Review: Sweet Tooth: Animal Armies trade paperback (DC Comics/Vertigo)

I read the first volume of Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth and liked it well enough. I thought the second book was fine, though maybe lacking a little bit following the first. And then I read Sweet Tooth Vol. 3: Animal Armies. Reader, I tell you when I finished this book, I was not all right.

With Animal Armies, Lemire’s post-apocalyptic story finally gets cooking. The remarkable thing for me for the most part was not the plot, but the craftsmanship; Lemire builds perhaps the most intricate chase sequence I’ve ever seen, in which whom the characters think they’re fleeing is actually whom they’re approaching. It’s wholly gripping, and on top of that, some of Lemire’s page compositions are really impressive. Then, on top of that, Lemire delivers a gut-punch moment late in the tale that’s grotesque, horrifying, and brilliant, such that I found myself still shaken by it moments after I’d put the book down.

We’re at the halfway point in Sweet Tooth. Only just now has the cast and pervading mission come into focus, maybe a moment later than it should. But I’m hooked and eager to see if Lemire’s got more of the same waiting for us.

[Review contains spoilers]

Admirable about Sweet Tooth, quite aside from Animal Armies' twists and turns, is Lemire’s willingness to “go weird” as the story allows for it. This could be a relatively straightforward sci-fi with a penchant for the pastoral, but Lemire mixes it up with, for instance, the severe religious bent underscoring Gus' actions. But further, Lemire’s first issue here, “The Singh Tapes,” is an acknowledged homage to Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s Crisis on Infinite Earths #10 and the “Monitor Tapes” that appear at the bottom of each page.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Sweet Tooth is post-apocalyptic, but we’re not quite at the tipping point of the near-end of Crisis, so the reference to Crisis here doesn’t seem thematically strong. Rather, one senses Lemire using the narrative opportunity provided to shout-out to a pivotal comic — because Sweet Tooth may be about animal hybrids in a world gone mad, but it’s still comics, facilitated by comics, and Lemire has enough faith in the story he’s telling to let it function two ways, both as the story on the page and in a larger conversation with Lemire’s own influences as a creator.

Second, in a book already punctuated by dream sequences, Lemire offers a particularly unusual one where rough Jepperd and young Gus, separated by distance, inhabit the same dream together. Now, perhaps Lemire will have an explanation for this — I don’t believe Jepperd and Gus are father and son, but maybe, and I don’t believe Gus has any psychic powers, but again, maybe. But I’d just as soon that Lemire did not, that instead it is indeed just plain weird — that inexplicably within this landscape, characters can dream each others' dreams just the same as they can remember places they’ve barely been and people they’ve barely met.

That aspect comes into play in the aforementioned brutal sequence in which, trying to escape the militia prison, Jepperd advocates for leaving behind the fallen hybrid “Buddy,” who’s being mauled by dogs, only — as a door slams shut — for Buddy to call out to him, “D-Da?” Though Jepperd is then told that the the child was his son, thought dead, it actually makes little sense; they’ve never met and the child should not recognize him.

But the damage is done — to both Jepperd and the audience; with whiplash swiftness we side with Jepperd’s decision to sacrifice one anonymous hybrid for the good of the rest, only to shockingly, immediately pay for it with the revelation that we just joined him in sacrificing his own son. Lemire actually only pulls us away from those events for two pages before he further reveals (to the audience only, not Jepperd) that Buddy is not dead, just gravely injured, but those two pages could be forever for the horror that we’re left with irrespective. It only partially mitigates things when Jepperd sets off on a new mission at the end of the book with his motley “replacement family” in tow — three hybrid children, two former prostitutes that he saved, and a scientist and a janitor from the militia.

No question that Sweet Tooth leans heavily on ideas of family — from all the questions of Gus' parentage and upbringing to the juxtaposition of evil militia leader Abbot and his good-hearted brother Johnny. In the same vein, Jepperd sees the clear logic in letting Buddy die when Buddy is no one to him, but is regretful of his choice as soon as Buddy utters “Da” — when the word might mean nothing, and when fundamentally Buddy is no less anonymous to Jepperd afterward than when Jepperd released him to the dogs. Family takes on its darker connotations here — in the span of a second, Jepperd would save someone he would otherwise let die just because he shares Jepperd’s genetics, or out of a guilty sense of responsibility. That one’s obligation to another living being is so changeable depending on a vague sense of relativity is disturbing indeed, and here Lemire puts the capriciousness of that idea into stark relief.

What really drives Animal Armies, however, is the backward chase. Lemire builds pulse-pounding suspense (tough to do in a comic) in setting the different parties in parallel — Jepperd going to the militia “Preserve” to save Gus, even though Gus is no longer there; Gus and his friends escaping and believing they’re moving away from the Preserve, toward his home when, unbeknownst to Gus, that’s where Abbot and his men have gone to investigate. They do not all run into each other’s backs — Gus and friends are captured and returned to the Preserve before Jepperd arrives — but for a while everything is upside-down. The structure is beautiful — Lemire expertly crafting a situation where what the characters know and the audience knows are directly opposite — and it raised my estimation of Sweet Tooth even before the emotional finale.



From structure to story to page composition, again I felt Sweet Tooth Vol. 3: Animal Armies was when Jeff Lemire’s saga really started rocking. In the battle sequences, Lemire’s art gets more impressionistic — see the one page of Jepperd’s head minus his face and eyes, and the next page with only the face and eyes visible, or the silhouette of Gus' horned head framing Jepperd’s imagining of a truck exploding the militia compound. We’re on to something now, though I do find it regrettable that comes when the story is half over; hopefully more volumes like this will make up for it.

[Includes original covers]


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