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For our recent feature that wrapped up the best comics had to offer, I named Jeff Lemire the best writer of 2011. I admitted this was based primarily on his exceptional work with the Animal Man series, but I also noted that what little I had read of his original work, Sweet Tooth, certainly did not hurt his notoriety. Now that I have a few more books of the series under my belt, I’d say it’s about time a bit greater tribute was given to where it’s due. Sweet Tooth is a pretty great book.
Since this is the first I’ve talked in depth about the series, a quick primer. Sweet Tooth tells of a future in which most of humanity has been wiped out by plague and the rest of it is just waiting for their turn. The only ones immune to the plague are hybrids: children born after the plague, who are inexplicably part animal. Among these hybrids is character to whom the title refers, Gus. He and his friends are trying to solve the mysteries of their world and a safe place to live in it.
One of the first things this particular issue does, and, I think, does very well, is give context. There are a lot of books that give a “here is some stuff you might need to know” synopsis, but this is one of the more admirable strategies I have seen for cluing in new readers. In the opening pages, we’re given a bit of narration by one of the main characters, Jepperd. Instead of parading all the details of his trip thus far though, he gives only the basic ideas; just what we need to know what is going on. More importantly, the narration gives the feeling of the story. Where others may just explain the events, I feel like this narration gives a concise view of the emotional journey for this character, which makes me feel like I have a much better idea of where the character is than a play-by-play would. All this is done over some pretty visceral visuals, which ends up giving readers some fantastic characterization right at the beginning.
It’s fair to say that this contemplative opening is my favorite bit of this issue. The rest of the book is well paced, but still seems to move things along rather quickly, as one startling revelation is uncovered after another. Gus, who was gravely injured in a previous book and has spent a month healing, is finally ready to continue his journey with Jepperd. Elsewhere, the other characters finally find that one of their own, Lucy, is succumbing to the illness that destroyed the world. Finally, each group of characters discovers, in turn, the true identity of the mysterious and menacing Haggarty.
Of all these reveals, I think Lucy going public is the most prominent issue of the issue. It is downplayed, relative to the reveal surrounding who Haggarty really is, but that did not seem as important to me. Lucy is a character who has been in the book for a long time and has very much supplied the motherly role among this current party of characters. Mothers are always supposed to be the strongest in the family and it is strange to think where this group might go now that it is splitting up and losing this integral member to boot. Of course, there is the dramatic irony in play that the reader has been made privy to her condition several issues ago. However, this is the first time she has been shown fully in the throes of the sickness. Her hair has fallen out, she is covered in sores, and her skin is emaciated. The results of the plague have been shown before, but never to one of the primary characters of the book. It is some startling imagery and, honestly, I wish it was given a little more time. Perhaps it will be addressed at greater length once the current crisis is over.
As I said, the reveal of Haggarty is comparatively less impressive. Ironically, I think this has a lot to do with how impressive this reveal attempts to be. There are three groups of characters that need to know this information, but only one reader. Unfortunately, this means that it feels like the reveal happens three times, at which point the hand feels overplayed. It is handled relatively well and I am probably exaggerating, but I can’t help but feel that the latter half of this was somewhat repetitive. The best part of these events is the potential it carries for the next issue.
I freely admit to not being as big a fan of Jeff Lemire’s art as I am of his writing. The style of his character designs is simply not my favorite, but I do admire that they seem to have a sort of fragility to them that is suited very well to the harsh world he has written. People are often thin and have faces full of lines and shadows. His backgrounds are at their best in the bleak wilderness, which there is a fair bit of here. Previous mentions of Jepperds opening and Lucy’s sickly form are the highlights of both the storytelling and art here.
Sweet Tooth #29 is not my favorite issue of the series, but it is not at all a bad place to start. Old stories are closing and new ones are beginning. Some characters seem to be ending their run and we get more familiar with others. Jeff Lemire was our favorite author of last year and, if this is what’s on offer for 2012, I’m looking forward to what comes next.