Summer is a time to catch up on reading. With a list of that included finishing the complete series of 100 Bullets, Queen and Country and DMZ, I don’t know why I allowed Sweet Tooth, by Jeff Lemire, to entire my already too large pile. However, once it was in my hands it was hard to put down. In a blink of an eye, I had read all six trades in less than a week.
And then I was disappointed.
I am one who is prone to having fictive world separation melancholy; that feeling of loss when you have come into a world so completely only to know that it is never coming back. This is how I approached Sweet Tooth, a total immersion into a sci-fi future world of the end of times, science and man. However, my frustration at the end of the book is not from leaving this bleak world and its charming characters. Somehow I just expected something bigger. In a world that has an eye towards the meta context of everything, Sweet Tooth remains simpler than expected.
[If you have not read the ending to Sweet Tooth, you may want to stop here for fear of spoilers]
In Lemire’s creation, irritated gods and inconsiderate humans are really the driving force behind all that is currently wrong with the world, not a mega corporation, a global governmental conspiracy or some science that is too big for us to currently understand. Perhaps this is where I like the line of fantasy in my comics, not in capes and powers but at least in a big bad to point a finger at with admonishment and without fear of being incorrect. However Sweet Tooth does not deliver that. Instead tells a tale that is common in religious myths, frustrated gods teaching meddling humans the lesson that they are human and should not interfere with the world of the gods. In Sweet Tooth, humans are the aggressors, the victims and also a strange catalyst for the rebirth of the society of hybrid creatures. In this mythology the humans loose with what appears to be a complete annihilation of their species, an especially hard penalty to pay even in comparison to the various gods vs human options in many different religious histories. In addition, there also seems to be a nature vs urbanity aspect to the conclusion for consideration, where happiness is found in the woods away from the sick cities. Within these multiple final complexities, the ending of Sweet Tooth seemed to teach a lesson, however I am not quite sure what lesson it is teaching.
There also is a perspective change toward the end of the book which compounds the issue of meaning. For most of the story, Sweet Tooth is an internal struggle for the main characters Jepperd and Gus. Their world is closed and small, and even as they go searching in the larger universe (and within themselves) and find other situations and characters, it still is about their finite world. In the end of the book, there is a surprising flip. The pacing, which has been one of the best and most compelling aspects of the book, quickens. Gus stays at the center of the narrative, however it becomes the story of the greater world. It almost feels a little mid-century Disneyesque, as if waiting for the end when a zoom out over the kingdom allows someone to close the book on a happy ending. Then with the story complete readers can then go on with our lives.
When pushing back against both of these issues in a book that I had been so completely invested, I have a moment of hesitation. Perhaps, this is exactly what Lemire wants and if so, then the ending of Sweet Tooth is brilliant. If in the end, readers (and therefore surrogate characters) are to understand that our path, though seemingly self determined is radically beyond our will and that our part is always just a thread in a bigger woven tapestry then the book is beautifully executed. Even if this is not the meaning, it is still a win for Lemire, who had me engrossed in a sad and desperate tale of a frozen disease infested society while the summer sun beat down upon my warm Los Angeles home, and still has me contemplating it several weeks after finishing the book.