Jeff Lemire Double Feature: Superboy 4, Sweet Tooth 18

Superboy 4

A

If you aren’t familiar with the work of Jeff Lemire, you’re doing yourself a serious disservice.

A Canadian cartoonist, Lemire came to prominence with 2008-2009′s The Essex County Trilogy, a heart-wrenching series of semi-connected tales about living in rural Ontario published by Top Shelf. The story was nominated for both Eisner and Harvey awards, and was recently championed by Sara Quin of Tegan & Sara in support of the Canada Reads program. Needless to say, Essex County garnered Lemire with a lot of well-deserved attention.

Fortunately for us, DC Comics took notice, and in 2009 gave Lemire an ongoing Vertigo series, Sweet Tooth, which he writes and pencils monthly. More recently, DC has brought Lemire over to their superhero line, where he’s been tasked to write the new ongoing Superboy series, the fourth volume to bear that name. For the last several months, both of Lemire’s books have shipped on the same date, giving his fans something to look forward to once a month at their comic shop.

Though incredibly different in tone, Superboy and Sweet Tooth are both excellently-written comics that show off Lemire’s strengths as a writer. Both ground themselves in the rural setting with which Lemire has familiarity — Sweet Tooth comes from a wilderness sanctuary in Nebraska, while Superboy lives in Smallville, Kansas — but both thrust readers into different and exciting worlds. Sweet Tooth follows a human/animal hybrid boy named Gus, one of the few survivors after a disease wipes out most of Earth’s population, and his gruff protector Mr. Jepperd. Meanwhile, Superboy’s Connor Kent struggles to keep one foot in the world of Smallville High and one foot in the realm of superheroes, where he’s forced to deal with a serious identity crisis: his DNA is half-Superman, half-Lex Luthor.

On to the specifics of this week’s issues: in Superboy #4, Connor Kent and friends get a visit from the future in the form of Psionic Lad, a young hero who takes refuge in our time after his world’s destroyed by an evil despot called the Prime-Hunter. Among the book’s many strengths: Lemire continues to do an excellent job of building Connor’s supporting cast here, one of the hallmarks of his run. I feel that one of the best ways to make a book compelling is to establish a supporting cast that readers care about, and so far Lemire’s loaded Superboy with plenty. I really like Simon, a non-powered would-be helper to Connor in particular; the combination of his intelligence, gusto and helpfulness creates a character type we haven’t seen much of before (although, from the beginning I’ve expected some sinister motivation in him, and this issue lends some credence to that).

Superboy‘s artwork comes courtesy of Italian artist Pier Gallo. Although he’s not my favorite penciler, his work has grown on me these past four issues. I really like the way he draws quiet, rustic scenes especially, and I think he brings a light, airy touch to the book that really compliments Lemire’s script. Colorist Jamie Grant (All-Star Superman) goes a long way to establishing that tone as well; too bad they don’t put his name on the cover. Overall, the art and story work together to give us a comic that feels like the silver-age Adventure Comics series that spotlighted Superboy’s tales for years, yet plays to modern sensibilities. I can’t really think of any other superhero books like it right now, and I’d call it essential genre reading.

Switching gears, Sweet Tooth #18 is, I think, the best issue of the series yet. I’m a sucker for any book that plays with the typical monthly comics format, and that’s what we get here: this issue’s presented in a “widescreen” style (meaning you have to flip it 90 degrees to read it) and merges storytelling elements of comics and children’s books. In the story, Gus, Jepperd and their crew make their way up to Alaska after fleeing a hybrid internment camp. The bulk of this issue deals with the group stopping at a mall to gather supplies for their impending journey. It may sound like not much happens, but Sweet Tooth #18 shows us what this comic does best: amazing character dynamics. There’s terrific tension generated here, for instance, by adding a former camp doctor to the ranks of Gus’ group. Though he has knowledge of the hybrid plague, and his heart’s (arguably) in the right place, many see him as a traitor, and some want him dead. That gives us some amazing tension that readers can actually feel, and I’m sure it will carry forward to the next arc in compelling ways.

Sweet Tooth #18 provides a perfect jumping-on point for new readers. It’s a rest stop between major story arcs that lets us catch our breath and spend some time with great characters in their new status-quo. It’s also beautifully drawn. Lemire’s own pencils really get to shine in this widescreen format, and again he’s paired with a terrific colorist, Jose Villarrubia. Though his style is far from traditional, I believe Lemire’s one of the best working artists in comics today, and Sweet Tooth #18 proves why.

I grant you, these two comics may not be for everyone. In addition, I’m sure lots of people read Superboy who would never glance at Sweet Tooth, and vice versa. But if you haven’t read at least one thing by Lemire, you’re missing a tremendous talent. It’s tempting to say of relative newcomers to the field “they’ll do great things one day,” but Lemire’s done great things already. I aim on sticking around to see what’s next.

Superboy #4: A

Sweet Tooth #18: A+

tags: Jeff Lemire, pier gallo, superboy, sweet tooth

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