Out of the Woods with "Sweet Tooth"

Jeff Lemire is the proud papa of two boys named Gus. One of them has antlers. He's the one starring in Lemire's critically acclaimed new series, "Sweet Tooth" for Vertigo Comics. (The other one, for those scoring at home, is his real-life baby boy.)

"Sweet Tooth," written and drawn by Lemire ("Essex County"), is the story of Gus, one of a rare new breed of human/animal hybrid who was raised in isolation by his father following a pandemic that struck a decade earlier. When his father dies, Gus does the one thing dad asked him never to do - he leaves the woods. But he's not alone. A hulking drifter named Jepperd appears from the dense bush and promises to help Gus and bring him to a safe haven for all human/animal hybrids, a place known only as The Preserve.

As the first arc, "Out of the Woods," came to end in January, Gus and Jepperd arrived at The Preserve, but it's not quite what Gus was expecting. With a trade paperback of the first five issues coming in May, and the next arc, "In Captivity," beginning this week, CBR News caught up with Lemire at his home in Toronto, Canada, to discuss "Sweet Tooth" and further explore Gus and Jepperd's post-apocalyptic journey.

First off, how's everything going with Gus?

Terrific. He's great. His antlers are just starting to form.

What do you do, rub lemon juice on his forehead?

No, elk blood.

I know when "Sweet Tooth" first kicked off, you were ahead of the game by four or five issues. You're writing and illustrating the book, are you still maintaining that pace?

I'm on "Sweet Tooth" #11 right now.

That's often the problem with creator-owned projects. One or two issues come out and then there is a huge delay for the third issue and then the delays become common practice. Do you think the fact that "Sweet Tooth" is out the first week, every month, that consistency, is part of the reason the book has succeeded?

It definitely does not hurt. If you're going to put out a book that's not featuring some kind of recognizable character or property and you're trying to compete in this market, if you can't, at least, try and put something out regularly, you're just already behind the eight-ball. Because, I guess, as much as folks are enjoying the adventure of Gus and Jepperd, they're not going to wait six or seven months between issues.

I think it's really important and I think, as a creator, if you agree and sort of establish a contract with your readership that your book is a monthly book, I think you have a responsibility to make that happen. And I work really hard to make sure that I do that.

"Sweet Tooth" is off to a great start and readers and reviewers alike have really responded to it. Are you surprised how well it's been received or did you know you had something pretty special?

I had no idea what to expect. It's such an odd book to begin with. And Vertigo doesn't really do a whole of writer/artist stuff to begin with. But really, I didn't know what to expect. I thought it would either completely flop or succeed as some sort of cult favorite, so yeah, I was pleasantly surprised with both the sales and the critical response. It's all been very positive.

And I guess one of the beauties of working with Vertigo is that while single issue sales are important, a majority of their titles do very well in trade paperback, as well.

Yeah, totally. And that's another thing. I love how their trades come out so quickly. And so regularly. They're very affordable and it's such a great way for someone to jump on the book. You don't want to leave people waiting a year between volumes or whatever it is.

We're going to talk about the close of the first arc, but quickly, anything special being added for the trade of the first volume, which is coming to stores in May?

I'm not quite sure yet. We're still in the stage where the editor and I are just starting our preliminary talks on how the trade is going to be put together and we're trying to figure out who is going to do the intro, and things like that. I still don't know if I'll have some extra pages or what not. I have certainly have tons of developmental material that I could include. But again, I don't know what we have to work with yet.

Any preferences on who you want to get to do the intro?

I have a few ideas but I shouldn't say them in case I get turned down.

I know Geoff Johns and Frank Quitely are two top-level talent who love the book.

That was really neat to get those two guys giving me some props. I would love for Geoff to write to do the intro but he's just busy writing every other comic book that comes out. If I'm not careful, he might start writing "Sweet Tooth," too.

Over the course of the first arc, I'm not sure that we can say Gus has matured as a character because he's still fairly naïve but he definitely has grown and is experiencing life like he never had before he met Jepperd.

I obviously set him up in the first issue to be this extreme example of the total innocent, the total wide-eyed boy, completely new to the world in every sense. He has no concept of what exists outside his very limited perspective growing up. And beyond that, he didn't even have any sense of what the world was like before the pandemic hit or anything. And we kind of see how that trust that he shows in the first issue, comes back to bite him. I think, if anything, it's in the next arc where we see Gus start to harden and change and maybe grow up faster than he normally would.

And the big cliffhanger at the end of the first arc, I guess, exposes Jepperd for what he really is, which is someone Gus never should have trusted. Was that always your plan for Jepperd or did his story grow organically in this direction?

That was always the plan. I was building that from the first time you saw him but without saying too much about what's coming, what you think Jepperd is at the end of "Sweet Tooth" #5 is not at all who he is. There is still a lot more to come. And the second arc, more than anything, really focuses on his story and his history and his background. It basically shows us everything in his life from the moment the pandemic hits up until he appears at the end of #1.

So we really get to see what his motivations are and it's going to add a whole other layer to that character. There is a lot more going on there than what I would lead you to believe at the end of #5.

How far away are we from learning about the pandemic and what maybe caused Gus and some of the other children to grow antlers?

I don't want to answer that question. Honestly. I have a really specific way that I want to reveal certain things about that and I don't even want to answer that question because I think it will work against what I want to do.

Will we see more of Abbott and The Preserve in the next arc?

Oh yeah. Basically, the whole arc will be jumping between the two. The storyline obviously forks at the end of #5. So we'll be jumping between those two characters, Gus and Jepperd, but obviously they're not together anymore. But yeah, we're going to start seeing a lot more of The Preserve or I guess it's not even The Preserve, it's a militia camp and I guess we'll start to reveal if there even is such a thing as The Preserve or if that was something that Jepperd just made up. So we're going to get a lot more into the characters and there is going to be a new character called Dr. Singh, who becomes, if Jepperd and Gus are the main characters, the third main character - the most important character after those two.

He pops up just a few issues into 'In Captivity' and becomes a major part of the plot.

And what about Abbott? I don't like him already.

[Laughs] Abbott is going to be a great character. I have some great scenes coming up with him. Again, you're going to think he's one thing for the first issues that you see him and then he's going to become something different. His history with Jepperd is going to be something, that I think, is going to surprise a lot of people.

You also have a look ahead at the end of "Sweet Tooth" #5 and we see what looks like a rabbit boy and a pig boy and a horse girl, are these characters that will be explored in the next arc, too?

Yes, these are some of the other prisoners from the camp. And they are all going to play an important role moving forward with the overall story. This will be the first time Gus comes face-to-face with other hybrid children and some of those children will know more than he does about what's going on and some of them will know even less, so it's going to be interesting to see where his place in this group is.

On the Vertigo blog, Pamela [Mullin, Vertigo's Publicity Manager] recently posted the cover to "Sweet Tooth" #7. And she also adds some quotes from you about the hybrid children and you mention that perhaps one of them isn't as friendly to Gus as we might expect. Can you share anymore details about that storyline?

I don't want to give too much away but one of the six kids Gus meets in the camp is probably the most dangerous creature he will ever meet in terms of the whole series - I don't want to say more than that.

Again, when we spoke before the series launched, you said you already know how the story ends. Has anything changed?

It's funny when you're working on something long-form where it doesn't really have an exact number of pages or issues that I'm going to be working on yet, it's so open-ended. While I know what the ultimate ending is, I think how I'm going to get there has already dramatically changed, even in the last couple of weeks. I kind of had this crazy idea to shift the whole series halfway through it and I'm almost daring myself to do it [laughs]. Who knows what's going to happen, but that's the fun of doing something so open-ended and long. You can just let things happen and evolve over a long period instead of just coming up with something all at once and executing it.

We mentioned off the top, you now have a young son. You're writing this book, you're drawing this book, I assume you eat and sleep, how are you fitting it all in?

Barely. Most days are a real challenge but I'm just thankful that I'm fast at drawing because it's the only way that I'm able to keep up at all. It's been a hard year of balancing becoming a new father, a monthly book and I'm trying to work on another book for Top Shelf at the same time, so certainly, my days are really full. But you know, I wouldn't want to be doing anything else. I'm not complaining at all, that's for sure.

What is your process for every issue? I read a very detailed script for #5 and it took me by surprise because I didn't think you'd have to write as many notes to yourself.

I almost write it like, I hate to compare it to a screenplay, but a screenplay. I just play out the scene in my head as I'm going. That's just my initial way of breaking down the plot into the amount of pages and scenes I need for an issue and then I take that and start thumb-nailing. I do like to do a really detailed plot because it gives me such a strong skeleton to work from. And it's also just sort of my way of working everything out.

While writing Superman or Batman would no doubt be a dream assignment for many writers and artists working today, do you get a special feeling when you are creating your own characters and watching how readers respond to them?

You'll see especially in the third arc that the book will start to become more of an ensemble piece rather than just focusing on the two characters. And the more you dive into these characters that you've create, the more you want to tell their stories so I'm starting to get new ideas. I'm doing certain stand-alone issues that just focus on one character or maybe the pasts of certain characters. It's great to have that freedom.

I only have so many pages an issue to work on, so anything that pops up in any issue is pretty much important to the overall plot in some ways. Before I even started writing the first issue, I kind of wrote the whole series out in short-form. So the women in "Sweet Tooth" #4, for example, are going to become major characters, as well.

There really hasn't been anybody introduced yet that isn't going to play a big part in the end game that I have planned.

Finally, "Sweet Tooth" #5 ended pretty poorly for Gus and the teaser panels for the next arc don't look any better. Are things going to get worse for Gus before they get better?

There will be good news eventually, I promise. It's not all going to be terrible, terrible events. I'll break it up once in a while. But for the next little while, it's going to be pretty rough.

"Sweet Tooth" #6, the first issue of the new arc, 'In Captivity,' is on sale now. "Sweet Tooth" Vol.1: 'Out of the Woods' is on sale May 12.

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