How A Graphic Novel About A Global Pandemic Became A Limited Series On
Netflix During A Global Pandemic
Story by Matthew St. Amand
Photography by Lars Von Törne
The new Netflix limited series, Sweet Tooth, begins with the words: “This is a story… a story of a very special boy…” which describes the series’ main character, but could just as easily describe the story’s creator: Jeff Lemire.
Hailing from Essex County, Ontario, Jeff published his first graphic novel, Lost Dogs, in 2005. Six years later, his graphic novel trilogy, Essex County, took first spot in the “People’s Choice” poll for CBC’s annual “Canada Reads”, garnering more votes than all other books combined. He is enormously prolific and sought after, producing work for DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Dark Image, among other publishers. Maclean’s magazine called him as “The Stephen King of comics”.
Lauded and largely known to denizens of comic book shops and comic-cons, Jeff’s profile took a giant leap into the mainstream in 2021, when Netflix aired an eight-part series based on, Sweet Tooth, his graphic novel series, published in 40 installments from 2009 to 2012. The story of Sweet Tooth begins 10 years after “The Great Crumble”—the end of society as we know it, brought on by a global pandemic. The story’s pandemic—caused by a virus called “H5G9” by medical professionals, and “The Sick” by everyone else—bears an eerie similarity to the COVID-19 global pandemic. At the center of Sweet Tooth is a boy named Gus, who is a “hybrid” child: part boy, part deer. During The Great Crumble, he is whisked away to a remote cabin in the woods by his father.
Raised in isolation, Rule #1 for Gus is “don’t go beyond the fence”, the physical perimeter around their hideout. Gus’ father tells him frightening stories of “out there”, saying that people have gone crazy and the world is burning. The truth is many of the remaining people believe the hybrid children are the cause of the pandemic. The worst among these hunt the hybrids—some for sport, others out of prejudice, still others seeking to experiment upon them.
The story hits its stride soon after the demise of Gus’ father when Gus is 10 years old.
As the narrator of Sweet Tooth says: “Our story doesn’t begin here.” It begins years before, when a production company called Team Downey took notice of the story—Team Downey being actor Robert Downey, Jr. and his wife Susan. So, how did it feel for a life-long comic book fan, such as Jeff, to receive the call from Iron Man (Downey) saying the book would become a series?
“I wish it was that simple,” Jeff says during a recent Zoom interview with Windsor Life. “The actual process was much longer. My first conversations with Jim Mickle, who was the main writer and showrunner… was probably in 2016… They shot the pilot in 2019.”
Hulu passed on the pilot giving Netflix the opening to snap it up.
“And then we had a pandemic and everything slowed down,” Jeff says. “It was like a five-year period of development and shooting.”
How does it feel having his story about a fictional pandemic appear on Netflix during an actual pandemic?
“Yeah, it’s really bizarre,” Jeff says. “Of all my books, the one that gets made during the pandemic is this one!”
He continues: “When I did the book, originally, I wanted to do something pulpier, a bit more in the tradition of all the sci-fi books I loved while growing up.” Jeff counts Richard Corben’s classic A Boy and His Dog, written by Harlan Ellison, as one source of inspiration.
“In those stories,” he says, “there is usually a nuclear winter or a pandemic: The Stand or Mad Max. You pick one of the two, and the pandemic opened up a lot of possibilities with this idea I had for these hybrid children and the biological elements of that.”
Like horror master, Stephen King, with whom he has been compared, Jeff is often asked where he gets his ideas.
“It’s always different where you get the spark,” he explains, “but it tends to happen over quite a long period of time where you catch yourself, sometimes, and think: ‘Wait a minute, that could be a story.’”
Jeff goes on to explain that a word or an image can ignite his imagination. The idea for Sweet Tooth came soon after the birth of his first child. Jeff had been drawing the hybrid deer-boy in his sketchbook for some time, by then. After becoming a father, a story coalesced.
“This idea of a post-apocalyptic story mixed with the idea of this kid who is half-deer that I’ve been drawing,” he says.
As a graphic novelist, Jeff is used to being in command of the worlds he creates, drawing, as well as writing, his comics. What was the process like watching others take his work and adapt it into a series?
“Unless you’re writing it yourself,” he says, “you have to let go of a certain amount of control and trust the people doing it. You also have to be open to things changing. I even know myself. I’m adapting a few of my other things and I’ve had to change my own work… It’s interesting to have these two versions of my story. They complement each other in an interesting way.”
Throughout his career, Jeff’s work has been praised for its handling of complex human emotions and situations. Netflix took a chance making Sweet Tooth into a series. As Paste Magazine observes in its review: “Lemire’s Sweet Tooth is an emotional narrative, mixing together a lot of big ideas that work exceptionally well on paper, but also represent almost all of the red flags of a difficult adaptation: a child lead, animals, disparate tonal shifts, species merging, and (in our current age) pandemic storytelling.”
How does Jeff rate Netflix’s success in telling his story?
“I think it has the heart of a lot of my stuff in the show,” he says. “I was open to change, but really, in the end, I think the tone is lighter and the violence has been toned down, but they really stuck to a lot of the tent poles of the story and I think it does have the heart that was in the book.”
He pauses and continues: “I was thinking about it the other day that—in the book, I feel like some of the darker sci-fi-horror elements are in the forefront and the heart and the storybook elements kind of creep up on you when you’re reading the comic. The show almost inverted that where the heart and the storybook elements are at the surface and the darker stuff is still there, it just kind of sneaks up on you. I like that.”
Fans of Jeff’s work can look forward to more of his stories being adapted for the screen. No specific announcements have been made but the Essex County Trilogy has been a particular focus since it was first published. In the near future, fans can look forward to Jeff’s collaboration with writer, Matt Kindt and artist David Rubin, on a story titled Cosmic Detective, “an epic science fiction mystery that asks: when a God is murdered, who solves the crime?”
For information about Jeff’s work, visit jefflemire.wixsite.com/jefflemire.