Sweet Tooth Vol. 1 Review – Outta the Woods, Into the Fire

Sweet Tooth Vol. 1: Out of the WoodsGus, our antler-headed 'hero'
An on-going comic book from DC Vertigo by Jeff Lemire
score: ***** outta five

Jeff Lemire is popping up all over DC. Johns seems to be prepping him to be the next big writer over there, and Sweet Tooth, I believe, is what brought him the attention that lead to it. Having now read the first volume, the man has the talent to justify it. We’ll have to wait and see how that translates into mainstream superhero work, but that’s neither here nor there – read on in this review of the first volume (the first five issues and first arc, to be precise) and you’ll see why Sweet Tooth is another good offering from Vertigo worthy of your attention as well.

Sweet Tooth is about an odd boy with antlers, out in a cabin in the woods with his dying father. Little by little details are revealed about the world they inhabit: it seems to be set in modern times, perhaps somewhat in the future, in an America devastated by a somewhat vague Affliction. This disease is in everyone, there is seemingly no cure, and it kills. The only ones not affected are half-human/half-animal hybrids, born only after said accident, and our protagonist Gus is obviously one of them. His father has raised him in the isolated wildlife preserve all his life, and while he isn’t uneducated, Gus is completely naive and mostly ignorant of the world around him. The world outside the nature preserve is literally painted as Hell, where only bad men, sinners, the sick and dead exist. And, though whitewashed by his protective father, that isn’t too far off the mark. Soon after his father wastes away, reality comes crashing in. Hunters try and claim Gus for a bounty, as hybrids are highly sought after. He is saved from poaching by a big, mysterious and violent man named Jeppard, and it is then that these two set off outside the woods and into the bleak landscape, to take Gus to the fabled Preserve, where hybrids can exist without fear.

Gus and Jeppard trek across the Australian landscape. Just kidding! We don't have that many hills.All the elements of the tale of an post-apocalyptic journey are there. The naive yet highly likeable protagonist who discovers the world at the same pace as the readers do, the mysterious stranger with dubious motives, the vague horror that struck the world in the past and the fabled sanctity from the world it has created. Sweet Tooth’s greatest weakness, so far, is simply its predictability so far, in that the general elements of the plot and the major twists and turns that plague our protagonists in these first five issues echo past tales of a similar caliber. This however is not indicative of a lack of creativity: the story we are presented is still told with deft skill and pacing, strong writing and characterisation, interesting themes and dynamic and powerful art that suits the story.

It’s always cool when the writer and artist are one and the same, especially in a creator-owned type book such as this. I always imagine that, taking out the need for communication between the two parties, the artist’s vision is stronger and there isn’t anything lost that might become lost between that communication phase. I can definitely see it here: the art represents the tone and style of the writing perfectly. It is harsh, dirty, ‘ugly’ art: most of the characters look ugly and despondent, lines of age and weariness etched into their faces (though they still display a range of emotions). The landscape seems muted and ‘dead’, from the more barren landscapes to the run-down towns and suburbs. The action is harsh, brutal and gory, and Lemire always seem to use interesting compositions and layouts whenever there’s action on the page. The art reminds me a little of cubism (not the abstract kind, thankfully, this is definitely grounded and coherent art). I can see people being easily put off by the style, in a subjective sense, but at the very least you can appreciate how it suits the writing and tone of the book.

The writing is similarly compelling. Lemire crafts an interesting if somewhat derivative world, believable characters and an intriguing premise and story that keeps you turning the page. Much of the time he lets the art tell the story, rather than bogging it down with wordiness, and in the comic medium I appreciate that. We follow Gus’ journey of change and discovery (with Jeppard in the ‘mentor and protector’ role), punctuated by both blunt violence and a feeling of hope. By the end of issue #5, and I suppose this constitutes somewhat of a spoiler, Gus and Jeppard have already reached the Preserve – rather than meandering towards the goal set-up in the initial issue, the story changes up the status quo for the next arc, and I’m eager to see what happens next. This also seemingly alleviates the issue of predictability somewhat, as the story is already being changed up and turned in a different direction. To say that the twist presented was not predictable would be a lie, but I’m definitely intrigued enough to press on.

An interesting spread for a particular moment of violence and tension.

I will definitely give the mainstream books Lemire is penning a look, but even if they aren’t amazing I’ll at least be following this.I’m tempted to pick up issues rather than wait for the next trade, as this sort of adventure begs a monthly follow. This is one of the better Vertigo titles in a while, one that promises an interesting story rather than self-indulgent ‘maturity’ (violence, swearing, sex, y’know) just for the sake of it, like some of the lesser Vertigo titles around. Definitely worth a read, unless you really can’t stand the art.

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What is Safeer? A miserable little pile of secrets. But enough talk, have at you!

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