Vertigo's SWEET TOOTH Feeds Indie Stories to the Masses
Jeff Lemire’s ongoing Vertigo series Sweet Tooth has been one of the great critical hits of the past year. Currently in the middle of its second storyline, “In Captivity,” it’s the chronicle of Gus, a candy-loving boy in a devastated future United States who was born with antlers as the result of a mysterious pandemic. Now out in the world for the first time, Gus must rely on the violent and mysterious Jepperd to find a safe haven, and understand the world for the first time.
With the first collection Out of the Deep Woods due out next month, we called up Lemire in Canada to talk about the series to date, his numerous other projects, and the transition into a monthly series after his previous graphic novels (The Essex Country Trilogy, The Nobody). In this spoiler-free discussion, Lemiere gave us some insight into his work on the series and some hints at its future.
Newsarama: Jeff, you’ve had a big year with Sweet Tooth, The Nobody and the Essex County collection.
Jeff Lemire: Yes, it’s been a big year.
Lemire: I don’t know, really. Coming from indie comics, you sort of do that amount of work anyway, and that’s what made Vertigo notice me, that really personal work. I came in doing my own thing and they let me do more of the same. It’s been great so far.
Nrama: Do you foresee maybe doing some fill-in issues of Sweet Tooth to stay on schedule?
Lemire: No, and there haven’t really been any problems so far. We’ve been working ahead of schedule at this point, and I tend to be pretty fast anyway. So unless some major life crisis hits, I don’t see myself falling too far behind.
There will be some stand-alone issues, which I’ll be writing and drawing, which will be for new readers. I think the first one will be issue #12. I did have one idea down the road where I wanted to recruit some friends from the indie comic world to do little Sweet Tooth stories, just because I want to see how they interpret the characters.
Nrama: There’s the sense this story has only gotten started – that we’ve only seen a small portion of this world. But I get this sense that you’ve got things mapped out, that there’s a broader scope to things.
Lemire: There really is. We’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg – I’ve plotted out every story arc, down to the final issue. It really becomes an ensemble piece in this second arc, and the story grows and expands along with the cast.
Nrama: The post-apocalyptic premise and use of animals reminds me of years ago, when I got a back issue of Jack Kirby’s Kamandi #1, and there was a map of the world in the back that set up all these future stories –
Lemire: Yeah, exactly! (laughs) That’s one of my favorite comics of all time, and it’s a huge influence on Sweet Tooth. There’s no hiding it. I was rereading it around the same time I came up with Sweet Tooth, so you should definitely see some Kamandi in there.
Nrama: There’s also an almost manga-like structure – I’m referencing books like Akira, or Eden: It’s an Endless World, where you’re building a larger cast of characters – introducing more animal-children and explaining this plague.
Lemire: Yeah, we’ve introduced a half-dozen new animal-children, and given an idea of the different factions at work in this world, and how they’re operating against each other. I don’t read a lot of manga, though.
Those influences were probably secondary – it was more things like Kamandi or Mad Max or Tim Truman’s Scout, particularly the second series, War Shaman. That was a big influence on Sweet Tooth for sure. And there was a book called WinterWorld that Chuck Dixon wrote, which is being reprinted by IDW this year, and that was great. Those books stand up really well.
Nrama: It’s been fun to see a lot of those 1980s books get excavated.
Lemire: Yeah, everyone talks about touchstone books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. But there was so much other stuff out there that was great. All the stuff from First and Eclipse…there was just so much amazing material.
Lemire: Yeah, I don’t do a lot of narration or infodumps where you just get the lowdown on the world and its details. I like to start small, and slowly, slowly reveal it to you as it’s revealed to the characters. I think it’s more mysterious that way.
Nrama: That’s what’s really intriguing to me about the book in its first year. You have this main character that is in such an isolated place, who has no idea that there is a larger world. You could have whole other cultures, places where things are more civilized, and this whole question of how Gus will evolve and change as he grows older.
Lemire: That’s the whole story – how he evolves, how he grows, and the place in the world for him and this new race that’s evolved. The first story arc was very much on the outskirts of any kind of urban setting, but in the third arc, we should finally get to a city, and that should be very interesting.
Nrama: Gus is a good kid, but he has this incredibly limited perspective. And that’s an interesting way to get into the series. With a lot of ongoing series, they suffer at the beginning because you’re discovering the premise.
With Sweet Tooth, you’re discovering this world as Gus does, but you also realize a little more than he does. It’s this simple idea of a mutant boy wandering through a post-apocalyptic America, but you can have these more surreal elements, like the dream sequences or the other mutants, because you’re experiencing these things with him.
Lemire: Yeah, that’s exactly what I tried to do with him. The whole thing with Gus and his really, really isolated existence is me trying to create a total innocent, someone who has no grasp of what the world used to be. So his perspective, more than any of the others in the book, is unique, because he has no preconceived notions of what the world should be like.
Nrama: And then you have Jepperd, who is a real contrast – this character who knows a lot about the world, but who is very dark and menacing and has these ambiguous loyalties.
Lemire: He’s certainly very different from Gus, right? And that’s the fun of putting these two very different characters together, the tension that you get. Jepperd seems to know everything – or at least more than Gus knows – and that creates a lot of subtext.
For me, he’s as big a character in the overall story I have planned as Gus. It’s both their stories in this epic I have planned.
Nrama: And you have this sense that Jepperd is used to wandering around in this wasteland and gotten used to the evolutionary process of survival – you see why he’d like Gus, but you also have the sense that this little deer-kid might have to become more like Jepperd to survive.
Lemire: That might be one direction I go in – the other is how Jepperd might become more like Gus as we learn more about his past. The second arc’s focus is his story, up until we first meet him in issue #1. There’s a whole lot more that’s going to happen between them down the road, and I don’t think it’s going to unfold in a way anyone’s going to predict.
Nrama: I read you were inspired by Richard Corben’s work for Jepperd’s look?
Lemire: Yeah, a little bit. I was a big fan of Garth Ennis’ Punisher Max series, and there was one Corben drew (The End). I’m a huge fan – the physical presence Corben brought to Frank Castle had this Warren magazine quality, and I loved that story so much I started drawing characters like that.
His work has such a weight – his figures are so dense that they inspire me. His drawings make me want to draw. (laughs)
Nrama: And I understand Sweet Tooth came about because you had a dream about a boy with antlers, correct?
Lemire: Yeah, most of my stuff comes from my subconscious – these characters will appear over and over in my sketchbook. I kept drawing this boy with antlers, and he showed up again and again, and like most characters like that, he began to evolve and become something more. In this case, he became the seed of Sweet Tooth.
Nrama: How many varieties of animal-children have you designed? Have you gotten really crazy with it?
Lemire: I actually haven’t! The monthly schedule is so crazy that I haven’t had time to get that far ahead yet. I’m designed probably a dozen of them at this point, and at the end of “In Captivity,” Gus will have seen five or six others. So it’s small at first, but I’d better get busy, because later in the series there’s going to be a whole lot more. (laughs).
Lemire: I have a pretty good idea. I’ve already written the last issue. That last issue is really what keeps me going, because it means I know where this is going and how it’s going to end. As far as how long it will take me to get there, that depends. It could go any number of ways.
Hopefully, sales will let me tell the story I want to tell. I don’t see this running 50 issues; maybe 35 or 40. But you never know – you get into certain storylines, and they get bigger, and these characters become more interesting to you as a writer, and it’s possible it could expand.
Nrama: Vertigo has that precedent it set with Sandman, where it lets the story run at its intended length – well, sales permitting, as you said. But it lets the creator get to the point where they can resolve the story they started, and come to a natural conclusion.
Lemire: That’s the great thing about doing creator-owned work, as opposed to working on an established property where they’re never going to end the story. I like doing something like this; it’s kind of like doing an HBO show, where every arc is a season and I get to tell my whole big story.
That goes back to your first question, about the challenges of doing everything. I didn’t try to break into Marvel or DC as a freelancer, doing penciling or anything like that, with the goal to go from that to creator-owned work. I came in doing creator-owned work right away.
I can’t imagine breaking in doing something like Batman and then doing Sweet Tooth. You’d get so typecast that it’d be hard for people to imagine anything else! (laughs) But as someone who did creator-owned work from the beginning, I have that freedom to take my work in a different direction.
Nrama: Yeah, your body of work so far is in a number of different genres, though there are some similarities in visual styles and themes behind them.
Lemire: Yeah, I try to never tell the same story twice. I have a lot of different influences: I love superhero comics and indy comics and everything in between, so my goal is to tell whatever stories I want to tell, in a variety of different ways.
Nrama: Your books often deal with a sense of isolation and discovery, with the setting being a character in itself. Why do those themes interest you?
Lemire: It’s hard to analyze your own work that way, but I think some of it comes from growing up on a farm, and having a pretty isolated childhood, and not having anyone around into comics or drawing as a kid, and getting lost in my own imagination.
It’s hard to look at your own life and say “this was an inspiration,” but I think that had a lot to do with it.
Nrama: Another big part of the book is Jose’s colors – that’s one of the great colorists in comics, and I’m curious about your collaborative process.
Lemire: Well, Jose – it’s really weird to have anyone color myself to begin with, because I’m so used to having my stuff in black-and-white. Even with the tone color, that’s something I did myself. So for Sweet Tooth, I wanted someone I knew I could work with, and talk things over, and have a real collaboration.
I knew Jose through Top Shelf, I’d seen his work on his Alan Moore projects, and I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. I consider him, like you said, to be one of the best colorists in comics. His work has so much character – when you see his colors on a book, you know it’s him. Not that it overtakes the art or anything, but it’s very distinct.
As far as our collaborative process – I just trust him. I hand him the art, and if I know there’s a scene that might require some specific color as far as a story point, like it needs to be night or day, I let him know. But otherwise I let him do his thing, and he’s developed his own pallet for the book, and it’s amazing.
Lemire: I always try to have two things going on at once. Sweet Tooth is the ongoing thing, and right now I’m doing another graphic novel for Top Shelf that will hopefully come out next year. We’ll officially announce something at San Diego this year, and I hope to have it done by the end of 2010.
Nrama: How much of the book is planned by Vertigo at this point? Has there been a call for issues beyond the first 12?
Lemire: Well, I’m almost done with the first 12, so I think I’ll find out at any time if it’s picked up for another six to eight issues. But the conversations I’ve had with Vertigo indicate I’ve had the go-ahead for some additional issues.
It’s interesting with the first trade coming out now, because that should introduce some new readers to the book. So I’m trying to make the third arc a good jumping-on point for new readers. It’s hard to think too much about sales or the audience – you just have to tell your story and hope it works out.
Nrama: What’s been the most interesting response you’ve had to the book so far?
Lemire: I would say that’s probably the wide variety of fans who’ve responded to it. You have your regular Vertigo fans who read other Vertigo books, who probably never would have read my previous stuff. But then you have fans of indy comics and indy films, who know my previous stuff but probably would never have read a DC book before. It’s such a wide range.
I think, if anything, what’s most surprising is just how diverse the readership can be.
Nrama: How has this experience helped you develop as a creator?
Lemire: I think in a couple of key ways. I was used to doing stand-alone graphic novels, like the stuff for Top Shelf, where I would just basically do the book and hand it in (laughs). No matter how long the story was or how many pages it came to, that was what the story was.
Obviously, when you’re doing a monthly book, you have this 22-page allotment every month, so it was a big change to fit everything into the space for that month without the freedom to take an extra page here and an extra page there to let everything breathe. So it was just me learning to be more economical in my storytelling.
I was worried that might, I don’t know, restrict me or change the way to tell the story, but I think it’s actually made me a stronger storyteller. I had to learn a whole new way of structuring pages and themes to make it more economical. I really enjoy it!
Doing a creator-owned book like this every month is such a gift. It’s so amazing to have something new come out every month. It keeps me going and I love the constant feedback.
In another way, it’s interesting to do something where the end isn’t always in sight. (laughs) With other projects, I can be working on it and working on it and know when it’s done, I can move on to something else. While with this, if it’s successful – and I hope it is! – it can go on for years and years.
Just having something that’s going to be part of my life for that long is really interesting. How the characters might change – and how I might change – over that time is something that really intrigues me.
I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people how this book ends. It’s going to be a very different story from what they read in the first arc.
Sweet Tooth #8 is in stores today.
Zack Smith (email@example.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.