In Jeff Lemire and José Villarrubia’s Sweet Tooth, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road meets The Island of Dr. Moreau. Set a decade after a plague had killed off most of humanity, the 40-issue DC/Vertigo series followed a sheltered boy named Gus with deer antlers growing out of his head, as well as his protector and travelling companion, a violent older man named Jeppard, as they explored an American wasteland.
Sweet Tooth reached a natural end point with its 40th issue in 2013, but this year its creators are back with Sweet Tooth: The Return. The first installment of the six-issue miniseries adds a meta-textual layer to the plot of the original comic, and stands to deepen Sweet Tooth’s themes of religion and storytelling.
Who is making Sweet Tooth: The Return?
This is not a case of intellectual property falling into new hands: Jeff Lemire is back writing and penciling Sweet Tooth: The Return and José Villarrubia is back as the colorist. Since Sweeth Tooth put him on the map, Lemire has written for Marvel titles like All-New Hawkeye and Old Man Logan. José Villarrubia is a colorist whose most consistent comics title was the first Sweet Tooth, but had also worked on Alan Moore’s Promethea.
What is it about?
An 11-year-old child with deer antlers has been having odd dreams of an angry man and things that exist beyond the forest surrounding his home. The boy’s “father” has always told him that he is the last of the Hybrids, people who were half human, half animal, and it is his place to “be free and have fun until it is time to go to heaven.” But the boy is beginning to suspect that these are lies.
Lemire must have seen Twin Peaks: The Return, David Lynch’s 18-episode companion piece to the early-’90s television show. When this new Sweet Tooth was announced, he cribbed the exact tweet language that David Lynch used to announce his new Twin Peaks season. Just as Lynch brought back his show as something that had the familiar players but was altogether different, Sweet Tooth: The Return is sequel, reboot, and its own thing all at once.
The first used storytelling as one of its direct themes, with the stories that characters told each other over a campfire about their own past growing to become widespread fables that shelter a pearl of truth — or grand dogmatic belief systems. This allows The Return to have an extra layer of plot for those that are interested to see what’s going to be remixed. The main character claims to know the difference between a story he’s told and a truth he can feel.
At first glance, it could appear as if the two series are telling the same overall story, but the devil is in the details when it comes to fables and interpreting scriptures. If there is a refreshing difference between Sweet Tooth and The Return, it’s that human society appears to be broken in different way this time around. It’s not that the mass disease and climate change of the first series doesn’t hit as hard as it did in 2009 (it hits harder), but for a lot of comic book readers, this new, “more civilized” state of evil is more immediate and something the characters have more agency with.
Is there any required reading?
Reading the first Sweet Tooth series, all 40 (excellent) issues of it, is a must. At first glance, The Return starts exactly the same way as Sweet Tooth. Lemire’s pencils and Villarrubia’s color work try to stick to the layouts and looks of the last run. Some pages in The Return #1 even mirror pages in Sweet Tooth #1.
It also wouldn’t hurt to be aware of what Twin Peaks: The Return is, if you missed it airing on Showtime. Lemire told Entertainment Weekly back in 2018 that he had been “obsessed” with Twin Peaks since the beginning of the series. Lemire would make guest appearances on podcasts discussing Twin Peaks, he commissions Twin Peaks art, and he makes his own. Trying to digest and decode all of Twin Peaks: The Return is an intentionally impossible assignment, but both Twin Peaks’ and Sweet Tooth’s “Returns” feature a protagonist the audience recognizes even though the character doesn’t seem to know who or what he is.
But mainly concern yourself with the first Sweet Tooth. The allusions to the notoriously nebulous Twin Peaks means we could avoid retreading any ground covered in the original series in The Return, like the Hybrid’s origins, which was a central solved mystery of the first run. It may look like this time around is a retread on the surface, except the first page of The Return #1 says “300 Years Later…” and if you want to know from what point you jumped 300 years into the future, the answer is in Sweet Tooth.
Is Sweet Tooth: The Return good?
In a binary, Sweet Tooth: The Return is good. It’s great to have both Lemire and Villarrubia returning to their roles. Fans of the original series will recognize the character designs they are supposed to and will puzzle over the details. The style of the writing in The Return calls back to Sweet Tooth, using the internal monologue of the main character to set the scene in plain language, but the art shows that this world is entirely separate from the original. For example, instead of eventually realizing that the protagonist is living in an abandoned wildlife preserve rather than some kind of Eden, readers of the new series will instantly notice the antler’d boy of this tale lives in strange circumstances. If you read the first Sweet Tooth, you might think you have an idea of where The Return is going, but there are creepy additions like the new “father” that we haven’t seen in this storyworld before.
If there’s a potential pitfall to how Sweet Tooth: The Return is approaching the material, it would be playing it at little too safe. The first issue rehashes what worked with the original and throws in creative new ideas. Lemire and Villarrubia have to keep walking that line: If The Return doesn’t play enough of the hits, it will be disappointing. If The Return strays too far from the original’s idea, it will have been meaningless to tarnish Sweet Tooth’s reputation with it.
One panel that popped
Lemire’s lines are closer to cartoonist than draftsman, communicating the basic emotions of the panel without defining a lot of detail. But like the best cartoonists, if he needs to pull the focus in, he knows how. Something is very wrong here, and it’s not the cute looking kid with antlers. The red garb of “the father” pops out of the muted colors of the rest of the setting in the early pages, and something is seriously wrong with this guy. He has a skin condition and bolts coming out of his neck. He’s got some serious Snoke-face. One can always count on Villarrubia bringing the color, but the economy of this dual profile panel is Lemire succeeding at something he doesn’t regularly attempt.
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