Lemire Checks Up on "Sweet Tooth"

Jeff Lemire's wildly unconventional imagination has taken him to new heights in his home and native land of Canada as the indie creator's first major graphic novel," Essex County" was recently selected as one of the Top 5 Essential Novels of the Past Decade in a special tenth anniversary edition of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's annual literature competition, Canada Reads.

And while going back and reading "Essex County" is a must if you haven't read it, every month you can join Lemire on his latest adventure, his post-apocalyptic parable, "Sweet Tooth" from Vertigo Comics.

The story focuses on a nine-year old boy with antlers named Gus - one of world's rare new breed of animal/human hybrids - and shifts beautifully panel to panel and page to page featuring moments that could have just as easily been depicted in Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and Lucy Maud Montgomery's "Anne of Green Gables." 

With "Sweet Tooth" Vol. 2 in stores this week, CBR News checked in with Lemire to see what lies ahead for Gus and Jepperd, the man who delivered our young friend to a militant group of scientists and survivalists at the end of the first collected trade paperback.

Lemire also shared his excitement in regards to the positive reaction his and Pier Gallo's first issue of "Superboy" received last month and revealed that his Ray Palmer co-feature, which currently ended its run in "Adventure Comics" will be wrapped up in a forthcoming 46-page special.

CBR News: Before we dig into Sweet Tooth, you had some pretty exciting news last week about "Essex County" and the Canada Reads competition.

Jeff Lemire: It's pretty exciting. It's actually been a bigger deal than I thought it would be just in terms of the attention the book is getting again. It's pretty cool.

I hate to put too much pressure on you, but what do you think this kind of recognition means to the comic book industry as a whole?

A lot of the discussions and interviews I've had since the announcement seem to be less about me speaking about my specific book and my work and more of me kind of acting as a spokesperson for the legitimacy of graphic novels and comic books, which is cool. I think it's one of those things where the mainstream book audience suddenly becomes aware that comics are something different than they thought they were. "Essex County" is going to end up being the first graphic novel that a lot of people end up reading, which is flattering and stuff but it comes with some pressure, because now I feel like a spokesperson speaking for the medium. [Laughs]

With all the attention and buzz surrounding "Essex County," have you considered returning to that universe and telling some more stories?

No, no. That's done. I'm such a different person now than when I did those books, even three or four years ago, and I've changed so much. I don't think I could go back and recapture the feeling now. Plus, I just feel once I finish a project, it's kind of done, you know what I mean? So no, I don't feel the need to go back and explore it or anything. I'm busy with my current projects. I'm always trying to move forward, so I don't think I'll ever go back to it.

And that's a great segue to "Sweet Tooth." Do you think the Canada Reads buzz will translate to more interest in your critically-acclaimed Vertigo series?

I don't know. I wonder. I think the people that are going to be interested in Canada Reads are more of a mainstream book audience, so I don't think it's going to be the type of audience that's going to go and start seeking out my other comics or buying my other comics. But we'll see. I guess time will tell.

In Vol. 2 of "Sweet Tooth," which is out this week, Gus really starts to take on some of the characteristics of a traditional leading man or action hero. He bites one of his captors and he's become a leader amongst the other hybrids in captivity. He certainly isn't the naïve little boy we met in "Sweet Tooth" #1 anymore. Is it bittersweet watching him grow up and become a hero?

For me, I don't know if it's a positive thing. I don't know if he's becoming a hero, per se. What it really is, is him becoming more and more like Jepperd. He's slowly losing that innocence, the way we all do when we grow up. When we leave childhood behind, we lose that kind of innocence. More than anything, it's that. It's losing his innocence and these other kids that are younger than him are pushing responsibility upon him. He's maybe becoming harder and more like Jepperd, and I don't know if that is necessarily going to be a positive journey. That's something that time will tell.

In looking at the way you draw Gus, while he is still very much a sweet-faced character, it certainly appears in some very specific scenes of Vol. 2 that he has a harder look to him. Is that something you've consciously done artistically to physically show that transformation?

Yeah, definitely. Depending on the scene and just in general, he's maturing. His face is becoming more angular and maybe harder and less rounded. He's aging, and we'll continue to see that. Another thing to keep an eye on is his antlers. They're going to start to grow, as well. Really, the book is about both him and Jepperd growing and changing. I think people will find it interesting what I do to represent that. So yes, that's definitely something I was conscience of in Vol. 2 and even more so in the third volume.

To recap, at the end of Vol. 1, Jepperd delivers Gus to the Sanctuary where Gus thinks he is going to be safe, but in reality, it's a military compound where Gus is going to be studied and dissected with other hybrids, so he's not very safe at all. Also, that first volume was very much a road movie, with Jepperd and Gus sharing virtually every scene. In Vol. 2, Jepperd has left the Sanctuary, is off on his own personal crusade and the stories of these two characters are told separately, yet it still feels very much connected.

Yes. I was conscientiously juxtaposing their stories. Even though they're not together, they're very much on the same path, and on a path to unite at some point. That's kind of obvious. But it's a matter of who they will be when they see each other. They're going to be very different than they were when they last saw each other. I don't want to give anything away because that's the story that's actually coming out in the next issue. We'll see them unite, finally, but it might not be the happy reunion that most people will want to see.

It's interesting, because as we learn more about these two characters, it appears Gus is perhaps becoming more like Jepperd while Jepperd is moving closer to Gus.

Absolutely. We see them both becoming a little more like the other as the book goes on. Originally, Gus was just this wide-eyed, completely innocent, naïve kind of character and Jepperd was the ultimate embodiment of everything that's been sort of ruined and lost in this post-apocalyptic world. All he really knew was lost and all Gus really knew was that you still need hope. So as these two stories progress, Jepperd kind of softens a bit, and when he does explode into violence, he's more focused on protecting Gus rather than just protecting himself. Likewise, you see Gus becoming a bit more resourceful and a bit cleverer than when he first appeared. There are things, like the way he protects the other kids. He's actually quite capable of taking care of himself more than when he first appeared.

In the same way that you are playing these two main characters off of one another, there are also some pretty major swings between light and dark overtones in the story. On one page, you're telling a tender love story about Jepperd and his wife, on the next page, Jepperd is smashing someone in the face with the heel of his boot. Is it difficult to switch that violence on and off?

No, it's not hard. It's kind of those different flavors in the book that keep you fresh. If you were hitting just one note all the time, say action and violence, it would get pretty boring for me and for the reader. And likewise, if I was doing the quieter, sweeter moments with the kids, it really wouldn't hold the reader's attention. So to me, the core to what makes the book work is matching the mystery/action/genre elements of the book with quieter moments like that.

A character that I've really enjoyed is Dr. Singh. Can you speak about the role he plays in the greater mythos of "Sweet Tooth?" He's introduced as a scientist the reader should find despicable for what he's doing, but we find in later issues that he's not a terrible person at all, he's just someone who is knee deep in a terrible circumstance.

I love that character. A lot. For me, it was always Jepperd's and Gus's book, but Singh was a close third in terms of main characters. He's a character who definitely has a journey as the book goes on. What I wanted to do, with both him and Jepperd, was kind of introduce a character that, in both cases are almost like stereotypes of characters you might see in a science fiction movie. Jepperd is the big action hero, the grizzled kind of guy. Dr. Singh is kind of the mad scientist guy. But you need to play off those expectations of both of those archetypes. Instead of them being these two-dimensional stereotypes, they both quickly become something else. Singh is set up to be this ominous presence, this mad scientist guy, but you quickly realize he's not that at all. He's really is just trying to help people but is forced to do terrible things. His end goal is really just saving what's left of the human race. He's by no means an evil person. And if you're reading the book monthly, you'll already see that he's changing even more. He's a man of science and logic and he's basically becoming a man who is wrapped in the mythology and the religion that Gus's father had laid out. He's starting to turn away from science, which hasn't given him any answers yet. So that's going to be an interesting thing to watch. That character is going to change probably more than any other as the book goes.

I really like the pages where Dr. Singh and Gus are visiting Gus' past through hypnosis, predominately because there are some really terrific story points being revealed there surrounding Gus' father. Is that a character we'll learn more about as the story progresses?

Gus' dad is going to play a big role in the book, right through until the end. Obviously, he's dead in the present day, but that doesn't mean we're not going to see more of his past and where he came from and where Gus came from. Again, he's going to be a character much like Singh or Jepperd where by the time we get to learning more about him, you're going to think of him as one thing and then I'm going to show you he was actually something completely different. I think readers will find a number of the secrets surrounding Gus' origins pretty surprising. So yes, to answer your question, more of his backstory will be revealed as the story unfolds.

For folks, trade waiting "Sweet Tooth," can you give a little tease of what's to come in Vol. 3?

There's only one issue left of Vol. 3 if you're reading "Sweet Tooth" as a monthly ongoing series, and it's something I'm really proud of because I felt like, not in a bad way, but I thought Vol. 2 was pretty slow paced. It needed to be because it was sort of a slow burning reveal of Jepperd's past and things like that. So for Vol. 3, I wanted it to be much more action-packed, much more like a thriller. We quickly built the tension towards the inevitable conflict between all the characters I originally laid out in the first two volumes, so Vol. 3 is really a countdown to all of our characters meeting once again and heading towards a literal war. It's basically the militia versus Jepperd and the army he's assembled in an effort to get Gus back. Other than that, without spoiling things, I can't say too much. But I'm really proud of how that arc has played out. I think people are really digging it.

While I don't want to spoil too much either, there is a series of pages in "Sweet Tooth" #15 that I have to ask you about where Jepperd and Gus are sharing the same dream. Is that simply something you've done artistically or are these two characters now so connected that they are literally sharing dreams?

Well, I don't want to say too much to give anything away, but obviously Gus' dreams have been a big part of the series right from the beginning where Gus has actually seen the future in his dreams. So without revealing too much about where this all going, I really can't say too much more. But yes, Jepperd is starting to experience the same things, so maybe there is a link between them that's bigger than we realized at first.

I know when I lived in France for a year, after about a month I started dreaming in French, so maybe Jepperd's dreaming in Gus?

Exactly. These two characters have influenced each other more than they realized at first. Even though their time together was so short, something special happened between them when they got together. Jepperd is certainly realizing that leaving Gus behind was not an option. He just couldn't do it. It's left him feeling so badly, that yes, he's dreaming in Gus.

After Vol. 3 wraps up in "Sweet Tooth" #17, you're doing a stand-alone story in #18 using a special horizontal storytelling format. And then you have something special planned for #19 as well, right? Well, I guess it's not you, but...

Actually, it will have three creators - Matt Kindt, Nate Powell and Emi Lenox - working on it. They are three of my favorite cartoonists and are all friends, as well. After 18 months of never being late for a deadline, I needed a month off from writing and drawing the book to recharge my batteries before diving into the fourth arc.

Matt and Nate are two cartoonists that I think fans of "Sweet Tooth" will enjoy. Emi is a really fresh new voice who was just perfect for the story that I had in mind.

Each creator will write and draw a short story within the issue that focuses on one of the book's three female characters.

Sweet. Before I let you go, I have to ask you about the first issue of "Superboy," which was released last month. Were you surprised by the resoundingly positive response the launch received?

I was actually quite surprised by how positive the response for that book was. Like you said, it was pretty much overwhelmingly positive - people were really excited about it. Even after just one issue. To be honest, I was really worried. I had done The Atom stuff, but I felt like this was really my first foray into a mainstream superhero book. I didn't know what people would think, so it was kind of like a sigh of relief to get that first issue out and have people respond so well to it. I know I'm kind of doing a good job at least, and now, I have a little bit more confidence doing the book. But yeah, it's been great.

Finally, your Ray Palmer story that's been the co-feature in "Adventure Comics" the past few months came to an end last week in #521 before it was finished. It was teased that the end would be appearing elsewhere. Any updates on that front?

Yes, we're doing "The Atom" Special #2, which will bookend my story with the first special. It's going to be a giant-sized, 46-page issue, and that will be the end of my story with Ray Palmer.

"Sweet Tooth" Vol. 2, written and drawn by Jeff Lemire, is in stores now.

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