From the paneled pictures of your darkest dreams, this is Graphic. Every month, I’ll be telling you about the best horror in comic books, from the early days of EC Comics to the resurgence of the genre in today’s mainstream and indie publishers. So pull up your blanket, dear reader, switch on your flashlight, and turn the page…
When Sweet Tooth first hit comic store shelves in 2009, the idea of a global pandemic seemed like fiction. The story follows an antler-adorned mutant boy and his ex-hockey player bodyguard, wandering through a disease-ravaged, post-apocalyptic earth that seemed, at the time, wholly unlike our own. Eleven years later, our species isn’t growing antlers or walking across desolated wastelands just yet, but it’s a lot easier to imagine the end of the world. And though Sweet Tooth is about as timeless as comics come, it’s hard not to think that it was written specifically for 2020, and the seemingly endless list of potential doomsday scenarios that this year presented.
Comics titan Jeff Lemire both wrote and drew the world of Sweet Tooth, creating a comic landscape unlike any other. Lemire’s characters aren’t chiseled or lean like typical comic book protagonists; they are awkward and worn, lined with time and tragedy like the inside of an old tree. In fact, every image in this book seems to have come from a forrest, with both its organic and fairy-tale natures on display.
This style works great for painting the literal setting of the story, but it also works wonders in the surreal scenes of the book; in the dreams, flashbacks, and hypnosis-induced visions that make up the characters’ inner monologues. Filling out Lemire’s work are José Villarrubia’s emotional watercolors, which pop the scenes into reality, and Pat Brosseau’s lettering, which gives the book its sound effects. On art alone, Sweet Tooth is an instruction manual on how to tell comic book stories.
What makes this book so relevant to this year isn’t the look of its characters, but how they (specifically, our two protagonists) answer a single question, one that so many of us have thought as this year did everything in its power to be awful: How do I do good when the world is so bad?
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Gus, the titular Sweet Tooth, is a nine-year-old boy with antlers growing out of his head and a taste for candy bars. Like most children his age, not to mention the Disney characters he resembles, morality is a very simple thing. He does good by following his father’s code, a set of rules that use roughly the same language as Bible lessons, but with a lot more emphasis on surviving in the wasteland. For example, ‘sinners’ are either people who don’t follow those rules and get themselves killed, or the Mad Max-type scavengers that are doing the killing. As long as you don’t become violent or drop your guard like those ‘sinners,’ says Gus‘s father, God will protect you. Believing this is easy for Gus, who spends the early years of his life in a remote cabin with only his father around.
But things get more complicated when Gus‘s father dies. Suddenly, the cabin won’t provide the protection he was promised for being ‘good.’ In order to survive, Gus might have to break the rules his father always said would keep him alive, including the most sacrosanct of commandments: do not leave the woods. But before he’s even give the chance to be the ‘drop your guard’ kind of sinner, a group of hunters appear at his cabin; hunters searching for the exact type of human-animal hybrid that Gus is. The only way to deal with these ‘violent’ sinners is to become violent yourself.
That’s when Jepperd shows up.
Jepperd has never been anything but violent, even before a plague wiped out much of humanity. Once it did, the middle-aged, ex-hockey-playing giant adopted a very self-centric view of morality. His own goals were the most important things to him. Doing ‘good’ simply meant doing whatever it takes to accomplish them, no matter how brutal. To be fair, this view of morality kept him alive after society collapsed and people turned into monsters. Hell, it even protected the very few people Jepperd saw as worth protecting, including, at one point, Gus. When the chips are down and there are bad men afoot, it seems a whole lot like Jepperd‘s morality is the right one.
But the thing about only serving yourself is that, eventually, other people will only become a means to that end. Without spoiling too much, there comes a point in Sweet Tooth when Gus‘s safety and Jepperd‘s goals don’t match up and, being the unshakable block of cinder that chose such a violent life, Jepperd chooses himself. He walks away from with his goal accomplished, but as broken and alone as the boy he betrays. His life is in tact, but the same can’t be said of his soul.
2020 has shown us the devastating effect of both Gus and Jepperd‘s views of morality. Large groups of people have refused to do necessary good because it doesn’t fit into a moral code that has been passed down to them. At the same time, many people in power (yes, even some of the ones we like) have adopted a “me first” code of morality that has and continues to hurt others. So which is correct? Do you follow a code you learn, or self-protective instincts?
It’s not a spoiler to say that Sweet Tooth lands on neither side. Even in the first few chapters of the book, we know that neither Gus or Jepperd‘s view of what’s right will completely help each other or themselves. Doing good, as both Sweet Tooth and this horrible, no-good year have plainly put it, is hard. You have to protect yourself, because there are plenty of things that can go wrong if you don’t. But you also have to be willing to challenge your morals as you know them, because not doing so can cause so much pain. Sweet Tooth acknowledges the difficulty of this choice and gives a nuanced, but perhaps more resonant answer.
Where Gus and Jepperd are doing their best is where they learn lessons from each other. Jepperd‘s actions break Gus‘s illusions about his code, but Gus grows from it, and eventually learns what he’ll need to survive. And later in the story, Gus‘s innocence brings Jepperd back to him even after the betrayal, breaking the old man’s cynical and self-serving view of life. In the end, it’s not a moral code at all that saves Gus and Jepperd. It’s the fact that they acknowledged each other as equals. And maybe, if 2020 is going to teach us anything, it’s that we don’t know how to do perfect good, but we have to start there.
The first volume of Sweet Tooth is available on ComiXology right now, and you can get all three volumes of the complete story at your local comic book store. Once you do, go ahead and drop me a line to let me know what other horror comics you’d like to see spotlighted in this column. You can also let me know by giving NOFS a shout on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. And for all of November’s Monster Mash Madness, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.