SPOILER WARNING: This interview contains spoilers for “Sweet Tooth” #1 through #40.
Yesterday, Comic Book Resources presented the first part of a conversation between Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of “Lost” and the co-writer of blockbuster films like “Star Trek,” “Prometheus” and the upcoming “Star Trek Into Darkness” spoke with “Sweet Tooth” creator Jeff Lemire about the finale of Lemire’s critically acclaimed Vertigo title. Over the course of their discussion, the pair discussed a wide range of topics including the power of storytelling, how to end an epic tale and the Obi-Wan Kenobi qualities of Jepperd, the old, grizzled protector and mentor of Gus, the titular “Sweet Tooth” character.
Today, in the second half of their conversation, Lemire and Lindelof continue their discussion of the series, along the way sharing their views on the brilliance of “Six Feet Under,” the final episode of “Lost,” the Jeff Lemire Universe, the concepts of religion and spirituality and the sex appeal of Liam Neeson.
Damon Lindelof: I know you’ve mentioned “The Punisher: The End” by Garth Ennis and Richard Corben as an inspiration in the past but how did the end of other TV shows, movies, comics or graphic novels affect how you handled the end of “Sweet Tooth?” Or absent of that, what endings do you hold up as endings that you really loved? And that is non-inclusive of “Lost,” because if you say you love the ending of “Lost,” I won’t believe you, so let’s just leave that off the table.
Jeff Lemire: First off all, “Lost” is a big inspiration for “Sweet Tooth,” and I’m not just saying that because you are on the phone. It’s funny, because when I was writing and drawing some of the issues right before the Dam story arc, I was re-watching “Lost” on DVD. I watch TV shows while I draw, and I think that was right around the same time we had our Twitter introduction. “Lost” is a huge inspiration for “Sweet Tooth” — the whole idea of a serialized story with a central mystery and how to handle that. I totally ripped off the Dharma Initiative with the people in the Dam and the Evergreen Project.
And the ending to “Lost” was very inspirational to me. It’s hard to have a sincere conversation, because people will just think that I am sucking up to you because we’re on the phone together, and you probably won’t believe me, but I loved the ending of “Lost.” I know not everyone does, but I thought it was perfect and a really beautiful ending. That was really the guide for me, or at least one of the guides for me in the end, for creating an ending that was more concerned with an emotional truth than a big reveal about the mystery.
Another big one was “Six Feet Under,” which is one of my favorite shows. I really, really liked “Six Feet Under.” I just finished watching it again for like the fifth time a week or two ago. The ending of “Six Feet Under,” where they flashforward to all the main characters in the future, was definitely an influence on how to end “Sweet Tooth.”
I can’t think of a particular comic that influenced the ending of “Sweet Tooth.” It was mostly “Six Feet Under” and “Lost.” Those two [shows], really. “The Punisher: The End” was more an inspiration for how Jepperd would look, so that wasn’t really [an influence]. I also really liked the ending of “The Sopranos,” but I don’t think that influenced “Sweet Tooth” all that much.
I don’t want to use the word “emotional” as something that is manipulative or purposeful, but I think it’s something that infuses your writing, whether you like it or not. I think, clearly, that “Six Feet Under” was a show that — Alan Ball very much wove emotion into its tapestry. That’s not to say “The Sopranos” was absent of emotion, but it wasn’t the kind of show where — let’s just say, I am hard pressed to think of any moment of any episode where I said that I cried when I watched “The Sopranos.” Or even, “Wasn’t that sad?” Whereas for “Six Feet Under,” I could name 15 of those moments off the top of my head. A show has to die as it lives in that regard, and I think you did that with “Sweet Tooth.”
Any mistakes? Regrets? Things that you wish you had done differently? Is there a story point or an issue, even artistically speaking, that you would call a do-over on?
As a writer, and as far as the story itself, no, there are not that many regrets. I guess there might be little things here and there, little tweaks, but nothing big. But I am very hard on myself in terms of my drawing. I can’t even look at something I drew a month ago. I see only mistakes. I can’t look at the first trade of “Sweet Tooth.” I just cringe. That’s a tough thing, and a different thing. But from a story point of view, I don’t really have any regrets.
That said, I did reach a point during the first half of the last issue, when Gus and Bobby are grown up with the kids by the campfire and everything, and there was a really serious point there when I thought, maybe I shouldn’t be ending “Sweet Tooth.” Maybe there is a whole other series of these characters at that age. I actually considered calling my editor and asking if we could end “Sweet Tooth” here and then bring it back as “Sweet Tooth,” Vol. 2, a brand new series based on them at that age. It would inevitably lead to the ending that I had in mind anyway! What stopped me was that no matter what I did with Sweet Tooth and his kids, it would just be repeating what I did with Sweet Tooth and Jepperd. I just didn’t want to let go. I had to stop myself from doing that.
That’s great, and I’m glad that you did that. I did have a question planned for near the end, but now that you mentioned it, I will ask you a version of that question. Is this a world you would ever want to revisit? You’ve told the story of these characters, but generationally speaking, does finding nooks and crannies that you haven’t explored before, does that interest you at all?
You never say never. I’m sure you know that. When you finish something, you think you’ll never come back to it, but 10 years from now, I may get some brilliant idea that I just fall in love with revolving around [Gus’] grandchildren, totally unique from what I have already done and something that I really want to tell. But at this point, I feel like this ending was exactly what I wanted and I can’t see myself returning to the world. Again, I feel like I would just be repeating themes and the same stories that I’ve already told, just with a different generation, which seems pointless.
I want to talk a little bit about the world, because I certainly had this experience when I was growing up and reading Stephen King’s books, where there is nothing that precluded them from happening in the same world. Obviously, when you read “The Stand,” everybody dies, but I think “The Stand” is significant to the point that I am going to try and make.
Books that [King] wrote subsequent to “The Stand” can’t be happening if the superflu basically killed everybody. But then he started writing the Gunslinger books. He had been writing them for quite some time, and he started really tying some of those worlds together. And I will say that, to the exclusion of your DC books, which are based on an entirely different continuity and are not drawn by you, the books that are the “Lemire” books, the “Essex County” trilogy and “Sweet Tooth” and “The Underwater Welder” — though “The Underwater Welder” has a supernatural subtext to it, it’s not overtly supernatural — it does feel like they all take place in the same world. I wonder if you view it that way when you’re writing them?
Yeah, they do. They all do. I kind of alluded to it as much in an earlier issue, when Gus and Jepperd basically find Lester’s bedroom from “Essex County.”
Oh yeah, right.
It can’t really be Lester’s bedroom, because they are in Nebraska and “Essex County” is supposed to be in Essex County, but it really kind of is. [Laughs] In my mind, yes, it is all the same universe. I don’t know if it’s actually all been connected like a “Dark Tower” kind of thing, but definitely, I always feel like they are people existing in the same world. Jepperd probably played hockey against Jimmy at one point.
It’s interesting, because I read “Essex County” after “Sweet Tooth.” I don’t remember exactly where I was in the continuing story of “Sweet Tooth” when I was reading “Essex County,” because “Essex County” is a deep read so I didn’t do it all in one sitting. I was reading them both simultaneously, but I was getting that feeling, because you have a specific mood when you do that you thing you do. This is a nice segue into my next question, which is one of the things that I think is very unique to what you do, which is that everything has a very deep thematic resonance without ever openly talking about it. Even though inside “Essex County,” one of the stories might be about imagination and another one might be about regret, or “The Underwater Welder” may be more specific in terms of saying, “This is about fatherhood and the fear of becoming a father and the fear of becoming your own father.” I felt this tense thematic resonance hanging around “Sweet Tooth,” too. Then, there is this scene in #40 where they are about to eat this rabbit and Gus recites this amazing prayer, which kind of sums up the entire series beautifully, and he does it in a way where he is saying, “Here is the mythology of the series.” But actually, he’s talking entirely about theme. I’m curious, can you talk a little bit about writing that speech?
I think you’re going to be very disappointed in my answer. It’s one of those things that just kind of came out. It’s not ’til after, when you go back and re-read, when you understand the resonance that it has. But yes, it did sum up the series quite well.
I’m the opposite of disappointed — I love it. It goes to what I just said: It’s kind of effortless for you. You’re not trying to hit us over the head with it.
I don’t want it to sound like it’s so easy for me or whatever. But I will say that, when I am writing, I’m not often aware of what the themes are in that kind of way, until much later or until someone else starts talking about the book. For me, it is a much more organic or natural thing. It sounds silly, but I’m just writing stories and letting characters talk. I figure out what the book is about as they do, as it goes along. I don’t sit down and say, “The themes of this project will be…”
But again, I don’t remember everything that he says and I don’t have it right in front of me. I am paraphrasing and thusly butchering your words, but he says that everything bad that happened is a result of the fact that we’ve lost the faces of our fathers and mankind has lost touch with their natural symbiosis. That’s how we got to where we are, but now, when we’re eating these animals, they are us and we are them so we’re basically thanking the gods and remembering the faces of our fathers.
But we look like man, too, so we can’t forget about the mess that they fucking got us into. And that’s our cross to bear. And I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s what this book is about.” It had never really occurred to me directly, but you couching it as a grace, I thought that was very clever. The fact that you didn’t put that much thought into it makes me want to hit you with a brick.
[Laughs] Obviously, I did the Thacker story and the stuff at the end, but I’ve been reading a lot of Native American or First Nations literature and I think a lot of that has been seeping into my work, the second half of “Sweet Tooth” especially. Really, a lot of that stuff comes from the idea of returning to nature.
For me, “Sweet Tooth” #40 was really about finding a better way of living and not making the same mistakes.
This is a great segue for the other thing that I wanted to talk to you about, which is, I think there has been a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff out there, probably for the last three decades or so. You’ve talked about “Mad Max” being an inspiration for this, but especially now, in the pop culture landscape, beyond the silliness of the Mayan apocalypse and all that stuff, shows like “Walking Dead” and “Revolution” are really connecting with audiences. One of the keystones of the apocalypse in these stories is that they are a cautionary tale. I guess what I want to ask you is, now that you’ve written “Sweet Tooth,” I’m curious: Do you, the individual Jeff, buy into this? I mean, where is mankind in 50 to 100 years? Do we deserve to be the dominant species? “Sweet Tooth” seems to say no.
I don’t think we do. I feel like the reason post-apocalyptic stuff is so popular right now, and maybe I am wrong, but I feel it’s because we all look around and see what a fucking mess the world is in, and the terrible things that we’re doing to one another. We know what’s coming — and it may be some variation of this. It might not be cool and dramatic like “Walking Dead” or “Sweet Tooth,” but we’re not heading in a good direction. We see that, and maybe these types of stories provide a little escape.
But yes, for me, I really feel like we’re fucking up right now. And yes, that’s what “Sweet Tooth” is basically about. I don’t hide that at all. I think we’ve messed up, and I think it’s too late. I know that’s a sadistic thing to say, but at the end of the day, if things are getting so bad and they’re only going to get worse, what do we have? What we really have is each other, and that’s also what’s “Sweet Tooth” is about. I guess that’s just how I feel about the world.
I couldn’t agree with you more.
You were talking about where you took some of these issues, particularly in the back half of the series, and their connection to certain Native American spirituality. I’d written this question before you talked about it, but I am interested in going a little bit deeper. “Sweet Tooth” is obviously a spiritual book, and it uses religious themes regularly from the outset, in terms of what Gus’ relationship is to his father who is taking care of him at the cabin. But is this something that you do consciously? Because I do feel like, especially now, and speaking from personal experience while working on “Lost,” I actually believe the world is a lot more religious than it wants to take credit for. In our particular pop culture sphere and the comic book sphere and the genre television sphere, it’s very unpopular to say that you are a religious person, or that you have spiritual beliefs. Where you are on the religious spectrum? I know it’s a very personal question, but how do you use it in your work?
Well, I think it’s a big part of everything that I do. I was raised in a Roman Catholic home and church. It was a really big part of my upbringing, but I don’t know if I ever felt comfortable with it. My parents are very, very religious and very into that stuff, but as soon as I got away from home, when I was 19, I just completely separated myself from any kind of religion because I didn’t really believe in organized ideas of Christianity. At the same time, I think I am spiritual in the way that I do believe in something; I just don’t know what it is, exactly.
I think “Sweet Tooth” and whatever else I’m working on right now, in large part, it’s all probably about me looking around at different things in different ways as a reaction to me not buying into the religion that I was raised in.
Right. It’s a reaction to, as opposed to an endorsement of.
Exactly. It’s more of me looking for some sort of, like all of us, spirituality or some sort of greater meaning when you don’t really believe in the thing that you were raised with anymore. You’re looking for a common thread of many different religions, which we kind of draw from.
What’s so interesting to me about that sort of disconnect between what I would view as a comic book-consuming audience and their sort of rejection of religion or that idea is how those entire worlds and the whole construct of a superhero is so mythic. It skews, obviously, much closer to Greco-Roman mythology, where you’ve got the God of the Sun and the God of the Earth and the God of the Underworld, but all of those figures are represented in these stories. The only difference is that we just don’t believe they’re real.
But a good story is a good story, right? The Bible is a perennial bestseller for a reason. [Laughs] I’d like to see you adapt it one of these days.
[Laughs] I’m working on it right now.
I can’t wait to see how you end that one. [Laughs]
Speaking of story, again, the words “This is a story” become almost like a song lyric in this final issue. They’re the first words and the last words. As you’ve said, you knew what was going to happen, but did you know that those words were going to become such a huge motif or did that kind of surprise you?
If I look at my original outlines that I have for “Sweet Tooth,” or my original pitch, that was always there, and it even repeated at the end. Originally, that came from the idea that, in some of the earlier issues, there were stories about the deer and the rabbit that were following him around, the Disney kind of characters. Then I did those couple of issues where they were sideways format — those were supposed to feel like children’s books or whatever, so the idea was that this book is about stories and then maybe they were part of a bigger story, too. That was always a part of it. Gus’ stories are informing the next generation after that. It just seemed to flow through everything and then, it sets up the last, the end, of course. It just seemed like the best way to end it.
I have to close by asking some obvious questions, because if I don’t, someone else will, and if I don’t ask them, readers will say, “How can you not have asked him…?” We’ve already asked one, which is, would you ever consider revisiting this world, but the second one is about the adaptation of “Sweet Tooth.” Where is “Sweet Tooth” in those terms? Has it been optioned? Would you prefer it to be a movie or a TV show or neither? Do you want it just to live in the form in which you created it?
It’s a tricky question, and I’ll try to answer it in a way that won’t get me in trouble with DC, but when you do a book for Vertigo, the contracts get kind of complicated. Warner Bros. controls the properties more than a book that I might have done for, let’s say, Top Shelf. So in terms of being optioned, it’s a lot harder for that to happen because of Vertigo’s contracts than I would like, maybe. There’s a lot of interest, but it’s very complicated so it hasn’t been optioned yet.
But yes, I would love to see it adapted. I think maybe more as a movie than a TV show. I think it could be really boiled down to the original idea I had, which was that the first 10 or 11 issues of the series could almost be the whole movie or the whole series. Everything else could be cut out. I just don’t have the luxury of sitting around and thinking about that happening because it’s out of my control, really.
I have some friends over at Warner Bros. Features, so I’ll crack the whip and make sure they get working on it. [Laughs]
[Laughs] That would be great. Have you seen “The Grey” with Liam Neeson?
I have, yes.
After seeing that, I can’t imagine anyone else playing Jepperd except for Liam Neeson now.
That would be awesome. He’d be fantastic. I actually love that movie. That movie is not at all what I expected but, spoiler alert on “The Grey,” when I ask people if they’ve seen that movie, and they go, “Is that the one where Liam Neeson makes the glove with the glass on it and he’s punching wolves?” I go, “Would you be surprised if I told you that shot was the last 40 seconds of the movie?” They always look at me, like, “What?” And I’m like, “You need to see it, because it’s not the movie that you think it is.”
It doesn’t surprise me that you liked that movie. I saw that movie with Michael Giacchino, who did all the music for “Lost,” and I’ll say, because I don’t want to be arrested, that we were under the influence, and we ended up talking for two hours afterwards about the meaning of life and how fleeting it is and how much we wanted to have sex with Liam Neeson even though we’re both straight men. But we could still be straight because it’s Liam Neeson. [Laughs]
Since we’re now clearly delving into more comedic territory, I do have one final question for you. I read “Sweet Tooth” monthly, but I also get the trades so I have it as a reference material, because I don’t keep individual issues or my house would be overwhelmed by comic books. I remember seeing one of the trades and Jason Aaron had been blurbed on it, who in addition to you and Brian Vaughan are part of my holy trinity of comic writers right now. Not to say that there aren’t other guys like Mark Millar, who I have just loved forever, but Jason said something along the lines of, “I would crawl over broken glass to read this.” [Laughs] And I was just wondering, is there any way to put him through the test?
That’s a really good question. [Laughs] Let me send him an e-mail!
“Sweet Tooth” #40, the series finale, is on sale now.
CBR News would like to thank Jeff Lemire and Damon Lindelof for their time in presenting this feature