Sweet Tooth: Out of the Woods, the first volume in artist and writer Jeff Lemire's latest series, starts quietly enough: a young boy, Gus, awakens to find that his sickly father has passed away. Having never strayed from the farm where he grew up, the now-orphaned Gus must cope with his loss, solitude, and"¦the antlers sprouting from his head. Also, the outside world has plunged into post-apocalyptic mayhem, but Gus is more concerned with satisfying his appetite for sweets.
Using this doe-eyed approach to well-tread, it's-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it territory, Lemire teases the hows and whys of the apocalypse and Gus' strange appearance. We know something big and bad happened called the "Affliction," and once it was over, all babies were born as animal/human "hybrids." Yet, Gus is a little older than the other disfigured children, which doesn't quite fit in the known timeline of the Affliction's fallout. Trailing every scrap of information is another question or loose end.
Gus quickly leaves his farm with Jepperd, an enigmatic maniac who promises safe haven at "The Preserve." As they journey, this first volume feels very much like a "road book," with long stretches of cement and storytelling underfoot, punctuated by harshly lit dream sequences that hint at answers just before Gus awakes. Their prophetic nature only raises more questions"”are they a result of Gus' mutation, or is there a religious connection at work?
Lemire used color sparingly in The Nobody, and Essex Countywas black and white, but colorist Jose Villarrubia (Promethea, X-Factor) adds a welcome palette to Sweet Tooth. In Gus' dreams, a pack of dogs hunts him; their eyes pits of red with a glare extending beyond the sockets. Later, when Gus and Jepperd start a fire, its hue recalls a sunset, casting shadows to fill the deep lines that Lemire favors in his characters' faces.
Readers familiar with Lemire's work will note the blunt noses and etched designs, but what surprised me were the choreographed moments of action. When Sweet Tooth cuts loose"”this is the post-apocalypse, after all"”it is effectively, shockingly violent. In one scene, Jepperd uses the butt of his rifle to dispatch a villain. Lemire captures Jepperd frozen in a pose with his elbows cocked, the rifle lifted near his head. Five frames outline the path of the butt of the rifle as it travels the length of the page to the victim, and are placed so that the weapon could be beginning its descent or finishing its ascent; or, the layout could also suggest a repeated motion. This is the state of violence in Sweet Tooth: highlighted so that readers do not forget it lurks at the turn of every page--this isn't gratuitous, it's orchestrated.
Given Gus' naivetÃ©, readers will suspect the way this arc ends, but the fun is all in the pacing and greater plot twists. The second volume doesn't release until December, making Out of the Woods one to savor.