Thursday, February 3, 2011

Review: Sweet Tooth #18

Sweet Tooth #18 
"The Further Adventures of the Boy and the Big Man"
Written and drawn by Jeff Lemire; Vertigo

(This review contains spoilers.)

There's a fine line between experimentation and gimmick, and with this unusual horizontal issue, Jeff Lemire is stepping dangerously close to that line. I was initially a little worried when I read the first few pages, which are told in a "picture book" style, with big chunks of text and illustrations. I was immediately reminded of Grant Morrison's awful Joker story, "The Clown at Midnight," in Batman #663. That story was pretty much unreadable, and although I am not trying to suggest that Lemire's prose is even remotely close to that level of cheesiness, illustrated prose and comic books are completely different art forms, and I'm not usually very fond of finding the former when go out looking for the latter.

Somehow, though, Lemire pulls it off. He doesn't adhere strictly to this format for the whole issue. Although he keeps the orientation of the comic horizontal (you have to read it on its side, flipping the pages up like a calendar), the prose narration is relegated mostly to the front and back of the book. The bulk of the issue is told in a more traditional comic book format, with sequential panels and speech bubbles. This not only helps with the pacing of the issue, but it also gives the picture book passages a unique quality or "specialness," by virtue of their contrast with the rest of the book (and the rest of the series). The comic book passages are fairly objective, whereas the narration in the picture book passage is much more subjective. Although written in the third person, the narration reflects Gus's inner thought process. The simple, naive tone evoking children's literature works well, because Gus is himself still a very child-like character. But as we find out in this issue, he's a lot more grown-up than he seems.

The story deals with the aftermath of the violent rescue of the hybrid kids from the militia camp that concluded the previous story arc. The kids, Jepperd, Lucy, the "pretty girl" (as Gus calls her) whose name I can't remember, Johnny and Singh are on their way to Alaska, where they hope to learn more about Gus's origins. They stop at an abandoned shopping mall to get some supplies, where they spend the night.

Way back in the first story arc of the series, Gus found a Disney-like picture book called Dandy, an obvious non-copyright-infringing substitute for Bambi. This book resonated deeply with him. The only book he had previously ever been exposed to was the Bible. The story of Dandy was also symbolically charged. In an earlier scene, Gus had witnessed the death of deer at the hands of some hunters who were actually aiming at him! After finding the book, Gus had a dream in which Dandy told him that Jepperd was a bad man and that he should run away from him, a prophecy Gus ignored but which turned out to be true. More recently, in issue #15, Gus had another dream about Dandy, but this time Jepperd (who had the same dream) was the hunter and he killed Dandy and cute little bunny companion.

The Dandy book appears again in this issue. After a tense scene during which Gus convinces Lucy and Jepperd not to kill Singh, Jepperd tells Gus that he has some things that belong to him and hands him a slingshot and the book. Gus takes the slingshot, but leaves the book behind. "That's kids' stuff," he says. "And don't call me Sweet Tooth." Gus has come a long way since Jepperd last saw him, and this point is illustrated here very poignantly. But the scene also gives us a clue as to how the picture book passages in this issue should be interpreted.

Something Lemire said during the Q&A at Drawn and Quarterly last week kept coming back to me while I was reading this issue. Someone in the audience asked him how he chooses what elements of the story to tell with pictures and what elements to tell with words. Lemire's answer was (and here I'm paraphrasing from memory) that he always tries to tell as much of the story visually as possible. If he can get away with not adding any words to the page, then he doesn't. He only uses text when it is absolutely necessary.

So is he breaking his own rule in this issue? I felt that a lot of the words were unnecessary. For instance, when Gus figures out that Jepperd's grief for his son probably accounts for some of his bad behaviour, the narration goes: "And The Boy figured that was why he had betrayed him in the first place. He was just trying to make the hurt stop. This confused The Boy more than ever. He didn't know if he still hated The Big Man or not. Either way, he wasn't ready to talk to him. Not yet, anyway." Even though none of this had been spelled out for us up to this point, it should have been pretty obvious to any reader who's been paying attention since the beginning.

This isn't a criticism of this issue so much as it is a testament to Lemire's strength as a visual storyteller in the issues leading up to it. The emotional payoff of being told how Gus feels about Jepperd in that narration pales in comparison to the thrill that I felt when they shared that dream back in issue # 15, or how excited I was when Gus saw Jepperd approaching the militia camp on the monitor in issue #16, or the chills that went down my spine later when he tells the men, "I seen him out there. Mr. Jepperd's here. Yer all gonna die." I apologize for gushing all over the pages like this, but the reason this reunion between these two fully fleshed out characters was so emotionally charged was that the series had been building up to it for about 12 issues. That narration I quoted above doesn't really do justice to all that, because I'd already felt all those emotions along with Gus when he first experienced them.

The most revealing and powerful moment in this issue is the confrontation I mentioned earlier. When Gus convinced Lucy and Jeppard not to kill Singh, he argued that just because he's done some bad things doesn't mean he's a bad man. "You of all people should know that," he tells Jeppard. True, that punch is delivered in the dialogue (i.e., words not images), but it can't really be separated from the scene it's part of, a scene that is told in sequential art and where much of the tension comes from the images and how they interact with the text.

It was important, I think, that this scene be told in traditional comic form, rather than in the picture book style. It has an immediacy and a visceral quality that would have been lost had it been simply narrated to us. Because we are shown, not told, we're more inclined to believe it, more willing to experience it and to take part in it, whereas there's something phony about the picture book narration. Like Dandy, it's just make-believe, kids' stuff. And in the same way that Gus's own innocent looks conceal a more mature personality, the picture book narrative conceals (or glosses over) the darker reality that the characters inhabit.

In the last few pages of the issue, the storytelling switches back to picture book mode. Gus lies awake at night wondering if he will ever feel happy again. The story concludes with a rare and unexpected moment of pure joy in this otherwise pretty consistently bleak series. The kids and adults wake up the morning to find snow outside. "It had come while they slept, and it was as deep as their shins and soft and bright and clean! They ran around and humped in it and at it and laughed." Gus allows himself to feel happy and wonders if perhaps he was wrong to worry earlier. Even Jepperd might be smiling, although Gus isn't sure because the light is so bright. But what darkness lies beneath the deceptively innocent surface of the picture book narrative? The last time we saw snow, it was in Gus and Jepperd's shared dream, and Dandy got shot in the head. I think Lemire is very much aware of the artifice of this storytelling technique, and he's using it deliberately. And I have a feeling Sweet Tooth is about to take a turn into some even darker territory than what we've seen so far.

EXCELLENT (new rating scale)


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