Jeff Lemire may be winning over superhero fans with his run as the writer on Superboy, but it was his work on the Vertigo series Sweet Tooth that first got him the attention of DC editors.
Originally billed as a quirky sci-fi series starring an antler-topped boy named Gus, Sweet Tooth has been introducing oddly compelling characters and concepts while surprising its loyal readers with unexpected twists and turns. Scripted and drawn by Lemire himself, Sweet Tooth combines the tender story of 9-year-old Gus with the harsher realities of a post-apocalyptic setting.
Lemire was first noticed by critics through his graphic novel Essex County. But with the launch of Sweet Tooth last year, the writer won accolades from creators like Geoff Johns and Jason Aaron -- and was soon writing some of DC's more well-known characters.
We recently got Lemire on the phone to talk about his work on Superboy, but as long as we were talking, we had to ask a few questions about Sweet Tooth. Even though there's not a lot the writer could reveal about the upcoming plot, Newsarama spoke to the writer about Sweet Tooth as the series hits its 16th issue in January.
Newsarama: Jeff, we've talked before about the transition you've gone through as you've started to write for other artists. But has your work as a comic scriptwriter influenced your work on Sweet Tooth at all?
Jeff Lemire: I'm not sure, but it's definitely made me more aware of the way I write when I'm also drawing. Writing Superboy stuff has been really interesting, just because I’m becoming more and more aware of how much of the story is actually in the drawings when I do my own stuff. You know what I mean? To me that’s really what cartooning is. It’s like, the story and the artwork should all be really melded into one thing. And that’s when the best stuff’s produced.
I do thumbnails for every issue, and by the time the final art starts coming in, it’s completely different from those thumbnails, because sometimes we’ll finish making a page and I just won’t be happy with it, and I’ll just start rewriting. Right up until the end, I’m rewriting and working pages and scenes and always just changing things and stuff as I go. It’s all very organic, so it’s a very different process from the way it’s normally done, where you hand in a script to the artist, and then it’s out of your hands, you know what I mean?
Nrama: Oh, yeah, yeah, definitely. I also noticed that you sometimes use the visuals to communicate an emotion, like the recent issue where Jepperd talks about his wife. The juxtaposition of those images across the two pages really informs the emotional meaning of the story.
Lemire: Yeah, in general, my storytelling style tends to be — when I draw my own stuff — it tends to be fairly simple, straightforward stuff. I don’t get too crazy, except I always try to push stuff when there’s a big emotional moment or some key moment in an issue. That’s when I try to do something more experimental. I feel like, if every page is kind of like crazy layouts, after a while it just becomes noise, and it’s not really effective.
So I try to save those moments, big moments like that. And specifically for that scene, that’s the kind of thing I actually don’t even remember when I came up with that bit, but I think it’s my favorite two pages of the whole series so far. So, yeah, I honestly don’t remember how it came out or how it developed. That scene wasn’t in the script, that’s for sure. I think that issue I’d been drawing that scene of the siege on the militia camp, and it just felt like it was missing emotion or something wasn’t connecting. I wasn’t really happy with it.
So then I just went back and came up with those pages that you’re talking about just to try to add something extra to it.
Nrama: It's really striking. Now that you're working within a shared universe in other comics, do you feel like you need a book like Sweet Tooth as a creative outlet? I mean, it seems like Superboy isn't that restrictive, since you're kind of functioning within Smallville. But there's a difference in the type of creative outlet, isn't there?
Lemire: Oh, yeah, for sure. Even though I have so much freedom on Sweet Tooth, even that comic can become really grueling and repetitive some days, you know? Because I'm doing the story so straightforward sometimes. But that's when I need something to kind of re-energize me, so I just try something crazy on the page, and it usually works. And then it kind of gets you excited again.
So that’s the kind of thing I do miss on Superboy, because I don’t have that much control, and there are a lot more people involved. I’m just playing one role.But at the same time, it’s like you said: It’s not like Superboy is necessarily restrictive. It’s just a different way of making comics, so it can be a break for me from Sweet Tooth sometimes, you know, just to kind of let go of everything and just focus in on one element. That can be refreshing as well. So jumping back and forth between each keeps me fresh.
Nrama: I just noticed sales figures for Sweet Tooth, Jeff, and it surprised me a little. I had assumed this comic was one of those titles that survived through trades, but it seems to do pretty well as a monthly too. Does that surprise you?
Lemire: Yeah. It was kind of surprising at first. When it launched, they did the $1.00 first issue thing. That really helped, I think, to get a lot of people to check it out.
But the drop off after that wasn’t nearly as dramatic as I think Vertigo or DC expected. It found its number at about the second issue, somewhere between 9,000 or 10,000 copies, and for some reason, it just never really dropped again. I mean, it slowly eroded, like all comics usually do, but very, very slowly. The drop is usually a lot more dramatic. So I feel like it’s the kind of book where, when someone does discover it, you get pretty hooked on it.
Nrama: Every time we talk about Sweet Tooth, it's tempting to just blatantly ask for answers to all these mysteries you've introduced to the comic. But to avoid spoiling anything, particularly since some readers might be waiting for the trade, I'd like to concentrate on the personal journey that we've seen these characters experience, as well as what's coming for each of them. Does that sound like a good way to approach the series in this interview?
Lemire: OK, yeah. I can do that I think without revealing too much. I think I’ll focus on Gus first. When he starts, he’s almost like a spherical embodiment of, just, innocence. He’s been raised in total seclusion. He’s just this sweet child, and then we slowly see, as soon as he leaves the woods, we just slowly see that being corrupted. It's being changed by his interactions with Jepperd and by everything that happens to him.
And so his character, over the first three arcs that we’ve seen, you see him slowly get a little bit harder and more skeptical, particularly in the second arc. And then he’s betrayed, obviously, which pressures him.
And then in the third arc, you see him changing and taking on more of a leadership role amongst the other hybrids. He's becoming more like Jepperd in the sense that he’s trying to take care of them.
So, for what's going to happen with Gus in the future, just try to extrapolate that past into the future.
Nrama: It's interesting that Jepperd is rubbing off on Gus, because the opposite is also true, isn't it? Gus is affecting Jepperd?
Lemire: Yeah. At the beginning of the book, Jepperd is pretty much the opposite of Gus. Where Gus is innocent, Jepperd has no hope left, nothing to look forward to. He’s completely ruined and corrupted by this world, and the moment he meets Gus, he slowly sees a crack in that armor, and he – all of a sudden all that violence and everything that’s in him finds a focus, and that focus in protecting Gus, even though, obviously, he betrays him. So you slowly see the two characters almost becoming more like the other. You know what I mean? Gus is becoming harder and more like an adult in more of a protector role.
Nrama: Yeah, they even kind of shared a dream in one issue.
Lemire: Oh, yeah, that’s – I can’t talk about it yet, but they – yeah, obviously Jepperd become much more human again, and he’s kind of awakening all the things that were ruined by the Apocalypse and stuff within him.
So again, just to take those few paths that we’ve seen so far, you can kind of extrapolate them forward and maybe predict where they’ll go.
Nrama: We've also seen Dr. Singh's character evolve.
Lemire: Yeah. This man is full of logic and science and medicine, but he really does want to help people. You see him at the beginning and you think he’s going to be some kind of evil mad scientist kind of character, and obviously, I kind of played that up. But he’s not at all. He’s much more conflicted and he’s not a bad person. He’s just trying to do everything he can to help people, and he's forced to do bad things.
But then we slowly see in the last arc when he finds the Bible and starts to get wrapped up in this sort of religion and mythology. You see him changing really quickly, sort of latching onto that and going from a man of science to a man of this weird faith.
And in the future, Singh’s character is one that’s going to change, I think, more than anyone. That’s going to be as we go into the fourth or fifth arc. I'm excited for people to see what’s going to happen with him, because it’s going to be pretty dramatic and, hopefully, pretty cool.
Nrama: Will we see more characters introduced coming up?
Lemire: Yeah. The fourth arc starts with Issue #20, which I actually just started writing. And I introduce a major new character whose name is Walter Fish, and he’s been the funnest character to write so far. I can’t tell you anything about him without ruining it. But you can look forward to him playing an interesting role in the story.