On my first read through of the first volume of Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth, I didn't like it very much and I didn't know why. It was not until the second and third read that I began to really appreciate the story Lemire was trying to tell, as little as he gave us.
Published by Vertigo comics, the story follows Gus, a normal nine-year-old boy with the horns of a deer, living in the wilderness with his increasingly sick father, with no sign of civilization in sight. He knows very little, besides the fact that he is not supposed to go out beyond the deep woods (because God said so) and the he isn't to listen to anyone. But upon the death of his father, he ventures out into the forest with a violent man named Jeppard, trying to get somewhere called the "Preservation."
That might sound like a spoiler, but that's what is printed on the back cover, including some prose about the apocalyptic universe that Gus finds himself born into. This blurb on the back is as much universe-building as is given in this volume. The things mentioned on the back (such as the cause of the state of things, the presence of Gus) are not at all explored in the book. I had not noticed this blurb until sitting down to write this review, and now I am a little mad that it is included (for very contradictory reasons, but I've learned to live with cognitive dissonance, and so should you. More on this later.).
My initial discomfort in the book was the lack of universe-building included within it. I kept looking for answers, but each issue just brought more character- building (which is actually the real strength of this book. Looking for the "rules" of the universe is one of my most annoying habits. You should have seen me during Lost). When I gave it another read, I realized the idiocy in my focusing on the borders of the world. The fantastic play between Jeppard and Gus is the real meat, here. Jeppard is clearly a haunted man, and in his conversations with the robustly innocent Gus, we see the exact thing I was looking for. The universe-building is hidden in the dialog—and art—of Sweet Tooth. It's a fantastic move, Jeff.
That being said, I am now on the other side of the fence regarding the inclusion of the blurb on the back. Learning about the world beyond what is included in the sparse narration of the book cheapens the sense of emptiness and void that the book seems to embody. I would avoid it, if possible, and let the story grow organically, even if it doesn't offer much in the way of answers.
The art is fantastic. It's a very specific style that I can see some people disagreeing with, but those people would be missing out. Lemire used the panels as a storytelling device, similar to the work that J.H. Williams is doing right now in Batwoman. It's distinct. The color palette is what you'd expect from post-apocalytpic literature: browns, greys, dark. When another color comes up, it's a treat, a sign that something should be noticed, focused on. Lemire designs the actual faces of his characters like wood cuts, and their bodies like Disney characters who have only been fed grain for three years straight. It's a sullen, weary look that works well for the setting.
Sweet Tooth had to grow on me, but I'm glad it did. I am really looking forward to volume two.
TL;DR: Sweet Tooth is a character-driven post apocalyptic epic with great art. It's slow with the answers, but don't worry. Just read it.
*Sweet Tooth Volume 1: Out of the Deep Woods is written and drawn by Jeff Lemire, with colors by Jose Villarrubia and letters by Pat Brosseau. It's a creator-owned comic, published by Vertigo, compiling issues 1-5 of the series Sweet Tooth. Pick up this trade paperback, or the individual issues, at your local comic store. If you can't find them there, check Amazon.