Animal Armies is the third volume of Sweet Tooth, an ongoing post-apocalyptic series from Vertigo Comics that takes place ten years after a terrible plague called the Affliction kills billions around the world. The story follows a unusual boy named Gus, one of the human/animal hybrid children that have been born since the plague. No one knows what caused the Affliction or the hybrid children, but with no normal children being born, they are an easy target for blame. Gus is also an innocent, born into a savage world where his kind are hated and only the strong survive. When a loner comes knocking at Gus’s door his life is turned upside down forever.
Sweet Tooth is an unusual and fascinating book; a harrowing story about survival that is very touching and emotional. Jeff Lemire is the writer and artist, and like the hybrid children, the story is a mix of a number of genres including mystery, post-apocalyptic, horror, fable and adventure.
The story is told from two very different perspectives, Gus and Tommy Jepperd, who represent different ends of the emotional spectrum. Gus was born with antlers and lived his life in total seclusion until Jepperd arrived. Everything Gus knew about the outside world came from his father, a preacher who had his own interpretation of events and on what caused the Affliction. When Gus is taken from his home and exposed to the outside world he has to come to terms with the beliefs of others, as well as many manmade evils he wasn’t told about. As misguided and disturbed as others think his father was, Gus has faith in his teachings and clings to his belief. He refuses to give in to the darkness, and although this could be viewed as child-like naiveté, there’s more to it. Gus is a mystery and not just because he is a hybrid.
As the story develops, Lemire peels back layers about Gus and, indeed, the entire world. Gradually we realise there is a lot more to Gus than we initially thought and although his father’s preaching sounded like the ravings of a mad man, some believe there is truth buried in the nonsense. In a world gone wrong, where people fight and kill for the smallest of reasons, Gus represents hope. He sees the world as it should be, and because he hasn’t been exposed to its full horrors for very long, they haven’t changed or corrupted him. In some ways he is someone to aspire to; a pure untainted soul who is positive and hopeful.
At the other end of the spectrum is Jepperd. He is a realist and initially reminded me of a much older version of the Punisher, aka Frank Castle. Like Castle, Jepperd is a man who has made violence his daily bread. During the course of the second trade paperback we find out about Jepperd’s back story and it could not be more different to that of Frank Castle. Jepperd wasn’t a soldier before the plague and he had a fairly ordinary job, but he seems to have flourished in the new world despite the brutal environment. He always had a fighting spirit, something inside him that made him lash out, and now that the pleasant rules and etiquette of society no longer exist it can come out to play twenty four hours a day. Despite his take-no-prisoners attitude Jepperd is not without mercy and he doesn’t like to see innocents suffer. He and Gus form an unusual friendship and together they set off on a journey across America searching for answers as to what caused the Affliction and where the hybrid children came from.
At times Sweet Tooth feels like a fable because of the post-apocalyptic setting, the almost mythical hybrid children, characters that fit into archetypes from myths, and the strong elements of faith and belief. Gus also has dreams that could be idle fantasy or hints at something else. Then there’s his father’s Bible, which seems prophetic at times. If read on the surface, then Sweet Tooth is a story about survival, but there seems to be a lot more going on underneath.
Sweet Tooth is undoubtedly a brutal story—acts of violence and murder take place at regular intervals—but it is also one about hope and the promise of something better rising from the ashes. Amidst the horror and desperation there is an unexpected sweetness because of Gus, and his tenderness amidst the madness is very touching. This third volume pulls the rug out from under the reader’s feet, upturns some of what we thought we knew. There are also a few nasty shocks along the way.
Overall Sweet Tooth is a fascinating, harrowing and tender story that is incredibly well told.