Jeff Lemire’s style is immediately recognizable. The colours are sombre, earthy. Faces are often smudged with shadow. Sometimes entire pages appear to be shadowed.
The lines are raw, sometimes inexact. Details in the background are sometimes perfectly drawn, like expertly squared tiles, and other times they are hasty cross-hatchings, a hint of a pattern rather than a drawn one.
(Honestly, I am not drawn to the style: perhaps too much Disney animation in my younger years, but this artwork does not have an inherent appeal.)
But whether the colour and the linework appeals or not, the storytelling in Jeff Lemire’s graphic works is resonant and affecting.
Check out the panel to the right: what’s there might sound trite in words, but in images it’s undeniably powerful.
The Sweet Tooth series begins with Out of the Woods.
Full panels of lumberjack flannel appear at the beginning and end of the volume, paradoxically inviting readers into the woods before they follow Gus out of them.
If you’re unsettled by the cover image, that’s good. That’s intentional.
But what’s even more unsettling about this volume? How unsettled some folks are by Gus.
Gus’ world in the woods has been relatively sheltered. Perhaps even before people started getting sick.
Yes, this is a post-apocalyptic world. Billions have died, felled by a disease which spread rapidly and vehemently.
Few have escaped. Some of the survivors will appear in the first volume of this series. But the focus is Gus, a boy of about nine, who happens to have antlers.
The cover blurb quotes the USA Today review: “Mad Max with antlers”. (Well, come on, that’s catchy.)
The emphasis is on the relationships between characters (be they functional or otherwise). But the natural world is always present.
Someone else might choose to draw only the final panel as the opening glimpse of this scene, with the rain pouring down. And perhaps that would be effective in its own way.
But Jeff Lemire creates an experience for the reader. In the first panel, there is no rain falling on the water. Below, the same scene, with a single hard drop of rain. Below, the same scene with three. And, at the bottom, the scene is splattered with rain, from one side of the panel to the other.
With a single panel, perhaps a fully engaged reader would still feel the drops, but with all four, even the superficial reader is going to get a little wet.
This kind of technique is readily apparent, even to someone who is just flipping through the volume. But what is less immediately obvious is the way in which he builds character.
But somewhere in there, as deliberately layered as these panels of rain, are the layered invitations to care about Gus (nicknamed “Sweet Tooth” because he loves candy bars) and the other characters in this volume.
(Readers who have read Essex County, Jeff Lemire’s trilogy of tales, will already be well acquainted with the emotional punch packed by the stories that he tells.)
It’s not straightforward, not even for Gus.
“I know you had to hurt all them people…so’s them ladies could be okay. And…well, I don’t think yer a bad man.”
But, it’s true, that teeth fly out of mouths, jaws are smashed, people are shot and strangled: this is an ugly world. Whether or not somebody is a “bad man”, they have to be capable of doing “bad things”, simply to survive.
In Captivity takes the other main character from the first volume (i.e. not Gus) and considers his past in greater detail. This not only adds to character development but also fills in some gaps in the plot.
Taking the perspective of a character who has been out of the woods ensures a broader perspective than Gus could offer (particularly given his young age).
Although there are no overarching answers provided (who really has the whole picture in a post-apocalyptic situation anyway?), this additional information allows the readers to assemble a loose understanding of world events.
It’s not recounted chronologically, but in pieces, as the character struggles not to remember. Sometimes the pain is openly depicted (etched in lines on the faces, pooling in blood and bruises) but sometimes the fracture is drawn more subtly.
There is one panel, for instance, in which two people are bisected, the image of their sitting around a fire for warmth and protection halved, at such a point that the lower image focuses on the woman’s pregnant form. There is a third character in that lower panel, unborn, and it is a source of pain in ways that the reader only partially understands at this point in the narrative.
Although these memory sequences continue to focus on a small cast, In Captivity does have a wider cast than the series’ first volume.
The world has, literally, widened for Gus and, also, for Jeff Lemire’s readers. Some of these characters are seemingly stock figures, but at least one other is introduced in such a way that the reader is prepared to negotiate the same complicated moral territory that Gus has already had to broach in Out of the Woods.
The question of agency, of how much an individual can do to protect themselves in a morally repugnant situation before they are as much of a perpetrator as a victim against the defenseless, is raised in more than one instance. There is no simple answer.
What is simple for readers, however, is the desire to read on, for the end of the second volume is even more compelling than the first volume’s conclusion. (If Animal Armies hadn’t already been published, I’d've been trying to find out how to purchase the next single issue in the series.)
The single page summary is helpful to recap the earlier tales, but the emotional connection to Gus and the other characters is rooted in the first book (for Gus) and the second book (for the others).
Nonetheless, there is a string of single panels, running across the bottom of the pages in the first book in this volume, which is titled “The Singh Tapes” which gives an accounting of past events that the reader has been itching to know since the first issue. In the meantime, above, the narrative continues.
This is a volume of in-between-ness. The sides in the conflict are being drawn more tautly; factions within alliances are glimpsed, as the parties move towards a larger battle.
In some ways, it is also a volume of finality. This is relayed more subtly, as an undercurrent to the existence in this world, increasingly chaotic and fractured.
The imagery is vitally important in bringing this off the page for the reader. For instance, consider what happens on these two pages:
On an odd page, the face of a survivor takes nearly the entire page, but with two inset panels running across where the facial features would have been (like the two panels in the image at the top of this post, but moved upwards). The speaker discusses the pain of trying to remember a loved one, whose face, clear and then faded, appears in those two narrow panels.
Then, on the page behind, the layout with the two panels repeats, but these two narrow panels now include the facial details of the survivor, against a backdrop of violence.
Grief and slaughter: each occupying one side of a page.
Fans of Lost will correctly assume this means suspense, distrust and hostility amongst a small group, misrepresentation and deception, survival and endurance. And a sense that, just when you thought you had a grasp on the situation, on the characters’ reality, that something else turns up.
Readers learn more about the other hybrid characters (like Gus) and perspectives on the human characters shift as their priorities change.
As with The Walking Dead, there are constant set changes as the cast struggles to survive, and that does keep the narrative fresh.
And, of course, the very nature of the story relies on a compelling plot. But it’s the connection to the characters, whether more or less human, that brings the deepest resonance to this volume, to the series as a whole.
Volume Five in the series is already available for digital download. This might be just what I need to join the digital age.
Have you read this series? Or other works by Jeff Lemire? Do you plan to?