SPOILER WARNING: This interview contains spoilers for “Sweet Tooth” #1 through #40.
This week, Jeff Lemire’s Vertigo series “Sweet Tooth” comes to a climactic close with the release of its 40th issue. Conceived, written and drawn by the Canadian cartoonist, “Sweet Tooth” tells the heartbreakingly heroic tale of a hybrid — a young boy with deer antlers — named Gus, who endures an awesome post-apocalyptic journey from Nebraska to Alaska with a mountain of man named Jepperd, who is as savage as our hero is innocent.
Another fervent supporter of “Sweet Tooth” is Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of “Lost” and the co-writer of blockbuster films like “Star Trek,” “Cowboys & Aliens,” “Prometheus” and the upcoming “Star Trek Into Darkness.”
Lindelof openly praised the series on Twitter shortly after its debut, and he and Lemire quickly became friends, eventually collaborating on short stories for DC Comics’ digital series “Legends of the Dark Knight” and the upcoming science fiction anthology “Time Warp” from Vertigo.
While his work on “Sweet Tooth,” in part, landed Lemire regular work as a writer for DC Comics on titles like “Animal Man,” “Justice League Dark” and “Green Arrow,” the Eisner-nominated creator still makes time for personal projects, including last year’s “The Underwater Welder” from Top Shelf Productions, which included a foreword by Lindelof.
CBR asked Lemire and Lindelof if they’d be interested in having a conversation about “Sweet Tooth.”The two were up for the idea, and the resulting discussion covered the series’ overarching themes and principles while reflecting on the life and death of the main character, Gus. We thank Lindelof for agreeing to put on his CBR News hat for a day and conducting this interview!
Damon Lindelof: I will start by saying that I read the final issue yesterday, and I’ve read it a couple of times since. I don’t want this to take on the sort of cold, antiseptic feeling of objective journalist interviewing subject ,because this is the opposite of what this is, but Jeff, you know that I’ve been a huge fan of “Sweet Tooth” — it was actually the first thing that I read of yours and it became a portal to all of your other stuff that preceded and the stuff that followed it — so it was obviously an emotionally fraught process just getting the final issue and reading it on my computer as opposed to having a physical copy in my hands, but I just thought that it was perfect.
Really, the whole Dam storyline was tacked on in the middle to expand the story into the 40-issue range. So yes, it went through various versions, the overall story, but that last issue was always going to be the ending.
You can probably understand this from “Lost” — “Sweet Tooth” was never about the secret of how the hybrid children came to be or the secret of what the plague was or any of that stuff. That was all way down on my priority list. It was always about where Gus ended up, and the characters ended up. Much like you did on “Lost,” revealing the secret of the plague and all that was never really something that I cared all that much about. It was more of a plot device to keep certain characters, mostly Dr. Singh, in the mix.
That being said, and I want to ask you about that a little later, I do feel like the way you handled that mythology. Detouring and doing the period Thacker story in its entirety, was really clever and something that I thought was ballsy and gutsy at the time that I was reading it. I also feel like the series as a whole would be diminished if that wasn’t there.
If they just went to Alaska and found the empty casket and the journal and you had two pages to explain it. “Here’s what happened here…” But by grounding it in one guy’s emotional journey, it felt like it was grafted into the larger tale and it became really integral to the storytelling as opposed to filler.
I think it’s funny, because the whole Thacker flashback story was never something I had in mind at all. That was never a part of any of my original plans. That really came about because I had to finish “The Underwater Welder” and I just didn’t have time. It was really stressing me out, because my monthly book was taking up all the time that I really needed, obviously, so my editor Mark Doyle and I started thinking of ways that I could build in some time where I could take three or four months to work on “The Underwater Welder.” We came up with this idea of Matt Kindt drawing some issues.
My thought was that if Matt was going to draw something, I should kind of remove it somehow from the main storyline just because I would have felt weird having someone else drawing the main storyline. It kind of came out of that. But like you said, as soon as I started writing it, I realized, “Oh, my God. This is so important to the overall story.” I can’t imagine what it would have been without it, now, and how I would have revealed stuff in Alaska without it. It really was crucial, like you said, but it was one of those things that came about organically out of need really.
It’s so interesting that you say that, because I think that whatever is going on in a creator’s life when they are bringing a story like this to a close directly impacts the way that they do it. It’s not just what they’re thinking or doing or reading or if they just had a kid or if they’re going through a divorce. Those things are obviously usually impactful, but just the sheer magnitude of what their creative life is and the other projects that they’re working on and how much workload that puts on their shoulders — the audience never takes any of that into account. It’s like, “Okay, Kerri Strug: You’ve sprained your ankle, but you better do this vault because it’s the Olympics. We have an expectation.” It’s a wonderful story in hindsight, if you get the gold. But if she doesn’t, nobody says, “Well, she did sprain her ankle.”
This is my roundabout way of saying, in spite of the sheer workload on “The Underwater Welder,” it being as magnificent as it is, in addition to all the other DC books that you were doing as [“Sweet Tooth”] was wrapping up, it never feels like you neglected any of your children along the way, which is pretty extraordinary. So again, well done.
It is tough balancing different things. I’m sure you know that, too. It honestly doesn’t take that long to write an issue of “Animal Man” or “Green Arrow.” Once it’s plotted out, it takes maybe a day or two to write one of those scripts, whereas drawing an issue of “Sweet Tooth” takes three or four weeks. I always spend more time with that book. I would catch myself some days, going through the motions a bit when I was drawing it, and I would always try to catch myself and make sure my priorities were in line and become reinvested in the book in some way.
It’s not like you’re just writing a script for “Sweet Tooth” for three or four months and moving on to the next project. It was a three or four-year thing, so I fell in and out of love with it a few times. I got sick of it a few times, but always managed to come back fresh in different ways. That’s why I think when I took that break in the middle, with Matt coming on, it was a really good thing for me creatively, where I could come back and have fresh eyes. It reinvigorated me in a lot of ways.
Awesome. I was reading this interview with Vince Gilligan this morning. Do you watch “Breaking Bad”?
Well, he’s basically in the process of writing their final three episodes., and they are asking him a lot of the same questions that I am sure you are being asked — some of which I will have to ask, because people want to know the answers to them, which I will dodge, because I hated being asked them myself. [Laughs]
He was kind of quoting Henry Mancini, the composer, in saying that whether these are movies — or long-form sagas, in the case of “Sweet Tooth” — they should have a certain degree of inevitably around them. There is comfort in embracing the obvious. It’s not really about twists and turns at this point.
I guess the question buried in all this is, you said you’ve known that this was the ending, but along the way, did you ever consider aberrating from that or changing it or even maybe having someone who was originally going to make it, not make it?
Not really. I think it’s exactly like you said, where you get to the end of something and the readers have been with you for a long time and you’ve been with the story for a long time. Almost ever story can be boiled down to a couple sentences when you ask, what is it about?
I think “Sweet Tooth” is about Gus and Jepperd. It’s about Gus coming of age, and it’s about Jepperd learning to love again and opening his heart again. That’s what the book is about, so that’s what the ending should be about. To throw in a big twist would be false. As far as the idea that someone might make it that didn’t or vice versa, I pretty much stuck with everything that I had planned. The only thing, and this is a spoiler, but my original plan was that Gus would end up with Becky, the human girl, and not Wendy. But I realized as I got closer to the end that people really wanted to see Gus and Wendy together. Plus, I really wanted to draw little kids with pig noses and antlers. [Laughs]
But it feels like you gave us our cake and let us eat it, too, because there is this moment where he’s asked, “Are you going to tell them about Becky?” And Gus acknowledges, “No, I’m not going to complicate things. They really only have one mom.” And then, in just a number of panels, you very briefly kind of show us — if the story that you’re telling is that human life is coming to an end and the plague is still out there — the original ending, so I feel like we got both.
Thanks. I wanted to make sure that you had that moment where you know he had this thing with Becky, but in the long run, it was about this new race of creatures and humans were going away.
Is it the idea that his older son, Tommy, is his son with Wendy and his younger son, Richard, is his and Becky’s?
That’s not a question that I would like to answer. I know in my mind what the answer is, but…
Good, because I don’t want to know.
[Laughs] It’s just one of those fun things that you don’t answer.
They’re fun for a while until somebody gets really, really angry about it! But I stand by your decision. Sorry, I can’t help but put my fanboy cap on and speculate.
Just to get off-plot for a second, because I think we’ll weave in and out of that, one of the things that was sort of a recurring talking point for, whenever I heard you talking about “Sweet Tooth” or read you speaking about it, is this idea of Gus’ journey and this notion of innocence. Starting him in this very innocent, literally sheltered place, and we are going to take him out of this place as he’s exposed to Jepperd. What was always really cool about Jepperd, in the Joseph Campbellian myth-making style, is that he is the mentor. He’s Obi-Wan. He’s the one that shows Gus how the world works. But he’s not Obi-Wan. He’s not Mr. Miyagi. [He has] this very grizzled, savage approach to the world, which actually kind of turns out to be right. It saves Gus a number of times.
In “Sweet Tooth” #40, there is a time lapse, and we are reintroduced to Gus and he is very Jepperd-like in many ways. But there are a couple of turns in the issue where we learn that he hasn’t become totally and completely savage like Jepperd. There is still compassion there. I’m curious if you’re saying — when we meet him at the beginning of the story in “Sweet Tooth” #1, Gus is totally innocent, he’s tabula rasa. Where is he at the end?
To me, at the outset, Gus is a total innocent and Jepperd is a total savage. As the book goes on, as they’re exposed to one another, they both start going the other way. At the end, Gus becomes the best of both of them. He becomes a hybrid of what he was at the beginning and what Jepperd was. He’s just enough of each to survive, and he’s better than each of them on their own. He has the parts of Jepperd he needs to survive and he needs to lead this new breed and help them survive, but he also has those important things that he’s always had that make him better than mankind, which is his innocence and his heart — an ability to love people and let them in, which Jepperd couldn’t always do.
I feel like you articulated that really beautifully with Buddy. Taking these ideas, it’s easy for characters to espouse philosophy, but you have to choose representatives to carry the water of different ideas and that was one of the big surprises of the book for me, was Buddy. “Oh right, of course — he’s here too.” The fact that he had become more representative of being war-like and conflict-driven in terms of his attitude and approach to man, which makes absolute and total sense if you were Buddy, because he really didn’t have Jepperd as an active, ongoing participant in his life.
I think, clearly, that he was resenting Gus for that because Gus got the father that he was supposed to have.
Sure, and then there is this very powerful moment where Buddy is about to be killed for going to war, for taking on this group of humans, and Gus comes riding in to save him. And it says, something along the line of, “But they were brothers.” There’s that idea of looking after someone that you fundamentally disagree with was really powerful without being preachy.
Like I said, Gus is the best of everything, so he would be so forgiving of that. With everything that happened to Buddy, he would see a reason why. And he would overlook that. He would always be there. And also he would be because that’s what Jepperd asked him to do in “Sweet Tooth” #39.
That’s good that you thought that and bought that cover. [Laughs] Because, again, I don’t think there was ever a period where I even considered killing Gus off.
“Make sure you take care of Buddy, no matter what.”
When you first started talking about the ending of “Sweet Tooth,” you were asked if you were going to give it a happy ending. And your answer was some version of: “No comment.” And I remember when I read that, thinking, “Oh, no. Terrible, terrible things are going to happen.” Now that everybody has read it, can you answer that question? It is a yes or no question but can you answer it now?
Yes. For me, it’s a very happy ending. At least to me it is. When I was writing it, it was very joyous kind of ending. I felt like all the bad things that happened and the ringer that you put the characters through for 39 issues, it would be pointless and just cruel to have that be the way that it ends without a reason, without a greater purpose. To me, it’s probably the happiest ending I’ve ever put on a book. [Laughs] To me, the last page is really happy.
Speaking of unhappy, you’ve said you’ve always known where this was going, you’ve known what this last issue was, and again, circling back to the inevitability idea, it always felt like Jepperd was not going to make it. It always felt like he had to die in order for Gus to sort evolve to sort of move forward. Even knowing, from the word go, that Jepperd is not going to make it, can you just talk about, a little bit, what it was like emotionally to draw those specific pages from the story when he died?
It’s tough. I always knew he was going to die but I also always knew I was going to miss that character — drawing him and being with him on a day-to-day basis. It’s pretty emotional when you draw things like that. When you draw that last page, it’s really hard and really weird thinking that would be the last time I draw Jepperd in any meaningful way other than pinups or commissions for people at shows.
For me, I worried a bit at the end that I’d made Jepperd too soft. I didn’t know if I went too far. There is always that worry. We’ll see. One thing that did change in the last issue was that in the last couple pages of “Sweet Tooth” #40, Jepperd was never going to be on those pages until right before I did them but I realized that he needed to have a presence in that last issue. The book needed to end in some way with Gus and Jepperd together, even in a symbolic way.
We’ll get to that choice because obviously, I found it incredibly moving. It’s similar to the kind of spiritual inevitability of a life and what happens when a life ends, reuniting with other lives that impacted it, etc. But I will say that when I went into the comic book store and saw the cover of “Sweet Tooth” #39, and kind of knowing you and knowing the kind of story teller that you are, and it has Jepperd clutching a piece of Gus’ shirt and there is blood all around — the feeling in my heart was that this had to be a mislead — I thought you actually had the balls to kill Gus.
As inevitable as it felt to me that Jepperd was going to die, I was so sure but when I saw that cover, I felt like, “Oh my god. This could go the other way entirely.” And what a rare thing that is to be feeling, one issue away from the end of a story that you’re dealing with as an artist and a writer that is willing to go into that territory. I guess I want to make sure that everyone reading this doesn’t think that I had it all figured out.
That was never really an option for me. I did consider killing Bobby at one point, but I thought everyone would have hated me.
I wouldn’t have hated you. I would have strongly disliked you but it would have passed.
“Sweet Tooth” #40 is available now.
Come back soon for the second part of Lemire and Lindelof’s discussion of all things “Sweet Tooth,” the series finale of “Six Feet Under,” the existence of a Lemire Universe and much more.