There’s a hauntingly intense quality to Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth that makes the comic tremendously compelling and unique.
Part of that quality comes from the book’s main character, the sheltered elk-horned boy Gus, who is a true naïf thrust into events from which his father had specifically tried to protect him. Gus has been so sheltered all his life that the merest small event becomes something new and unique to him.
In this issue, Gus walks into a stranger’s house and steals candy and a book, even though, as he says, “I ain’t never seen a real house before, Mr. Jepperd. Just in some of my dad’s books. It was bigger inside than I thought it would be… a lot bigger than my cabin anyways.” It’s done out of necessity, as he’s trying to gather supplies that will help him and Mr. Jepperd on their journey, but Gus is haunted by the decision to enter the house, haunted by the book he picks up, and haunted by the frightening image of a dead boy lying in a bed in the house.
Gus is haunted, and readers are haunted as well. Lemire stages Gus’s entry into the house with deep shadows that seem to be filled with the multitude of fears that must be lurking in Gus’s heart. The stairs that Gus climbs seem to stretch forever, as Gus’s face is hidden and his shadow trails behind him. We can sense Gus’s apprehension as he climbs the stairs, apprehension that seems completely appropriate when Gus confronts the vision of the dead boy.
This apprehension manifests itself as well in a dream – or is it a vision? – as Gus is confronted by characters from the book he has stolen, characters that bring Gus a stern warning followed by a vision of horrifying creatures with red, glowing eyes.
Gus is haunted by these visions, but he’s also naïve and uneducated enough to not know how to interpret them. His childhood has been so sheltered that Gus seems incapable of interpreting their horrific visions for himself. Will this ignorant approach come to harm the boy? As readers we have to think it will, and that element just adds to the tension of this book.
By the time this issue begins to wind up, we see our first scene of great devastation. It’s clear that the field filled with hundreds or thousands of dead bodies is the MacGuffin for this story, the element that has brought Gus out of his very sheltered life. But equally as significant, perhaps, is the girl that Gus and Mr. Jepperd meet on the final page.
This is all delivered in Lemire’s very quiet style. The art is full of significant close-ups that imply a complex and evolving inner life in his characters. It’s also full of panoramic images that seem to imply a sort of complexity of story that’s just outside of the viewer’s eye. The whole time the comic flowed by, I was struck by the impression that every building and field that Lemire shows, even for a moment, has a complex and interesting story to add to the mosaic of his story.
I’m struck by the idea that Gus may be as much a metaphor as he is a specific character. He’s presented as so much of a tabula rasa that he could represent a highly religious child thrust into the real world. I suppose that’s part of what makes this book so powerful, and what makes me ache for future issues of this very intriguing series.