Monday, December 14, 2009

Sweet Tooth #1

DC Comics/Vertigo, 22 pages, $ 1.00

Writer and artist: Jeff Lemire
Colorist: Jose Villarrubia
Letterer: Pat Brosseau

There's a recent article at Slate called "Shirt-Buttoning Styles of the Weird and 'Special'." Author June Thomas writes:

The buttoned-up look is often shorthand for retarded. (I mean this in the clinical sense.) Think Forrest Gump, Billy Bob Thornton's Karl Childers in Sling Blade, or Sean Penn in I Am Sam. Slow but sincere, they wish to be perceived as serious, fully integrated citizens—and that top button is the key to what the Project Runway set might call their "image management." It says: You may not realize it, but I'm clean and respectable.

I'm not sure if Gus, the young protagonist of Sweet Tooth, is retarded, clinically speaking. But what's plain is that he, too, is "weird and 'special'" and wears a shirt that's buttoned all the way up. Life-long seclusion is likely to have taken its toll on Gus' development, certainly, but I would guess that it's his father who is responsible for the buttoning-up, in this case.

The two of them may be living alone in the deep woods; the shirt sleeves may be all frayed and Gus himself may not care enough to keep his shirt properly tucked into his equally ragged pants; and the boy may be one of the hybrids, the special children born after "the accident"; but maybe that top button is dad's way of demonstrating to himself that, even though the apocalypse came and went, he and his son are still "clean and respectable" Christians.

Another aspect of "special" characters in Hollywood films and TV shows that's communicated by their buttoned-up shirts is their perceived naïvety—their innocence. Ms. Thomas ignores this aspect in her article, but Canadian writer/artist Jeff Lemire, the creator of Sweet Tooth, is counting on it.

Just look at the cover. It shows Gus holding a chocolate bar before a red background with a few barren branches. There's the checkered, buttoned-up shirt. There are the antlers and deer ears. It's unclear whether the stuff at the corner of Gus' mouth is chocolate or blood. Anchored by the haunting, petrified look in the boy's eyes, what the image says, in no uncertain terms, is "deer in headlights."

It's as apt a description as any of the situation Gus and his father are in at the beginning of the story. The old man is terminally ill—all signs point to radiation poisoning—and there are bounty hunters that lay out candy bars to catch, or shoot, hybrid children. The pair have a log and supplies, but it's obvious that Gus' prospects of survival are getting slimmer with every day he stays in the forest. Dad's only response to this is to wait, pray and read the Bible, in hopes for a better afterlife. Even as he grows sicker and weaker, he keeps imploring his son to stay hidden.

Once Gus disobeys his father by picking up one of the forbidden chocolate bars and taking a bite, the story's vision of a dystopian, post-apocalyptic Garden of Eden comes full tilt. Ultimately, Sweet Tooth is a coming-of-age story that confronts a creature of absolute innocence (a boy who is half man, half deer) with the embodiment of primal fear (hunters, out to get him).

In his editorial, Mr. Lemire, who is best known for his book-length works Essex County and The Nobody, talks about his "quiet, delicate storytelling approach." Indeed, the pacing and panel-to-panel storytelling in Sweet Tooth are very deliberate. For the first two thirds of the book, individual scenes unfold somberly. The page layouts are generous and straightforward, giving the reader a good sense of the world Gus lives in, as it is perceived and felt by Gus.

But the story's greatest strength also shines a light on its greatest flaw. While each scene in the first 13 pages progresses deliberately and without haste, the approach is sabotaged by the fact that there are too many scenes, and they're too short. None of them are longer than two pages, which means that, despite the slow pace within the scenes, the story keeps racing by.

The longest scene is the one which starts on page 15 and continues through the rest of the 22-page debut issue. Given that this is where things begin to get frantic, the overall structure seems out of whack as a result. Shouldn't it be the other way around, with long, spacious scenes establishing the character and his status quo, before a brief, breathless shock leads to the cliffhanger?

Part of the problem may be that there's simply not enough room here to accomplish this type of story. This begs the question why Sweet Tooth wasn't granted more space to begin with. After all, the previous two Vertigo titles promoted with low-priced debut issues got 32 story pages each to kick things off. Sweet Tooth #1 gets 22. As a result, all of it just rushes by when much of it is clearly not meant to. It's a major problem that Mr. Lemire will have to address in future issues.

That said, there's still much to like. Gus is a compelling character, and the story sets him up for a potentially intriguing journey. The pacing issues notwithstanding, Mr. Lemire demonstrates his skill as a storyteller in the way he carefully stages scenes and in the attention he brings to his characters and their world—right down to the buttons of their shirts, in fact, which is not something you find every day.

Grade: B-

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