There was five golden rules. My dad made me write them over and over until I knew them like I knew my own name.
Number Five: Never have a fire in the daytime, ’cause people could see the smoke and come and get us.
It’s February, which means that it is cold, and nasty, and everyone is probably tired and stressed out from the polar winter that will never end. (If you are lucky enough to live in warmer climes, bully for you.) But February this year also means the return of some favorite things—including AMC’s zombie-apocalyptic gorefest, The Walking Dead. If there’s a plus side to the incessant bleakness of forever-winter, it’s that it really gets one in the mood for suitably bleak television—and reading. And maybe, if you’re like me, you’ll be watching The Walking Dead (or have read the comics) and feel like you want a little bit...more.
If you’re a reader of speculative fiction, and in the mood for a sadistic, strange, and ultimately fulfilling ride this winter, I’m here to tell you that you should read Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire.
Number Four: If I ever see anyone other than my dad, I run, and keep running.
I got to thinking about Sweet Tooth when a couple of weeks back, I read and reviewed Vertigo Quarterly CMYK: Black. The anthology included a short story called “Sweet Tooth Black” by Jeff Lemire—an odd but beautiful post-apocalyptic tale about a half-deer, half-human boy who listens and values his father’s advice above all else, and chooses to stay in the woods. That story is a prequel to Sweet Tooth: Out of the Wood—and gives a nice introduction and background to Gus, aka “Sweet Tooth,” and foreshadows his long, bleak journey when he finally decides to break the rules.
Number Three: Always say my prayers, so as God don’t get mad at me and decide to come make me sick too.
In September of 2009, Jeff Lemire introduced fans to Sweet Tooth, a post-viral-apocalyptic comic book starring a young boy with a heart of gold…and deer antlers. In this world, humanity has been ravaged by a deadly disease that has killed off most of the population, and infected the remaining humans. Nine-year-old Gus knows of the old world only from stories that his father tells him, but lives according to his strict rules—he must never interact with anyone else, and he must remain hidden in the woods at all costs. Gus, a human-deer hybrid, is one of the few children who remain in this post-apocalyptic wasteland, hunted because hybrids are somehow immune to the disease that threatens to consume everyone in its path.
When Gus’ father dies, however, he must decide whether to obey his father’s rules, or to strike out to the world beyond the woods. When men come hunting for Gus, and he meets an unlikely savior in the grizzly figure of Jeppard, Gus faces this choice in earnest: should he stay in his father’s cabin, alone? Or should he join Jeppard in hopes of finding a better place?
Number Two: Never forget to pray for my momma, ’cause she was the best and prettiest lady God ever made.
Like The Walking Dead, Sweet Tooth features a mostly rural post-apocalyptic setting, and examines the few remaining survivors of the viral plague. And, like The Walking Dead, the true killer isn’t the threat of the undead, but rather the humans who survive and remain behind. When civilization crumbles, so too does the social contract that binds society. In the case of The Walking Dead, you get a Woodbury or Terminus type of situation; in Sweet Tooth, you get ad hoc brothels run by some very bad people, or...well, Terminus-style daydreams of a safe “Preserve” where everything is hunky-dory. (Spoiler alert: it’s not.)
And Number One: Never, ever, leave the woods.
The reason why Sweet Tooth is so memorable, so perfect for reading right now is because it’s a tale about the essence of humanity, about unlikely friendships, and the difference between surviving and living. Like great works of the post/apocalyptic canon, Sweet Tooth examines the human condition under extreme duress—duress defined by extinction. And while The Walking Dead is content to kill off characters for shock value and protract questionable story arcs, Sweet Tooth packs a powerful, succinct punch. This comic is bizarre, beautiful, and poignant; the character arcs explored in Out of the Deep Woods (Volume 1) alone are enough to whet your appetite for more.
So if you want something a little more substantial, something a little different, something bleak and suitable for this month, and are willing to take a chance on a comic book series that evaluates the essence of forgiveness, of growing up, of atoning for the past—look no further.
Give Gus and Jepperd a try. I promise you won’t regret it.
In Book Smugglerish: 8 Mad Max–Bambi Hybrids out of 10.