If there's any comic that's been a surprise hit in the last year, it's Sweet Tooth.
Originally billed as a quirky, small-town sci-fi starring an antler-topped boy, the Vertigo series launched last fall to immediate accolades. Jeff Lemire's comic and its strangely compelling characters have captivated a growing list of vocal creators and reviewers, and Lemire himself is now one of the rising stars at DC.
For those who want to see what all the buzz is about, Sweet Tooth #12 is a custom made jumping-on point. Lemire, who both writes and draws the comic, has created a single issue story that's made for new readers while moving the plot ahead toward the series' third story arc.
In this first installation of a two-part interview, Newsarama talked with Lemire about Sweet Tooth before turning the conversation to his upcoming work on Superboy and The Atom.
And for anyone interested in checking out Sweet Tooth, we attempt to discover what's so unique about Jeff Lemire, and why it might be worth checking out issue #12.
Newsarama: Jeff, let's start with this next issue of Sweet Tooth. Is this a good place for people to jump on board with the series?
Jeff Lemire: Sweet Tooth #12 is a really good issue for people who just want to check out the book and jump on. It's pretty much a stand-alone issue, and it's the only stand-alone issue I've done so far in the series. We thought it was a good time, after issue #11, after finishing up Jeppard's back-story, to take a breather and re-focus the reader and the series.
The issue has a few narratives running through it. One of them focuses on a day in the life of Gus in the militia camp. And then the other part of the page is centered on Dr. Singh, the mad scientist character. It's his journal recapping everything that's happened so far.
It's a cool issue. I played around with the format a little, and it's also a great place to jump on and get the essence of the series.
Nrama: This series has gotten a lot of accolades from other creators. Obviously, you're doing something right, but what do you think it is about this story that has captivated the comic book audience?
Lemire: I don't know. It's hard for me to judge why something might be successful and other things not. I just know for me, it's something personal and something I'm very passionate about. I certainly put a lot of myself into it every day. That must come through on the page and people must react to that.So many comics today are being produced by a lot of different people, like a writer or two, a penciler, an inker and editors. And that's great. But I think it's nice for people to be able to pick something up and have it be one person's vision, for better or for worse. I think with DC and Marvel and even Vertigo, you don't get a lot of, just, writer/artists working and doing something themselves every month. Maybe there's something in that that people are latching onto.
I also think approach to the story is also something that's unique, because it's taking science fiction conventions and telling them in a quiet, personal, and character-focused way instead of plot driven.
Nrama: Among the characters, there's something very endearing about Gus. Do you find that readers almost instinctively care about him as a result of his innocence in the middle of all this?
Lemire: Oh yeah. As a character, it's hard not to like him, just because, there's nothing to him other than the fact that he really is a total innocent. He embodies that. There's nothing really cynical. It's hard not to like that character because there's nothing he's ever done that's bad.
He's like that childhood we all had once and lost when we got older. I think people are watching his awakening into adulthood. He's kind of a symbol for that.
Nrama: Do you personally identify with him in particular, or is there another character? Or is there a piece of Jeff Lemire in all these characters?
Lemire: I don't know. I think there must be. But yeah, Gus is certainly someone I identify with. I don't know who I feel closer to, Gus or Jeppard. I guess it depends on what kind of a mood I'm in.Nrama: They're almost two extremes of what we all go through, aren't they? Isn't the idea of innocence turning into adulthood embodied by Gus and Jeppard?
Lemire: Yeah, they're two sides of a coin. Jeppard's the completely hardened adult who's been ruined by life. And Gus is just this blank slate. You get to see them play off each other, and their stories play off each other. And one slowly becomes more like the other and vice versa.
So I guess those two characters are, yeah, different sides of me. I can relate to both those points of view.
Nrama: For those who aren't picking up the series for the first time, now that we found out Jeppard's back-story in the last arc, will we see more of him coming up?
Lemire: Jeppard's going to try to get back to Gus, and I'm not saying that he will. But the two women he encountered way back in issue #4 have popped up again at the end of issue #11. So they're going to go on a trip to the militia camp and try to free Gus. But that's going to take awhile before we see that happen.
The next arc will be the story of them trying to get back to Gus, Gus trying to escape and then more about Singh and Abbott trying to figure out who Gus is. The arc has those three storylines coming together for a big climactic event at the end of arc 3.
Nrama: You've played around with different story structures in the series, particularly during dream sequences. We've seen that Gus' dreams reveal his past and give hints about the future. Will these prophetic dreams continue?
Lemire: Yeah, they will. We'll start to see in the third arc some things that he dreamt in the first arc. We'll start to see some of those things happening in the main narrative. And then you'll see further down the road in his dreams. Nothing in those dreams is ever just a throwaway image. It's always something that's going to happen or something that's highly symbolic of what's coming. And often, there are clues for the bigger mystery, if you look closely at it.
Nrama: Will we find out more about Abbott?
Lemire: Yes. We start to learn more about his past in the third arc, but especially in the fourth arc, a lot will be revealed about him.
Nrama: Will we be seeing any new characters show up in the series?
Lemire: Yeah, there are some cool new characters coming up. There's a guy that's roughly based on Grizzly Adams coming up. He's going to start to reveal some secrets of Gus' father's past. I don't want to say too much more about that.There are actually quite a few new characters in the third arc. And then in the fourth arc, the cast gets very large for a while before it starts to dwindle again.
Nrama: We talked about how these characters are so easy to identify with, but I think a lot of the strength in the series also comes from these ongoing mysteries. There's also something attractively strange about the very premise of the series and its secret origins. I assume that was intentional?
Lemire: Yeah, I like that there's this great mystery out there in the world about what exactly happened and what role the hybrids play in it. But the reader will never really get to see more of that mystery than the characters figure out themselves. You never get to see beyond their scope. It's not like we can just pull away and flash back and get all the answers. We're only going to get little pieces as the characters do. And I think that makes it more intriguing, and more mysterious really.
Nrama: Did you have any influences when you came up with this story? I can see traces of similar threads in your work on Essex County and The Nobody, but were there outside influences on your style and stories?
Lemire: There are a lot of them. I'm a big David Lynch fan, and I think some of the pacing and the dream logic comes from watching a lot of Lynch movies. I was really into Jack Kirby's Kamandi series way before I started writing it, and you kind of see that with the animal hybrids and everything. You can sort of see some of that in Sweet Tooth. More than anything, it's probably film directors who influenced this sort of pacing. But there wasn't one specific thing that really influenced the series, but a bunch of different things in different ways.
Nrama: It's hard to summarize Sweet Tooth in a quick description, so I would assume it has multiple influences. You know, like Lucid is "a political thriller with magic" or Scalped is "Sopranos on a reservation."
Lemire: Yeah, it's hard to get a high concept description for Sweet Tooth. When the series was first about to come out, people would ask me to describe the book, and it was hard to do without just rambling on about the plot. But there's no real high-concept pitch that accurately sums it up.
Nrama: You know, I interview artists all the time, but since you're also the writer, we haven't really talked about your artwork. Doesn't it also lend uniqueness to the comic?
Lemire: Yeah, I have a really distinct style, obviously. Some people love it; some people hate it. [laughs]For me, the writing and the art... I don't really separate those into different chores. They're part of the same thing. It's all pretty organic, and I guess it reflects that.
Nrama: When you write the scripts for Sweet Tooth, I assume it's a much looser format than what you do for other artists?
Lemire: Yeah, it's just figuring out how many pages I have to do each scene. Really, the writing comes when I start thumbnailing it. That's usually when the dialogue comes out too. My first script is usually just a loose outline making sure everything I have to do is going to fit into each issue. Really, the actual script writing is done while I'm drawing the pages.
Nrama: I know you've stated before that the series has an ending. Do you have every issue planned, or is it more loose?
Lemire: Well, I've outlined the whole thing, and I know all the main beats of the story. I've always known the ending. I see it being around 30 or 40 issues, probably.
Nrama: So at the end of this third arc, that will be, what... about halfway through?
Lemire: Yeah, at the end of the third arc will be the halfway point. Some of the events at the end of that arc will begin a new status quo for the series. Knowing that it's the halfway point, people will be able to clue into the fact that we've gone through the first half of Gus and Jeppard's journey, and now it's something new that we're heading toward as it all builds to the end.