Here’s where it happens. In a fan-favorite series such as “Sweet Tooth,” a lot is banking on the second-to-last issue. Does Lemire pull through, or succumb to the pressure?
Written and Illustrated by Jeff Lemire
At long last, Gus and Jepperd’s long hard journey comes to its bloody and shocking end. Jepperd and Abbot have their final face-off. A death match to the end with the future of Gus and the entire burgeoning hybrid species at risk.
I’d like to preface this with one of my signature “I’m not directly spoiling anything but I might hint at things hard enough that you will be angry so please don’t read on if you really, really care about spoilers” disclaimers.
This penultimate issue of “Sweet Tooth” confirms what many have been saying since the first story arc: “Sweet Tooth” is just as much, if not even more so, about Jeppard than it is about Gus, the titular sweet tooth himself. Sure, we have seen Gus grow as he becomes more exposed to the hell that is the post-plague world, and this issue in particular has a major, if somewhat standard, character moment for him, but Gus’s development has been nothing compared to the amount of change Jeppard has gone through in the span of only 39 issues. One of the key conflicts of the book has been Jeppard’s internal struggle with morals, or lack thereof, and with that key question many of us have to grapple with in our lives — “Can I be a good person?” Jeppard is hardly a saint, beginning the series as a coldhearted killer willing to do anything necessary to survive in the broken world of “Sweet Tooth.” Sure, he grew to like Gus, but being willing to stick up for a particular individual — hell, even offering up one’s life for that one person — hardly amounts to the Nobel Prize. This issue, though, gives Jeppard the chance to prove that at heart he is a good man, able to put others’ concerns before his own, to say “Screw you, I’ll do it my way” when given a choice between one or the other, no matter the cost. Readers have invested a lot of emotion in Jeppard’s character arc as “Sweet Tooth” has run its course, and it all pays off in this penultimate issue. If the next Vertigo series has a lead half as complex and well-developed as Jeppard, it will be worth every penny.
As great as seeing Jeppard’s arc reach its climax is, though, this issue doesn’t quite have the same nuanced touch that is normally synonomous with Jeff Lemire’s name. To shamelessly paraphrase Multiversity contributor David Harper, the latest issues have felt more and more like Lemire got tired of his ongoing and decided “well, time to wrap this up” rather than allowing it to reach the end he had in mind. It’s not that the issue isn’t “big” enough — sure, lots of time has been devoted to the mystery of Gus’s origins, but that’s just world-building — everything has just been happening so fast. Take, for example, moments before this issue’s climax, when Jeppard runs into… let’s say, complications. While there have been some subtle hints that explain the sudden turn-of-the-tables, and one can tell that it was something Lemire was planning to some extent since early on, it still seems sudden, an excuse of sorts to get moving to the “big moment” rather than a moment that was built up to — a strange hybrid of scripted and spur-of-the-moment. Even if the story beats are a bit off, though, Lemire’s use of dialogue helps make sure the reader is not distracted from the previously mentioned emotional impact of this issue; as usual, Lemire has worked hard to make sure all of his characters sound both distinct and real, from the simple innocence of Gus, to the manic preaching of Singh, finally to the twisted shade of humanity that is Abbot. “Sweet Tooth”‘s climactic arc may not be perfect in terms of plot, but it’s touches like these that make sure we remember that plot comes second to character (and, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, there is plenty of character).
The art of this issue has its ups and its downs. There are multiple pages where Lemire shows his gift for innovative layouts, such as the two-page spread where we see the road Gus and Jeppard have traveled together (figuratively), and other pages where Lemire once again proves anyone who thought there was no way the guy who drew Essex County could do action incredibly wrong. Then again, there are also more than a few panels that feature characters facing the “camera” directly, arms at their sides, and moments where the action stays completely still. The worst offender is the final showdown scene, so to speak — the movement is stiff and clunky, without the freely flowing motion Lemire is noramlly so good at. To top it all off, a major symbolic moment happens off-panel! Much like his writing, though, Lemire makes sure the things we love him for are still there as we come to a close: in particular, that same mastery of emotion that one expects from a Jeff Lemire comic is still present in this issue, and it particularly helps the emotional aspect of the pre-climax character beats and the climax itself imprint themselves upon the reader. The art may not be as high quality as one would expect, especially after previous issues have been so beautifully illustrated, but the highs are still there — it’s just that there are a few lows, as well.
Finishing a run of something like “Sweet Tooth” must be terrifying. Sure, this climactic issue may not have been exactly what readers were hoping for, but it delivers where it matters: character. When “Sweet Tooth” began, it was about the individuals, and it is only fitting that is how it ends. And who knows — maybe Lemire has something killer up his sleeve for #40, the big finale.
Final Verdict: 7.0 – We’ve made it this far.