guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

September 2009

Jeff Lemire,
The Nobody (Vertigo, 2009). $19.99, hardcover; Sweet Tooth (Vertigo, 2009- ). monthly

By Jared Gardner

I will confess I was originally a bit tepid about Jeff Lemire when the first volume of his Essex Tales came out from Top Shelf two years ago, as my review at the time made clear. But I became much more fully convinced that this was a talent of substance with the second volume, Ghost Stories, later that year. And later this month I will have a chance to engage in some revisionist history by reviewing the new, collected omnibus of Essex Tales. The volume is sitting beside me as I write, weighing in at over 500 pages. And, yet, somehow, along the way, Lemire has also found time to write a short graphic novel, The Unknown, and to launch a new series with Vertigo this month. This level production from a young cartoonist in little more than two years is impressive, to put it mildly. The fact that the work keeps getting stronger makes this (as if we needed more reasons, during what is proving to be one of the richest year in the history of the form) a great time to be a comics reader. And it must be said, to see this kind of work being published by DC is yet another sign of how the walls between mainstream and independent comics have been crumbling in recent years, ultimately for the good of all, I believe (fingers crossed).

The Unknown is an adaptation of H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man, updating the story in the 1990s, and setting it here in a small fishing village. It is told from the perspective of a sixteen-year old girl who befriends the strange man, covered completely in bandages, who wanders into their town one day and sets up camp into a local motel room. Seeing the story unfold from Vickie's perspective, we end up with little access to the chemistry experiments that are consuming the mysterious stranger's time and driving him increasingly to despair and the bottle. But we gain privileged access to the way the town sees the stranger: the paranoia, the anger, the ways in which an outsider in a homogeneous community exposes things about individuals that remain invisible otherwise. These were my favorite moments in the original film adaptation by James Whale in 1933: the suspicions and paranoia of the towns people. But those were played largely for comic effect in the film, and our perspective remained rooted with Claude Raines' Invisble Man. Here the invisible man remains for the most part a cipher, and while we eventually get most of his backstory that brought him to this place (and this state), it is the other invisible qualities within the town that are the real focus of the book. Not all of what gets exposed by the arrival of our invisible man is bad: Vickie, we know, will be a different, and a better, person for having known him—and for having seen her town, and her father, as she never would have had he not arrived.

This is economical and deeply satisfying storytelling, and one can see how much Lemire has grown as an artist even in the past two years. There is, in fact, nothing not to like about the book, save that it was too short—that it left me wanting more. Fortunately, we are talking about Jeff Lemire here, and he seems to have boundless energy to go along with his remarkable talent, and so he has also launched yet another small town story in an ongoing monthly series of Vertigo, Sweet Tooth. Having only read the first issue which came out last week, it is too early to know how Lemire will adapt to his first regular serial, but there is every reason to be optimistic. Sweet Tooth tells the story of a teenaged "hybrid" (a normal looking hillbilly, save for a pair of antlers) named Gus, in the woods with his sick father. His father, we learn, has devoted his life to protecting his son from the realities beyond the woods, but his time is running out and Gus is displaying an adolescent's natural curiosity in the world beyond. But by the end of the first issue, the father has died and Gus is on his own, confronting a world that doesn't look much like the visions of fire and brimstone that his father had painted for him. It must be said, though, it also doesn't look too good, and we begin to suspect (and Lemire confirms in his notes to the first issue) that this is indeed to be yet another post-apocalyptic adventure. Heck, who am I kidding? I can't get enough post-apocalyptic comics (which is good, since that is pretty much all there is these days).

Lemire's art looks fabulous in color, which came as something of a surprise given his earlier work, almost all of which was black and white. And while he insists, rightly, that he will bring an indie cartoonist's sensibility (and sensitivity?) to his monthly series, it is also clear that he know the form in which he is now working: the final pages of the first installment his all the notes of what we can now properly call the Vertigo mode (and I do mean that as a compliment). Vertigo and Lemire are already making beautiful music together, and I am looking forward to next month to see what comes next.