Back before the days of cable television and streaming Internet video, TV consisted of a handful of broadcast stations sandwiched between static on the dials. The powers that be in the broadcast era gave viewers a heads up whenever an episode of their favorite sitcom or cop show or hospital drama deviated from the norm. These “very special episodes”, as they were called by stentorian announcers, alerted audiences that they were in store for something different that night, perhaps something sad or touching.
If issue 33 of Sweet Tooth–the wholly original Vertigo series by artist/writer Jeff Lemire–were a TV show way back when, it would most certainly qualify as a “very special episode.”
The first thing readers will notice is that the issue is presented sideways. It’s laid out more like a children’s book than a mainstream comic. It’s not the first time Lemire has employed this layout during Sweet Tooth’s run, and given how tender, unique, and genuinely touching these special sideways issues have been, there’s always a hope that the tradition continues.
Last month saw the conclusion of “Unnatural Habitats”, the fifth story arc in the series, and this issue finds Lemire’s ragtag band of survivors dealing with a loss, tying up loose ends and picking up the pieces before moving forward. Titled “Funeral”, the story feels as bittersweet as the real thing, with moments of joy, sadness, melancholy, wonder and mystery all swirling about.
The book’s characters are boiled down to their essence in these special issues. Hulking hockey player turned rugged survivalist Jepperd is “The Big Man.” Sweet Tooth, the tale’s antler-sporting protagonist, is “The Boy.” The narration here is akin to a fairy tale, using simple and clear language, yet it manages to tell a story with more emotional resonance and weight than comics filled with endless bantering and overwrought captions.
Jeff Lemire’s art is beautiful in its scratchy, raw, almost simplistic style. The world of Sweet Tooth is fully realized, and Lemire’s artwork immerses readers into this otherworldly world that somehow feels not so far from our own, animal-human hybrids aside. Lemire takes full advantage of the sideways print format, giving readers full page splashes paired with pages of narration while at the same time still presenting panel work throughout the story. The end result kinda makes you wonder why the format isn’t used more often in the industry.
Lemire’s brilliance, however, lies not in his art, but in his bizarrely touching storytelling. Using sparse, almost folksy language, Lemire’s script moves the story along while delivering an emotional wallop to readers on each and every page. There’s not a word in this issue that doesn’t tell something about the character or move the plot forward. For a story that feels somber and reflective, there’s a lot that happens, both in the external world surrounding these characters and in their own internal landscapes.
With its alternately sweet and powerfully dark storytelling, Sweet Tooth is something of a minor miracle in the world of monthly comics. There really isn’t anything like this book being put out by any publisher, large or small. Jeff Lemire delivers animal-people who appear more human and exhibit more full-fledged emotions than many of the so-called “heroes” populating the rack.
If you haven’t read a Vertigo series since Preacher or Sandman, give Sweet Tooth a try and rediscover how wonderful mature readers comics can be. Read through an issue of Jeff Lemire’s epic and it’s likely to stick with you, kind of like a “very special episode” of your favorite old TV show.