Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sweet Tooth – Scratching out the new world

Occasionally, comic companies actually come up with a decent way to try to hook readers into a new series that might be otherwise overlooked, and Vertigo’s habit of issuing the first issue of a comic at a stripped-down price has worked for me.

It’s certainly better than slapping a few random pages in the back of unrelated books and hoping for the best. While some of these previews have actually looked interesting, many of them are still for hardback comics that cost more than eighty bucks around here. The hell with that.

Without this financial hook of a $1 #1, Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth would have been one of those series that passed me by. One I could have picked up cheap some years down the line. But there wasn’t much else that looked like fun the week #1 came out, and I gave it a chance, and enjoyed it enough to keep on getting it.

And this proved to be pretty fortunate, because it keeps getting richer. It plays up to cliché just enough to subvert it and doesn’t look like anything else Vertigo publishes with its scratchy and idiosyncratic style, even under the traditional and official company colour tones of Brown and Even More Brown

Sweet Tooth has a typical apocalyptic vibe. When society has broken down, everybody does what was expected of them, and there is brutality and violence. (Although nothing quite as brutal as some of the recent events in another comic Armageddon - The Walking Dead. The hardness the heroes have to show in that comic just to survive is fucking harsh.)

But there are also a couple of nice twists that make the series worth following. The lead character – poor old Gus – has been relentlessly pushed around by the cruel hand of fate since issue one, and remains a skinny, awkward presence. There is still humour in Gus’ sheer gormlessness, but the thing that makes the comic worthwhile is the fact that he is learning all about the world real quick, and is already adapting. A passive character can be hard to handle, but a passive character who learns to take things into their own hands is always a story worth telling.

It’s just going to take a while to get there. The plot is taking a while to get to a point, and after a year, a lot of the comic still feels like set-up Some points are dragged out again and again - the idea that Gus isn’t a by-product of the virus that wiped out the world, but the cause of it, has been hammered into the ground several times over, and some sort of refutation or confirmation either way would be nice.

While it is moving towards a definite bloody and violent end, this means the comic is sometimes dragged down by predictable beats – the moment a character breathlessly declares they’re pregnant can be seen coming a trade paperback ago

But that’s all part of the charm of this new post-apocalyptic ride. Sweet Tooth is a fun and scary comic that is promising to go to strange, new places. It’s not essential or important, but that’s what makes it so enjoyable. It has a B-movie sensibility, which means long stretches of quiet, followed by intense bursts of action.

One of the funny things about buying Sweet Tooth is the fact that even though I do genuinely enjoy Lemire’s work on the title, there is absolutely no compunction to seek out his superhero comic work. It wasn’t that long ago that the thought of a notable creator like that on a beloved character like The Atom would have had me jizzing my pants, especially if it was teamed up with brand new issues of the Legion of Super Heroes by Paul bloody Levitz, but now I couldn’t care less, because it’s all part of this big massive mess that lost me long ago. Not only has the last decade of DC comics made that superhero universe toxic to my tastes, the house style of stale fourth-generation Jim Lee clones covered up with over-shined effects is just so bland and off-putting, it’s hard to imagine how anybody could ever be tempted.

Compared to that, Sweet Tooth is a beautiful little slice of idiosyncrasy, and that’s always something worth keeping an eye on. Even though its look shares a scratchy aesthetic with a number of current Vertigo titles, Lemire’s art still has a lovely individual style. It really doesn’t look like anything else the company does.

It’s also not trying to be too clever, or too mind-warping, or too bloody faerie, it’s just doing its own thing, with the specific focus of a single creator that no writer/artist combo can ever replicate. It’s Lemire’s story, and he can take it where he wants, and make it look any way he chooses. He can experiment, like in the recent issue of Gus’ silent treatment balanced against the dry diagnosis of the end of the world at the bottom of the page.

And even better, there are all sorts of deeper levels laid into the tale, especially about the harsh changes of nature. Sweet Tooth is set after an apocalypse that has wiped out most of humanity, but it’s not about the end of the world, it’s the start of a new one. It’s a matter of history: tearing it down and start all over again is often the first way to get anywhere new, and Sweet Tooth is full of new mutants – new people – who are greeted with fear by the old, but are showing the way to the future.

It’s a harsh new world that Lemire shows in all its scratchy discomfort, but the possibility of genuine change means Sweet Tooth is easy on the taste buds.

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