Out of the woods: Looking back at the comic book origins of Sweet Tooth
It’s been almost two years since we last saw good-natured deer-boy Gus on screen, but Sweet Tooth season 2 finally arrives on Netflix this Thursday for eight exciting new episodes.
The series is based on a comic book written and drawn by Jeff Lemire. The show and the book are quite different beasts in some ways (we’ll get into that in a moment), but both broadly stick to the same general story. Fundamentally, this is the tale of a naive young deer/human hybrid named Gus and his reluctant guardian, Tommy Jepperd (often called Big Man in the show), as they try to survive and make their way in a hostile, post-apocalyptic future.
Perhaps you’ve watched the first season of the show and were wondering about the comic that inspired it? Or maybe you’re keen to find out just how true to the source material the series is? We’ve got the answers to those questions and more right here.
So, is Sweet Tooth based on a comic?
It sure is. As we said, Sweet Tooth was written and drawn by Jeff Lemire, and originally published by Vertigo, DC’s sadly now defunct adult readers imprint, which also released groundbreaking works like The Sandman, Preacher, Y: The Last Man, Fables, and The Invisibles.
2009 was a bit of a turning point for Lemire. His Essex County trilogy had won him acclaim, but it was with his move to DC and the release of The Nobody – a graphic novel retelling of The Invisible Man – and Sweet Tooth that he really started to get attention as a creator.
The series ran for 40 issues between 2009 and 2013. That was not quite the end, however. In 2021, the same year as the first season of the TV show, Lemire revived the character – quite literally – for a six-issue miniseries titled Sweet Tooth: The Return.
What is Sweet Tooth about?
Sweet Tooth is really the story of two very different people: Gus the hybrid, and Tommy Jeppard.
Gus is nine years old when we first meet him, he lives in a cabin in the woods near Nebraska (later identified as the Long Pines State Wilderness Park), with just his aging father for company. Dad is devout religious man, and he drills it into Gus that he should never leave the forest. When he gets sick and dies, however, Gus is left with no choice but to venture out into the big wide world.
It quickly turns out that pops was actually onto something – hunters immediately try to kill Gus. Luckily, help is on hand from Tommy Jeppard – a rough, tough, brute of a man who, in his life before the apocalypse, was a pro-sportsman. He rescues Gus and promises to take him to the Preserve – a place where it’s said that hybrid children can live safe and happy lives.
That turns out to be a lie, but the two do eventually strike up a bond. It’s Jeppard who gives Gus the nickname “Sweet Tooth” after he greedily discovers candy bars for the first time. Over the course of the comic the two must work together to survive attacks from vicious humans and to protect the other hybrids they encounter on the way.
What happened to the world in Sweet Tooth?
Sweet Tooth takes place in a very unusual sort of apocalypse, one where most of the human population has died out, but a new generation of animal/human hybrids is starting to emerge and thrive.
The exact specifics of the apocalypse are kept fairly ambiguous in the comic. What we know is that that the H5-G9 pandemic wiped out millions, eventually leading to worldwide societal collapse. Around about the same time the hybrids began to be born. Nobody knows for certain if they are the cause or a symptom of the virus.
Now, about a decade later, the surviving humans roam the planet in militia gangs or live hard lives in grim, run down encampments, like Factory Town, which we visit in Volume 2.
What is the origin of the virus?
OK, there’s heavy spoilers for the comic from here on in.
In the three part story The Taxidermist, we meet Dr James Thacker. It’s 1911 and he’s leading an expedition in Alaska to find his sister’s fiancé, Louis Simpson, a missionary who has gone missing. When they finally find Louis, he reveals that he has fallen in love with a local woman and fathered a child.
What should be a cause for celebration, is anything but. It turns out that Louis discovered a hidden chamber full of the skeletal remains of strange animal hybrid people. This, he is told, is the resting place of the gods – and he has unleashed something terrible on the world. A plague soon spreads throughout the camp and, when the new baby is born, it has antlers, just like Gus.
Worried about being infected with the disease, Thacker and his men kill the locals and seal the baby inside a cave. Thacker writes about his experiences in a journal but he and his men all die from the virus before they can return home to England.
Decades later, scientists find Thacker’s journal and used it locate the bones of the hybrids. After some trial and error, they manage to make living hybrid – a cute young deer-boy they name Gus.
Unfortunately, this also results in the virus breaking loose once more. One night Richard, a janitor at the base where Sweet Tooth was cloned, finds the infant Gus and flees with him to Nebraska to raise him as his own son, while the rest of the world starts to fall apart because of the plague.
Is the show faithful to the comics?
That’s kind of a tricky question to answer. The basics of the show are all largely there and the premise is broadly the same, but what’s very different, however, is the tone.
While still a post-apocalyptic drama at heart, the Sweet Tooth TV show tends to avoid the really nasty stuff. By contrast, the comics wallow in darkness. They’re far more viscerally violent than the show and, emotionally, Gus and his friends are really put through the wringer by the villainous Abbot and the rest of the humans.
This isn’t a criticism – the book is, in part, an examination of youthful courage and innocence in a relentlessly dark world, so the nastiness is completely appropriate – but if you read the series expecting it to be as approachable as the show, you might be surprised by some of the places that it goes to.
The entire second story arc for example, which will form a part of season 2, involves Gus and the other hybrid children being held prisoner and experimented on, while Jepperd simply falls into an alcoholic stupor. It’s a tough read that we imagine will be softened and curtailed in the show.
There are other changes too. Bear’s Animal Army, who help save hybrids in the show, are basically a bunch of psychotic cultists in the comics, led by the monstrous Glebhelm and his cannibal Dog Boys. And while much of the plot of the series is based on events from the comics, it’s usually in a heavily remixed form.
What happens in Sweet Tooth: The Return?
Sweet Tooth: The Return is set some 300 years after the original series and in a very different world. We meet a new version of Gus who lives in an artificial forest underground, tended to by the sinister Father and his army of Nannies, the only people on Earth, apparently. When Gus sneaks out one night, however, he discovers the truth: he is not alone. There is, in fact, an entire human civilisation living underground while the hybrids thrive on the Earth above. And conflict between these two factions is brewing.
It’s quickly revealed that Father cloned Gus from the recovered DNA of the original Sweet Tooth and has been working on a plan to retake the Earth from the hybrids.
Does that plan work? That would be telling and would spoil a very satisfying final act for this sad, strange story. Sweet Tooth didn’t especially need a coda – the original ending is very strong – but also The Return doesn’t spoil anything. Instead, it acts as a satisfying restatement of the themes of the original that also leaves a door open for further stories should Lemire ever feel like returning to this world.
Jeff Lemire has written loads of comics since Sweet Tooth. You can find out about one of his latest, Fishflies, right here.