family was Roman Catholic, and I couldn’t wait to get away from that. But that doesn’t mean I’m not a spiritual person.
I must geek out with you – or at least praise you – about one thing I loved about Sweet Tooth, and one thing you do really well, which is develop mystery around character. It’s there from the beginning with Jepperd: We don’t know if we can trust this guy. But my favorite storyline is the book is when Gus and friends think they’ve found safe harbor with a man named Walter Fish. For several issues, you really played with us, and you kept us guessing about this guy. Benefactor or beast? It was pretty masterful, so well done.
That was super fun to write. I knew exactly what readers’ expectations would be with that character, and when you’re aware of them, you can really play with that. So I purposely made it so that by the end, the reader wouldn’t be sure if they can trust themselves and their opinion of the man.
Your 2013 looks to be as busy as your 2012. In addition to your monthly work on Animal Man and Justice League Dark, you’re developing a new sci-fi/time travel/romance for Vertigo called Trillium and another graphic novel. Oh, and you’ll be taking over Green Arrow soon. I really don’t know how you find the time. And with a young child, no less!
When you love what you do as much as I do, it’s not hard to wake up and want to do it all day.