“You don’t start off making comics to have this happen but it’s always nice when it does!” artist and writer Jeff Lemire says on Netflix adapting his comic book Sweet Tooth. “I mean, frankly, it’s kind of surreal to see those characters come to life after living in your head for so long. It’s really rewarding and cool.”
Cool is certainly the word. Originally released back in 2009, Lemire’s story of a young half-human half-deer hybrid named Gus who is trying to survive a post-apocalyptic Earth resonated with audiences, with the comic book running 40 issues, as well as a subsequent short story and even a sequel published just last year.
“Like most of my ideas, it started in a sketchbook,” Lemire remembers of its origins. “This deer boy appeared in my sketchbooks suddenly without really a story, but he kept recurring. Then I started to build the world around the character. I had always been a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction and dystopian fiction and had never really done that myself.”
After a devastating virus destroys the world as we know it and leads to the mysterious emergence of hybrid babies born part human, part animal, Sweet Tooth is set in an uncertain future, where humans fear and hunt hybrids, unsure if they are the cause or result of the virus.
“In the history of this sort of [dystopian] fiction, there’s really, usually two paths to follow: either there’s some sort of a nuclear fall out or some sort of a disease or a plague,” Lemire explains of why he decided to kill off the majority of humanity with a deadly virus. “Those are the two big world-enders. Given the nature of Gus and the hybrids, a more biological threat seemed to lend itself to creating a story with that. Whereas a nuclear attack probably wouldn’t have worked as well in the story I wanted to tell with the hybrids and their link to the plague.”
With all the uncertainty on the hybrids’ connection to the virus, Gus has been whisked away from general civilisation as a baby and brought up by his father in a secluded forest home. When he’s forced to leave the safety of the forest after a terrible event, Gus unexpectedly befriends Jepperd, a wandering loner who Gus sees as a sort of surrogate guardian but who’s real motivations are questionable at best. The comics follow Gus and Jepperd teaming up and searching for answers about their pasts and along the way, find some new friends.
Now, Lemire’s story has been adapted into a series for Netflix, produced by none other than our favourite Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr, and created by two TV stalwarts: Arrow’s Beth Schwartz and Hap and Leonard’s Jim Mickle (pictured above with actor Christian Convery who plays Gus). “I read the comic when it first came out and loved it,” Mickle remembers. “I loved Jeff’s work and how he’s made a brand new apocalyptic end-of-the-world story. I thought about doing a movie for some time but it never quite worked. Then I ran into Team Downey years later who said, ‘have you ever heard of this comic book?’, it was on my shelf and I thought ‘yes absolutely’. It felt like now, as TV has moved into this big ambitious world-building kind of place, there was finally a place to do that story.”
Indeed, Gus and Jepperd’s extraordinary adventure takes them on an epic journey across what is left of America. At this point, the virus has been ravaging the human race for ten years and nature has taken back control of the Earth, resulting in the world becoming a lush, green and wild landscape.
A grand journey like this set in a dystopian fairy tale future world could only be shot in one place: “A massive part of [the look] is New Zealand, just because the scenery is incredible,” Mickle affirms. “The first time you go there, you’re like ‘this looks like a fairy tale version of America’ which is exactly what we need for the show.”
The complex world, history and characters within Sweet Tooth meant that it was almost always on the cards for the comic to be adapted as a series rather than a movie: “I remember at the time thinking ‘movie! Do a movie!’ but it felt like the canvas wasn’t big enough,” Mickle explains. “It’s such a massive world and there’s so much to convey. I just felt like by the time you’ve done a movie, you’d just set up the world and you’re suddenly out of time. It’s not the longest running comic [but] there’s a lot that happens and I think it’s always tough when you try to pack that into 100 minutes or something.”
With such a huge task on their hands to adapt a wide-scoping and unique tale, Mickle and Schwartz would often turn to the source material for guidance. “Everything has been inspired from Jeff’s Sweet Tooth,” Schwartz confirms. “We were inspired by so many things from the comic book. What we really wanted to express was, visually, Gus’ point of view. That’s what Jeff brought to the page in terms of Gus’ dream sequences and it was really important that we showed that type of child’s perspective.”
Indeed, central to both the comic book and the series is its central character of Gus, aka Sweet Tooth (nicknamed as such for his penchant for sugary foods).
“Gus is the key to everything,” Mickle nods. “The emotion that Jeff brings to the story is so deep; he’s not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve and I think that’s rare. That was a big part of what we wanted to do, but also everything that he does feels very hand-crafted and it feels very personal. It felt like if we could find a way to shoot it and convey Gus like that, that could be incredibly special.”
“I think what distinguishes it from other shows is just a sense of magic and wonder from Gus’ point of view,” Schwartz adds. “It is a coming-of-age story from a boy who, not just the fact that he’s half deer and half boy, was sheltered his whole childhood, and now he’s seeing the world for the first time. You get this sense of wonder from him, of seeing things through a child’s point of view.”
Gus isn’t the only hybrid kid we meet in Sweet Tooth. A whole generation of children have been born as part-human, part-animal, allowing Lemire plenty of options when creating some of the fellow hybrids Gus meets while on his adventure…
“I tried so many different animals! Honestly I have sketchbooks full of failed hybrid experiments that just didn’t look right,” Lemire laughs. “There was definitely some trial and error before landing on the characters that I did land on. I think often their personality, or what kind of purpose they would serve in the story, would dictate what animals seem to suit that.”
Two young hybrids that Gus meets on his journey are pig girl Wendy, and a half feral groundhog boy named Bobby. Now, while most of the hybrids are played by real human actors in the series, you can’t quite have a groundhog child burying through the dirt, so the team turned to puppetry for Bobby, which was a whole new challenge… “It was a learning curve!” Mickle laughs. “We worked on him for months and months and then he shows up like two days before the shoot [we’re] suddenly like ‘wait how do we shoot this guy?’ It definitely makes for long days – one of the crew members had a joke that Bobby was the overtime machine – but that’s part of the fun of it.”
Though difficult to shoot, Mickle had fun returning to some classic genre favourites while crafting his look: “I was going back and looking at stuff like Gizmo in Gremlins,” he tells us. “What they did in the Eighties when they didn’t have the ability to go in and erase lines and wires… just to commit to the imagination and the charm of that kind of creation is so impressive and I think we’ve lost that as time goes on. Because we can fix everything, we have this tendency to want to fix everything. So that was the fun of that, like ‘here’s this puppet, how can we embrace that hand-made quality?’”
Like Gremlins and plenty of other classic genre films of the Eighties, Sweet Tooth isn’t afraid to mix up genres, which makes it wonderfully hard to define: “I feel like science fiction or fantasy, when they’re at their best, often bleed together in interesting ways and can really complement one another,” Lemire tells us. “The things I like the most are things that aren’t as easily defined as one thing or the other, and are a little more interesting and nuanced.”
“I love when you get to play in all genres,” agrees Mickle. “I would describe Sweet Tooth as all genres because there are elements of horror, there are elements of sci fi, elements of adventure, elements of family drama. I love South Korean cinema and I think American TV has never really figured out how to be able to be more than just one genre at a time. I feel like now we’re starting to see that more, so hopefully Sweet Tooth is opening the world up to more genre experimentation.”
Such a complex mixing pot of genres certainly worked well with his comic book and now Lemire says the same for its adaptation: “I’m really happy with how [the series] turned out and I think fans of the comic will really enjoy it,” he enthuses. “It really is quite true to the source material, but it does put a new spin on it as well. I think any adaptation does, and especially I think in this case.
“I wrote the initial story over a decade ago and since then there’s been so much post-apocalyptic fiction on television that I think it warranted finding a new way to show that to audiences. So there’s a little bit of new mixed in with what I did and I think it’s created something really cool.”
“There’s something in there for everyone because our characters are of a broad age range and also very diverse, so I think hopefully everyone will see a little piece of them on the screen,” Schwartz says of the series. “We wanted it to be a show that you could watch with your kids but also I feel like people who don’t have kids will also enjoy it. We just want people to feel good after they watch it, have a sense of hope for the future and see things the way that Gus sees things. Also just go and fall in love with the hybrids because there’s something so special about them.”
So, whether you watch it on your own or with your kids, is this a show to binge or to take your time on? “Both!” she laughs. “Binge and then rewatch it and take your time with it [haha].”
That sounds good to us! Sweet Tooth is streaming on Netflix now.